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A Strategic Fallacy

February 27, 2004
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Strategic Planning, Featured Article

We live in an either/or world. Yankees or Red Sox. Paper or plastic. PC or Mac. When I was a preteen, you chose up sides for your favorite TV character and pop star. Your heart beat fast for Captain Kirk or Mr. Spock. You picked your most fab Beatle and stuck with him.

    Then there’s the gulf that workforce managers confront every day: strategic or tactical?

    You’ve been asked, I’m sure, if you’re strategic. And I’ll bet you never once pulled yourself up to full height and announced, "No! I’m tactical, and damn proud of it."

    Tactical has become a dirty word in workforce management circles. It’s become synonymous with paper pushing and picnic planning and endless red tape. It’s metal desks and adding machines.

    Strategic, on the other hand, implies that you have something akin to super powers. You see deeply into core competencies. You seamlessly facilitate knowledge management. You integrate processes in a single bound. It’s cell phones and supercomputers.

    I don’t know about you, but most days, I feel pretty darn tactical. I’m hunkered down in the trenches of this publication with camo paint on my face and a pen between my teeth. Since I spend a lot of time reading about the implications of tactics versus strategy in workforce management, I was beginning to feel bad about my tactical leanings. So I turned to an expert for some advice, and I am happy to share my findings with you.

    The whole strategy/tactics dichotomy is bunk. That’s the word from no less a source than business consultant Ram Charan, whose books include What the CEO Wants You to Know, Profitable Growth Is Everyone’s Business and my favorite, the best-selling Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done, co-authored with Larry Bossidy, former chairman and CEO of Honeywell International.

    I particularly liked Execution because workforce management is at the heart of the book. This is Charan’s message: "Whether they’re expanding abroad or launching a new domestic plan, far too many leaders don’t ask the most basic questions: Who are the people who are going to execute that strategy, and can they do it?"

    To me, that passage seemed to be saying that execution is another word for tactics. But when I asked Charan about that, and whether workforce management professionals are preoccupied with strategy, he set me straight.

    "You’ve got to think and act through a different lens," he said. "The lens is the business you’re in. You’ve got to know how you make money, then link that with a set of actions so you don’t get stuck in the academic language of strategic and tactical. All this unnecessary jargon is clouding the issue."

    That’s the good news: The problem is not tactics versus strategy. It’s understanding the business, and executing the human resources strategies that make a business successful.

    Now the bad news: Human resources professionals themselves say that they are not particularly effective at being business partners or in helping to develop business strategies. According to Creating a Strategic Human Resources Organization, a multi-year study by Edward E. Lawler III and Susan Albers Mohrman, human resources may even be slipping a little. The respondents in 2001 deemed themselves slightly less effective as business partners and strategists than did the respondents to the 1998 survey.

    The view of those outside human resources is also mixed. Nine percent of CFOs surveyed last year by Mercer Human Resources Consulting view the human resources function mainly as a cost center. Eleven percent view it as somewhat more of a cost center than a strategic partner. Conversely, 28 percent said human resources is somewhat more a partner than a cost center. Thirty-three percent said that human resources is half strategic partner, half cost center. Only 11 percent said human resources is mainly a strategic partner.

    Business partner or cost center? That’s the real either/or today. And you know which way that slash mark cuts.

Workforce Management, March 2004, p. 8 --Subscribe Now!

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