How can HR become more commercial?

The HR Most Influential 2016 rankings have been unveiled, recognising the practitioners and thinkers who are leading the people management agenda forward.

Top of the pile this year is Sandy Begbie, Standard Life Chief People Officer, Valerie Hughes D’Aeth, HR Director of the BBC, Jacky Simmonds, Easy Jet’s Group Director of People and Rob Briner from the University of Bath’s School of Management topping the ‘most influential thinkers’ list.

What’s interesting about winner Begbie is that his experience goes way beyond traditional HR roles. As well as being responsible for people, he has also led operations, IT procurement and comms, as well as Asia and emerging markets. Interviewed in HR Magazine, he stresses the need for HR to become more influential within businesses. “UK businesses are more global than they have ever been. I think there’s a real role for HR: Individuals need to grasp that opportunity and realise they are equal to all other business partners,” he said.

The call for HR to take its place at the top table is not new – but the need for a more business savvy approach is now being more widely recognised (and acknowledged) within the industry. So as an HR practitioner, what can you do to sharpen your commercial focus and have more influence on the strategy and future direction of the business?

HR

1. Become an enabler not a blocker

In a recent opinion piece in HR Magazine, Penny Whitelock points out that HR (fairly or unfairly) has developed a reputation for acting as barrier, rather than a supporter, to commercial agility. While there are, of course, many examples of practitioners who are working closely with managers to develop new and innovative working practices, there are undoubtedly others who are hanging on to restrictive policies.

HR practitioners who want to earn respect at the top table need to focus their lens on the future and develop people practices that will help the business adapt fast to constantly changing markets.

2. Exploit data

HR now has a wealth of information at its fingertips – on everything from retention, engagement, performance, skills gaps and productivity. Thanks to advances in technology over recent years, HR systems that can deliver this data at the click of a mouse are now available to pretty much any business.

HR people with the skills to extract, analyse and exploit this information are, however, few and far between (and consequently at a premium). Getting more tech savvy and developing the skills to understand and use ‘Big Data’ for the benefit of the business is key for HR people who want to add value and make a measurable contribution.

3. Focus on innovation

Innovation is the lifeblood of any business. There is so much that HR can do to help build cultures where creativity and experimentation can thrive.

It’s about helping managers understand how they can stimulate innovation within their teams and create environments where collaboration is encouraged – and mistakes are seen as part of the learning process.

Technology is available to support this process. Many HR software systems now include internal platforms where employees are able to easily share information and ideas and work together on projects.

If HR people want to gain commercial edge they need to be innovative in their own practice too – constantly seeking out the latest thinking and finding new ways of tackling old problems.

4. Get finance savvy

HR is often criticised for a lack of financial nous; and although this area is now emphasised more in practitioner training, it is still a development need for many.

This is an area where professional networks can help. A number of local CIPD branches, for example, have recently held ‘finance for HR’ sessions. Be sure to check out your local branch and see what’s on offer, or you can look at completing a formal finance for non-financial managers programme.

Building strong relationships with the finance department is also a good move for HR people who want to develop their understanding of how the company’s finances work.

5. Broaden your horizons

Sharpening your commercial edge often means getting outside of your HR bubble to explore what’s happening in other areas of the business. Spending time on the front-line of operations or shadowing executives from other departments will help you get a real understanding of the challenges the business faces and what helpful interventions HR may be able to make.

Developing an external perspective is important too. Network outside your sector and profession to see what you can bring back to the business from other industries and areas of expertise.

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