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Show's over. What now

July 21, 2006
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Here's a question that went through my mind last month while attending the Society for Human Resource Management annual conference in Washington. As I watched thundering herds of HR professionals roaming the exhibit hall in search of free roller bags, T-shirts and other trinkets, all I could think was "What's up with this crazy search for swag?"

    One vendor had this succinct analysis: "I don't think these people get out much."Another exhibitor gave a little more nuanced view. He felt that HR people, because they have to be so proper and correct in their daily work lives, rarely get an opportunity to let their hair down and be themselves. At the SHRM conference, where they are among their peers, they can finally cut loose a little.

    Whatever is going on, the SHRM event offers a unique opportunity for HR professionals to bond, to learn and to interact with others who do what they do. These are just a few of the really good things that happen at this conference.

    But what the conference doesn't do as well is focus attention on the bleeding-edge challenges that workforce management professionals are facing today. Sure, there were a smattering of sessions on those topics, and a separate event off site for the highest-ranking HR titles that were in town for the conference. But those only touched a fraction of the thousands in attendance.

    And so now that the throngs are home and recovered from three days of sessions and three nights of revelry, I suggest pondering some of the questions that didn't get much time in Washington: Where is my profession going? What does the future look like for an HR professional? What can I do to move myself and my organization to the next level?

    I've been in the workforce long enough to remember the old days, when the HR (or personnel) director was a combination guidance counselor, legal expert, management advisor, surrogate parent and a strong shoulder to cry on. They were the ones who let you vent in complete confidence. They were a good sounding board for your latest staff problem.

    Today, HR people still wear a lot of those hats, but it's less about counseling and advising and more about managing outsourcing contracts and keeping a tenuous talent pipeline full. More important, HR people are expected to be business partners who can harness an organization's people power to achieve strategic objectives.This is easier said than done. And frankly, a lot of HR people don't have the skills to fill the role of strategic business partner.

    I've heard a lot of talk at different conferences about why HR isn't more strategic. I'd advise the SHRM attendees to stop wasting time debating the why. Instead, they'd do well to spend more looking at a critical how: "How can I become the strategic business partner my organization needs me to be?"

    Rather than spending time getting another certification, I'd urge HR professionals to dive more deeply into finance, business strategy and a study of the key metrics that drive the business. How about that MBA you've been putting off? You should also have an intimate understanding of how your company makes money and, most important, how you and HR can have a positive impact on the bottom line.

    If you can do this, I guarantee you'll worry less about that seat at the table. You'll have it. You'll be a trusted advisor, as well as a smart business strategist. You'll be essential in everything your organization is trying to accomplish.

    Give it a try. You have nothing to lose -- except maybe some swag and trinkets.

Workforce Management, July 17, 2006, p. 50 -- Subscribe Now!

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