Inarticulate ramblings of a management consultant

the day to day experiences of a consultant operating in weird and wonderful client situations

The death (…and reincarnation?) of HR

To say that there’s been a diatribe on the subject of HR on these pages is perhaps an understatement…and my reassurances that some of my best relationships are with HR professionals has probably fallen upon deaf ears, despite the truth of that statement. You know who you are, my HR friends.

Like many aspects of life, it’s the things about which that we are most passionate, that we are equally disapproving / critical of when they do not meet our exacting and occasionally unrealistic expectations. I’ve no doubt that the other functional support areas have the same challenges and probably somewhere in the blogosphere, a similar article is being penned by a frustrated accountant or technologist!

So to the point. I believe that we are at a point of no return for HR. A little like climate change, the opportunity to prevent any material disruption occurred a while ago…we now have to come up with strategies that mitigate rather than avoid the consequences.

For HR, the death comes in the form of a thousand cuts…whether it’s the wholesale outsourcing of the transactional part (payroll, benefits administration, HRA and systems in general, recruitment, training and development, induction to name a few functions which I’ve come across in an outsourced environment), or it’s the increasingly specialist areas of organisational development, change, talent management and innovation busily assuming identities of their own, a little like those fabled rodents and sinking ships!

In the meantime, areas which should be under the control and jurisdiction of the function are being removed to justify the existence of some other, potentially challenged, central function. Management information for example, which should be and is in certain cases, taking on the mantel of the measurement of productivity across all corporate assets, including that of the employees.

Other loosely aligned functions and activities have given up the connection some time ago…communications which always seemed to have a friendly affiliation with HR now stands resolutely alone, defended by the academic and applied data which points to its criticality in the corporate world.

And above all this noise and disruption, is the increasing awareness and sense of responsibility of the most senior management towards those few and most trusted employees. Whereas the shared title of CEO and Chief HR Officer was an anomaly a few years ago, I suspect this is much more evident in today’s modern business.

So, is this death permanent or are we going to see a reincarnation in some other form?

To use an analogy, just as the concept of a conglomerate has all but disappeared outside of emerging markets (as investors took the decision and responsibility for diversification for themselves rather than outsourcing this to company leadership), does the requirement for a consolidated function such HR also disappear, never to be reborn?

For what it’s worth, I suspect that for the most forward thinking of companies, having a leading edge, fully engaged, efficient and challenging HR function may give them a strategic advantage…my question is whether, in order to get there, it needs to be broken up first?!

I would appreciate any comments or ideas around the subject as always.

Categories: Change management, Functional Leadership, human behaviour, Human Capital, Management Information, Organisational design, Transformation

Tags: , ,

4 replies

  1. Interesting piece. I will be thinking about this one for the next few days

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  2. Ben, I enjoyed this. Your thoughts always get me think too. I wonder whether the various sub groups within HR have developed as a reaction to the HR directors feeling a bit irrelevant in some businesses and so trying to engage with the executive in a specific area which they do value such as identify and retaining talent or measuring productivity. These areas then become a small empire of their own. I see it as a response to identity uncertainty and an attempt to move beyond being seen as “soft”. I think a return to helping the business understand how to imbed a value driven culture is the way forward and in this regard it is a key facet of the CEO role as you say.

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    • I agree completely Yvonne, both on the motivation of people related functions to want to assert a degree of independence from a rather uncertain overall direction and on the requirement for a more value driven culture. I also believe that the value of this needs to be expressed in financial terms…to get beyond the ‘nice to have’ label that unfortunately still prevails around this type of concept. Measures around productivity, innovation, successful completion of non BAU initiatives, attrition and retention rates etc…all of these can contribute to the value of a ‘value led’ culture.

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