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Wow! Look What HR Can Do!

The winners of the 1999 Optimas Awards prove once again that HR has fulfilled its promise as a strategic partner.

March 1, 1999
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What can HR do?" The next time the CEO, or a line manager, or a member of the Board, or your spouse, or even one of your own staff members, issues that challenge, here are some answers:

HR can grab ideas from business textbooks and consulting gurus to bring TQM, customer service, diversity initiatives and stock options to life with unparalleled creativity and success. HR can step forward and lead organizations into battle against regulatory shutdowns, mergers, global expansion and mass bureaucracy—and win. HR can send managers into inner-city America, reinvent health-care delivery, forge new opportunities for women, reach out to employees with life-threatening illnesses and help victims of domestic violence.

In fact, as these and more than 80 other Workforce Optimas Award-winning achievements prove, there isn’t anything HR can’t do. The winners also have proven that HR at its best can be practiced anywhere: In family businesses and the public sector, in the Fortune 500 and in small organizations, in big cities and rural outposts, in industries of every sort. The only real common denominator is that they all have faced real HR challenges and have had a real impact on their organizations.

Collectively, the winners leave no doubt that HR’s promise has been fulfilled. That’s no small accomplishment. When we created the Optimas Awards in 1991, we did so to demonstrate, through proven success, the positive impact that HR can have on an organization. We faced a lot of skepticism—and some open derision—for even suggesting that HR could be a potent force in business. At the time, HR was just beginning to make the transition from administrative function to strategic player, and many questioned whether it could be done.

Our thought wasn’t so much that the transition could happen (though, of course, we believed that it could), but that it had to happen. The world has changed too fast and too much to allow any business to support a bunch of picnic-planning, paper-pushing policy police. The burgeoning global economy has made capital accessible to almost anyone with the brains and determination to start a business. New technology is being pushed onto every desktop in the free world. And natural resources, once controlled by geography and political borders, are now available to anyone with the cash to buy them. In sum, people have become every organization’s only sustainable competitive advantage. Only the foolhardy would try to meet the future by regulating that asset, rather than developing it.

But seeing the future is one thing; getting there is another. With that in mind, the Optimas Award categories were created with the future in mind. Focusing on traditional HR competencies in isolation was not what the future looked like. Accordingly, the Optimas Awards have never recognized the best benefits plan or the best training program. Instead, the categories recognize efforts that get to the heart of business issues. They reflect new competencies that are broader and more interdisciplinary: Managing Change, Vision, Global Outlook, Partnership and so forth.

Of course, there is still some overlap in the categories. Managing Change might require assuming a Global Outlook, for example, or forging a Partnership. But the Optimas Awards were never meant to be absolute. In fact, we have never claimed that the winners are the best in HR. We claim only that they are among the best (which is what optimas, a Latin word, means) and that they serve as models for others.

Our selection process has offered us the unique privilege of watching HR history unfold. As the years passed, we’ve noted the introduction of work/life programs, diversity initiatives, managed health care, domestic-partner benefits and other now-common practices. We’ve also seen HR grapple with many key business challenges of the ’90s: aligning HR practices with business goals, using HR practices to better connect with a customer base, establishing effective partnerships while maintaining a distinct corporate culture. This year, more than ever, it’s evident that the application of technology has become a core HR competency.

One thing also has become evident. There are no rules about how HR should be done. Although such corporate functions as finance or marketing are pretty consistent from one organization to another, HR is unique in each organization. HR is shaped by the business goals, the corporate culture, the competitive position, and the workforce demographics of each organization it serves. "If there’s a lesson in our experience, it’s that there’s no such thing as ‘the truth, the answer, the system, the rule, or the procedure,’" observed Tharon Greene, director of HR for the City of Hampton, Virginia, winner of the General Excellence award in 1995. "There’s only the reality of continual change."

Greene’s observation is as valid today as it was four years ago. The ability to respond to continual change is, in fact, a hallmark of the winning organizations. As noted, there is no sure-fire formula for success. But the winning organizations do, generally, share some important characteristics:

  • Fierce commitment to a clearly articulated set of values
  • Willingness to challenge conventional wisdom
  • Willingness to reevaluate and change course in the face of new information
  • Focus on long-term success, not short-term gain
  • Belief that employees are an organization’s greatest asset
  • Less structure, fewer rules
  • Commitment to flexibility wherever possible
  • Openness to diverse ideas, perspectives and approaches.

None of these characteristics is easy to achieve. It isn’t surprising that not a single winner of an Optimas Award has said to us, "It was easy! That project? Nothing to it!" Instead, they have shared war stories of struggle, setbacks and crises. Still, they have maintained course with unwavering commitment.

The 1999 winners are no exception. Sears, this year’s General Excellence winner, has succeeded in reinventing itself to compete successfully against retailers like Wal-Mart that were founded decades later. Along the way, Sears has faced ethical crises in its auto service and credit card divisions, and cut 50,000 jobs in the wake of closing its catalog division. Molex, this year’s Global Outlook winner, faces challenges in Asia alongside many U.S.-based enterprises. And Malden Mills, honored for Managing Change, recovered from a devastating fire, only to face having to close one division and consolidate another. No, the road has not been easy. But the Optimas Awards don’t recognize perfection—they recognize creativity, fortitude and success.

The 1999 winners have all that in spades. They’ll receive their awards (created by founding sponsor Tiffany & Co.) at a reception on April 8 in New York City. We hope you’ll be able to join us, along with Tiffany and our 1999 corporate sponsor Kelly Services, in congratulating the winners. If you’re there, you’re bound to hear their stories and say to yourself, "Wow!"

Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 78, No. 3, pp. 22-23.

Recent Articles by Allan Halcrow

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