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Strategic HR Won't Come Easily

January 1, 2000
Related Topics: Future Workplace, The HR Profession, Featured Article
Is there anyone in HR who believes that the transformation from administrative support function to strategic business partner is over? Odds are, the answer is "no."

And how could it be, really? By definition, to be more strategic means to bring HR initiatives into greater alignment with overall business objectives.

But at the dawn of the new millennium, business objectives are more mercurial than ever. Workforce demographics are changing, globalization has accelerated, our competitive position seems to change almost daily, and evolving technology is still revolutionizing communication and data management.

In short, every aspect of business is changing around human resources, so how can HR be moving toward a fixed target—any fixed target?

Instead, HR will continue to balance the demands of several different roles: business partner, internal consultant, operational and administrative expert and both employee and employer advocate. That may sound like business as usual, which isn’t likely to elicit a rush toward the future with weapons at the ready.

In reality, however, it is new because, although the questions may be the same, the answers most assuredly will not be.

The ongoing challenge will be to establish new deliverables and to sustain strong partnerships with both internal and external customers. The ability to see the big picture—and to deploy the resources to address the big picture—will be more important than ever.

Be leaders, not followers.
Establishing deliverables. Sustaining partnerships. Grasping the big picture. Deploying resources. These all demand leadership. But what does that leadership look like?

Peter Firla, director of human resources for Infiltrator Systems Inc., based in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, defines leadership as "understanding the corporate mission, developing goals which support the mission, then using your personal and management skills to help build a stable, skillful, productive and satisfied workforce. Pretty simple."

Simple? Perhaps. But achieving that goal requires seeing the difference between being an HR leader and an HR manager. According to Joseph E. Champoux, author of "Organizational Behavior: Essential Tenets for the Next Millennium" (South Western Publishing, 2000), "Managers and leaders play different roles in an organization. Managers sustain and control organizations; leaders try to change them. Organizations also have different needs for those roles at different levels and at different times in their history."

The challenge is to figure out which areas of a company need HR leadership and which need HR management, and at what times. There’s a fine line between serving the company’s internal and external customers in response to what they say they need, and figuring out what they really need. It takes a bit of strategic thinking.

In 1991, the personnel department of Motorola’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida facility embarked on a multi-year effort to transform itself from an old-line personnel department to a strategic business partner. In doing so, it helped transform the larger 2,500-employee organization at that facility to become more customer- and employee-focused.

At the center of the transformation was an in-depth assessment of employee and organizational needs. Understanding the perspectives of both sides helped HR balance priorities. In response to the data, HR launched upward feedback, peer recognition and career planning initiatives.

"By using engineering and marketing disciplines, we in HR enhanced our credibility with line management," says Don Grimme, president of Fort Lauderdale-based Grimme Human Resources Inc. and an HR professional at Motorola during the transformation. "They especially loved the hard data we were able to provide on soft issues. And our visibility extended far beyond our facility. For example, our team made presentations on these initiatives to both line and HR management throughout the Motorola worldwide corporation, including Motorola’s Corporate Quality Council and in Singapore and Malaysia."

Similarly, when Janet Brady, vice president of human resources for The Clorox Co. in Oakland, California, took over the HR function in 1993, she completely revamped it. An HR director now supports each function within the organization such as sales, marketing and finance, as opposed to serving a division.

"And interestingly," Brady told Workforce in late 1998, "it was the people running the businesses that were very supportive of the change. That’s what gave me this ‘a-ha’ feeling, because they were saying, ‘I don’t care how I get this stuff done, I just need it done. You go figure out the most efficient way to deliver it."

Brady is an example of a phoenix leader. In their book, "Soaring With the Phoenix: Renewing the Vision, Reviving the Spirit, and Re-Creating the Success of Your Company" (Warner Books Inc., 1998), James A. Belasco and Jerre Stead describe the leaders needed during rapid change and uncertainty. They aren’t afraid of "reinvolution," which is renewal through revolution or rapid evolution that looks a lot like revolution.

Phoenix leaders are defined by their ability to make five essential contributions: "They surface issues that confront the organization; engage the people in resolving those issues; prioritize/allocate resources to address those issues; unleash ownership so everyone accepts responsibility for dealing with those issues; and energize learning ... These contributions enable the leader and the others to build a pyramid that provides a strong base for future success."

Clearly, phoenix leaders rethink how HR’s work gets done. For example, some HR work is being pushed back to line managers. Technology allows employees to do some of it for themselves. Other options include outsourcing and consolidating services in call centers.

But rethinking work is complicated by one still unanswered question: How far will HR move away from being an employee advocate? Ensuring that employees have challenging jobs, with substantive pay and benefits, is one form of advocacy, of course. But advocacy takes many other forms in organizations today. Some of that inevitably must be sacrificed as HR works to meet the demands of other constituencies. How much must be sacrificed is a question that HR can’t answer alone.

Communication is key.
Finding the answer requires dialogue, which means that HR must continue to communicate. That communication must be equal parts listening and promotion. First, HR must listen carefully to what its customers need. Then it must promote what it has done and can do.

"For all the [talk] about contributing to the strategic missions of organizations, employees for the most part still see HR as ‘those folks who handle benefits and do interviewing,’" says Linda M. Konstan, president of LMKAssociates, an HR consulting firm in Denver. "I’d like to see a PR effort on the part of every HR practitioner in this country—starting with their own employees. We’re terrible at selling ourselves. Why not think of ourselves as a product and do some smart marketing?"

Why not, indeed? During the past few years, HR has worked hard at breaking into the senior executive suite and educating senior management on the value HR adds to an organization. Managers and employees are less familiar with HR’s new role as business partner. Increasingly, these internal constituents will need to embrace the importance of the HR function. It won’t be easy, but ongoing communication will help HR earn respect throughout the organization.

Ongoing dialogue has been critical in the reinvention of several high-profile organizations, Sears, IBM and Chrysler, among them. Each of them had to come to grips with the fact they would no longer be a viable entity if they continued down the same business path. They had to own up to where they stood in their industry and market, and launch a massive revitalization effort to stay afloat. Each of these companies is again a success because of their courage to remake themselves with a new focus and a new energy.

In each case, HR’s role was to listen carefully to the business issues and then construct responses. The responses are quite different from one organization to another, and should be. The more effective HR becomes, the more different it will be from one organization to another.

That forging of unique functions within the HR profession may be the hallmark of HR in the new century. Every HR professional can craft initiatives using the same toolbox. The best will try new things, challenge conventional wisdom, and ask more questions more often.

Workforce, January 2000, Vol. 79, No. 1, pp. 52-56.

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