In his 1997 book, Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value & Delivering Results, Ulrich challenges human resource professionals to define the value they create for the business. By doing so, he distills these roles for HR careers: strategic partner, administrative expert, employee champion and change agent.
When it comes to that last one, we have to forget what Dave Ulrich says.
Whenever the human side is involved, organizational change projects tend either to ignore it or to completely outsource it to the HR department. Hopes, dreams wishes, and expectations are never taken into account, and training, communication and coaching are restricted to the minimum. The attitude in most projects is exemplified by this statement: "We’ll take care of the process re-engineering and the technical stuff; HR will do the soft stuff."
However, there are two fundamental reasons why you should not count on HR to drive a change:
1. HR is not a change agent
HR safeguards continuity in the organization. Let’s face it: By their very nature, the fundamental HR processes are aimed at safeguarding stability. But when you ask HR managers about the core competencies of their departments, they will tell you that the management of organizational change is at the forefront. They are wrong. The basic processes of HR and their accompanying goals are the following:
Recruiting and selection’s goal: employment continuity.
Training and development’s goal: knowledge and skills continuity.
Performance management and appraisal’s goal: performance continuity.
Compensation and benefits’ goal: stability in personnel costs.
Work organization and communication systems’ goal: social stability.
Therefore, HR should be approached as you would any other function in the organization, and HR should be the first target of your change-management efforts. But there is more.
2. HR is an agent of continuity
As a support function, HR will be affected indirectly by a re-engineering effort and will most likely resist at firsthand. Does that disqualify HR from having any stake in the organizational change? Not at all.
Change always happens in three phases: unfreezing, changing and refreezing. As the key strength of HR is to stabilize the human side of an organization during and after a transition, it is its role to lead the refreezing stage. In order for the change to stick onto the organization, you are going to use the HR department’s tools and methods.
Therefore, HR is one of the first targets to work with. The faster you can enlist HR into becoming a continuity agent, the better. Just don’t expect them to be on the same page from Day One, as they—like everybody else—will resist the change in the beginning.
HR as a co-pilot in long-term planning
From my experience, the only HR actions that have a positive impact take place at the beginning and at the end of a change program life cycle. This leads me to conclude that continuity, not change, is HR’s core business. Even when the organization is affected during the transition, HR should help you out in minimizing the disruption of continuity.
As an example, program staffing of key people is a task that needs to be conducted in close alignment with HR as it should involve career perspectives and long-term accountability. Gradually, as the program comes to a close, HR needs to become the owner of the deliverables regarding learning, performance, organization, and communication.
The role of HR in this case is one of sustaining the change and integrating it into its standards and procedures. In other words: safeguarding stability and continuity of the new organization.