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SHRM Restructures to Better Serve 'Hurting' Members

August 24, 2009
Partly in response to an economy that has left HR professionals “hurting,” the Society for Human Resource Management is implementing a restructuring of the organization that will make it more responsive in meeting the needs of its 252,000 members as they cope with economic realities.

SHRM CEO Lon O’Neil confirmed the reorganization Wednesday, August 19, in an interview that occurred a little more than a week after the first anniversary of his appointment as CEO on August 11, 2008.

Earlier in August, Workforce Management obtained several documents describing the reorganization, including an O’Neil letter to SHRM employees, a list of 12 frequently asked questions, talking points for SHRM executives and an organizational chart.

The reorganization has eliminated the position of chief operating officer. The former COO, China Miner Gorman, is now the head of the global member engagement division, which is charged with strengthening the relationship between SHRM headquarters and its far-flung membership.

Other divisions include global HR and content management, global finance and business affairs, global communications and external relations, and SHRM India.

O’Neil says the changes will better coordinate SHRM’s substantive work and outreach.

“It’s designed to help synchronize our people across SHRM so that they can obtain greater focus, speed, urgency and flexibility to deliver solutions and advocate for our members,” O’Neil says.

The renovation is the result of a strategic business review that SHRM conducted this year. In addition to that assessment, O’Neil has been hosting conference calls and town hall meetings with representatives from SHRM’s 575 chapters.

The stories related by members are similar wherever he goes.

“We’ve heard them loud and clear,” O’Neil says. “They are hurting … in the same way our country is hurting.”

The situation puts a premium on research, information, tools and programs SHRM can provide about best practices for managing layoffs and other challenges associated with the downturn—like ways for HR professionals to bounce back after losing their jobs.

“We’re here to help,” O’Neil says.

His meetings have given O’Neil an appreciation for how members are bonding to cope with the recession.

“The level of support for each other was palpable,” O’Neil says. “You can feel the connection.”

O’Neil wants to ensure that SHRM headquarters remains integral to the relationships nurtured in the chapters. The organization has established the member management division in order to provide “a seamless membership experience across the globe,” O’Neil says.

In his view, SHRM has not eliminated the COO position as much as it has elevated the importance of membership services.

“It’s all about members,” O’Neil says. “That’s a critical role.”

Gorman says that the most important element of SHRM’s strategic plan is its emphasis on better serving all of its members—from students to chief human resource officers. That makes her new position more significant than her prior COO post.

“This feels like a promotion to me,” Gorman says. “It’s 24 and 7. I have ownership of our most important and precious asset globally. The buck stops with Lon in terms of the organization. The buck stops with me in terms of the member experience.”

Although Gorman now has to change the title on her business cards, she’s moving into a spot in the organizational structure that will take advantage of her outgoing personality, according to a SHRM volunteer leader.

For instance, Gorman has begun to post messages on the social network Twitter.

“She’s very accessible to the membership,” says Nancy Newell, director of the SHRM New Mexico State Council and a participant on the SHRM Membership Advisory Council. “She’s well poised to be very successful in that position.”

Gorman says that her presence in cyberspace is demonstrating SHRM’s effort to better connect with its membership and with everyone who is involved in people management. It also gives her an opportunity to respond to SHRM critics in the blogosphere.

“If a SHRM executive is on Twitter, maybe they’re not the old fuddy-duddies we thought they were,” Gorman says of the change of attitude among SHRM detractors.

In addition to its reorganization, SHRM also has developed several focus areas. They include strengthening SHRM’s financial core, emphasizing its advocacy role, engaging senior HR professionals and non-HR leaders and influencing thought leaders.

Another focus involves communicating with members grouped together by industries, such as health care or high tech, or disciplines, such as training.

Toni Knechtges, a lecturer at Eastern Michigan University and a member of the SHRM Membership Advisory Council, says segmentation will help SHRM retain members who might otherwise migrate to more specialized professional organizations such as the American Society for Training & Development.

SHRM already provides a surfeit of material. Now it is trying to hone its delivery.

“They’re going to be more focused,” Knechtges says. “The members will be able to tap into the vast amount of information that is available.”

SHRM also is enhancing its ability to communicate with members, especially younger ones. In June, it established its own social networking site, SHRM Connect, which has been described as a combination of LinkedIn and Facebook for SHRM members.

“You’re going to see that explode,” Knechtges says.

One of the topics on which SHRM members are hungriest to hear from the organization is legislation and regulations. SHRM is going beyond keeping members up to date on the latest developments in Washington and state capitals. It is trying to shape legislation by educating lawmakers on how policies affect the workplace.

SHRM has been active in lobbying Congress this year on issues ranging from paid-sick-leave legislation to employee verification and unionization. Over the last couple of years, SHRM has tried to influence the debate on immigration policy through the HR Initiative for a Legal Workforce, an organization of business groups brought together by SHRM.

Alice Barela, SHRM legislative director for New Mexico, credits O’Neil’s interest in policy as the catalyst for SHRM’s continuing emphasis.

“He seems to be acutely aware of the legislation in Washington,” Barela says. “You can see his support for Mike Aitken [SHRM director of government affairs] and the rest of the government affairs staff and their value to SHRM as an organization.”

SHRM is extending its reach beyond domestic capitals by making SHRM India, a wholly owned subsidiary, its own division. “SHRM India … elevates our pledge to be a global organization with special focus on India,” O’Neil wrote in a letter to SHRM employees.

In a document outlining frequently asked questions about the reorganization, SHRM stated that the emphasis on India does not mean that it is ignoring China or other parts of the world where HR is becoming more professional and less political.

“The [strategic business] review showed that India is the best non-U.S. market to begin a more focused investment, largely because of its growth rate, its well-educated English-speaking population, and its need for HR services and products,” the SHRM document states.

Like any other business trying to maintain a global presence, SHRM has to survive the recession. O’Neil says that the organization is weathering the downturn well and is not in danger of running a deficit despite seeing attendance at its annual conference drop by nearly 7,000 from last year.

In addition, he says SHRM still has a healthy amount of money in its reserves, which totaled $160 million in January 2008. O’Neil would not reveal how big the current reserve is.

“We are doing quite well financially,” O’Neil says. “We have managed that reserve in a way that is better than the market, and it has allowed us to be very strong.”

SHRM executives listened to membership leaders when they decided not to go ahead with two proposals: an increase in organizational dues—currently $160 annually—and a reduction in financial support for chapters, Knechtges says.

“You can’t raise dues right now; [the economy] is tough on everyone,” Knechtges says the Membership Advisory Council told O’Neil. “He listened and did not make those changes.”

SHRM has also implemented a program that allows members who have been laid off to retain their membership for free.

A former HR executive at the giant health care organization Kaiser Permanente, O’Neil has brought a dynamic leadership style to SHRM, observers say.

“Lon is the person who will make [the reorganization] happen,” Knechtges says. “He’s a get-it-done person—no analysis paralysis. There’s no moss growing under his feet.”

Newell says that O’Neil balances visionary thinking with a respect for SHRM history. “He understands where we’ve been but wants to take us to a better place,” Newell says.

It’s difficult to develop a signature in a year. But O’Neil wants to be known for his focus on SHRM’s 252,000 members.

“We are here to serve and represent all our members and to strengthen our profession,” O’Neil says.

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