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What HR Needs to Do to Regain Relevancy

I just finished reading Thomas Friedman’s new book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist’s Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations.” Although Friedman doesn’t specifically address the HR profession or HR’s roles in today’s corporate environment, it made me think about how HR can truly add value in the current age of rapid change.

Friedman, a longtime columnist with the New York Times, and three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning author, explains that we are living in an age of accelerating change in markets, the natural world, and Moore’s Law (which, at its most basic, states that the processing power for computers will double every two years). The unprecedented pace of these combined changes is in turn altering how we think about and approach everything, including business, management and the work of HR.

After finishing the book, I concluded that long-held traditional ideas about how HR operates are no longer relevant or useful. 

Accelerating the concept of Moore’s Law is artificial intelligence, the increasing integration of social media, and other technological advances that are blurring the line between human and physical capital. Organizations are being forced to rethink the ways they operate; from strategy, to values, to operating models, to working with customers, and how work is performed.

But what is HR doing?

HR transformation—again

It appears that almost every HR function is in the process of “transforming” itself—again. I first presented on HR transformation to a company in the late 1980s. That same organization is still trying to transform itself. In fact, I recently presented at a meeting of the HRLT group in another company where the CHRO opened the gathering by saying “welcome to our annual transformation meeting”. 

These “transformations” are usually focused on questions about how to make the traditional “three-legged model” of HR more efficient and effective:

  • How can we break down the silos in the COEs and shared services so that they collaborate more effectively?
  • How can we lower the tension between COEs and HRBPs and build a trusting working relationship?

This is, in the words of Prof. Pat Wright, Chair in the University of South Carolina's Darla Moore School of Business, an “inside-out approach” where HR is trying to fix itself so it can tell the organization what a good job it is doing. HR has been trying to do this for more than 30 years to build credibility, relevance, and respect. 

The age of acceleration

The other way HR is approaching this age of acceleration is to hire smarter people into the various functions that make up todays COEs. The end result of the work of these Ph.D.’s, IO psychologists and behavioral scientists is the development of more complex, complicated and stand-alone HR products and services that few understand or buy into. Friedman describes the age of acceleration as a hurricane; the trick is to reside in the calm eye, rather than the wall of the hurricane with all its destructive force. HR’s constant struggle to appear relevant and credible by piling on more intellectual complexity puts it squarely in the wall of the hurricane. 

Finding the eye of the hurricane

HR needs to slow down and begin to build a calm “eye” for the organizational hurricane. Instead of trying to fix HR, it needs to focus on building a healthy organization that can take advantage of this age of acceleration (Prof. Wright’s “outside-in” approach to HR). 

The structure of HR is important, but more important is for the entire HR team to focus on the organization (i4cp’s research has found there is no correlation between HR structure and market performance). With all the uncertainty today, to understand and buy-into a few simple common objectives is the focus that will result in a healthier, more productive company. 

Chris Thompson, of the Fund for Our Economic Future foundation, argues that “Collaboration moves at the speed of trust.”  HR is going to have to break down the silos within the COEs, shared services, and HRBPs, and have them work collaboratively. To work collaboratively, everyone needs to trust that everyone else in HR is working to move the organization in the same direction.  The easiest way to do this is to slow down and create a few simple objectives that the entire HR team can focus on. i4cp’s ongoing research indicates that there are five questions or challenges that all of HR and every HR function needs to answer:

  • What are we doing to help the organization be more customer centric?
    In the age of acceleration, some of the first signals of change will come from the customer. Social media can be both a creative and destructive force and customers will have no qualms about letting you and everyone else know how they feel via social media.
  • How can we help the organization execute the strategy?
    The organization needs to continuously change or modify their strategy to respond to the never-ending waves of change. It is not the strategy, or the changes in the strategy, that makes organizations fail, it’s their inability to execute.
  • What can we do to make the culture more agile?
    Agility is key to responding to the waves of change. An agile culture has five values: trust, collaboration, creativity, diversity, and innovation.
  • Do we have the right leaders throughout the organization?
    Leadership behavior must be consistent with the behavior needed to be customer centric, execute the strategy, and reinforced the values of an agile culture. Most of all, because of the need for continuous learning in the age of acceleration, leaders at all levels must be developers of talent.
  • Is the mission critical talent aligned to the customer, strategy and culture?
    HR needs to finally realize that all roles are not created equal. They must focus more time and energy on the roles that has the biggest impact on organizational performance—Mission critical roles. Is the talent pipeline for the mission critical roles healthy and ready for any change that may arise? Do we know where the talent risks are in the talent pipeline?

If every function in HR, the COEs, shared services, and the HRBP, can say that whatever new process, program or practice they perform is making a difference in the five questions listed above, then HR can move the needle, gain credibility, relevance, and respect by the business community. If you know that your colleague in another part of the HR function is working on the same questions, it may just build a more collaborative environment.

And as a side benefit, by creating a calm “eye” for the hurricane, HR might just be recognized as an integral part of a successful business.

Jay Jamrog
Jay is a futurist and has devoted the past 25 years to identifying and analyzing the major issues and trends affecting the management of people in organizations.