What is HR’s role? And how can they gain influence?

At the recent CIPD conference, Chief Executive Peter Cheese issued a rallying call to the profession. In a complex and changing world of work, HR practitioners, he said, needed to focus their efforts on “creating a future that’s good for people.”

His advice was that rather than being paralysed by uncertainty, HR needs to concentrate on the things it can control – and should make issues like employee stress, well-being and the diversity of the organisation its priority.

Quoted in People Management magazine, Cheese added that it was time for HR “to return to the important principles behind good work,” work that should “give opportunities, be meaningful, give purpose and be founded on ethics and fairness.”

No-one would argue that these are all very laudable aims. But I wonder just how realistic they are for HR people on the ground?

The truth is that for organisations to survive and grow, they need to focus on their bottom line – whether that’s making a profit, delivering shareholder value or serving its audience. In their bid to achieve this, they can perhaps run the danger of looking more at what they can ‘get out’ of employees rather than what they can ‘give back.’

There are, of course, organisations who achieve both. They understand that engaged employees, who feel valued and ‘looked after’ will be more productive, motivated, and willing to go the extra mile. Indeed, there’s now a wealth of research and evidence to back up that claim. And while many practitioners go into HR with the aim of making work better for people, it’s a pretty hard sell for HR if they are working for an organisation that sees employees as little more than ‘human capital’.

In another session at the conference, panellists called on the profession to shift from a model where the business decides what it wants and HR delivers it, to one where HR is driving the strategy and helping to balance the needs of different groups.

Again, little to argue with there. But the problem, of course, is how HR can develop the credibility or clout at a senior level to achieve this. Some useful perspectives came out of recent research done by HR Magazine, who looked at HR careers and the kind of experience that had helped ambitious practitioners improve their influence and get to the top.

It found that breadth of experience was important; and that people who had worked outside of HR at some point in their careers – maybe in operations or finance – were better placed for success. Those who could demonstrate this kind of front-line experience were perceived as being more capable of understanding the business critical issues faced by managers – and therefore more able to get past the traditional criticism that “HR doesn’t understand the business.”

Analytical skills were also important, with Stephen Moir, NHS Chief People Officer, saying he struggled to find HR practitioners with analytical capabilities or the “ability to connect metrics to business outcomes”.

Critical thinking also came out strongly as a skill that was often lacking – an issue reflected by panellists at the conference who called on HR to challenge assumptions about the future of work and the shift towards more “precarious work and fewer employees.” HR people needed to make sure they weren’t just following assumptions about the way work would evolve in the future, they said, and also needed to ensure that before they jumped into adopting new technology, they were clear about the problem they were trying to solve in the first place.

So much food for thought for the profession. In terms of the type of professional training that needs to be provided if HR is to achieve Peter Cheese’s vision and also about the role that HR might play in organisations going forward.

As the HR Magazine report concludes, it is clear that the concept of the profession is evolving. “As more is outsourced and automated, the value-added HR shifts to areas like organisational development, organisation effectiveness and the need for someone to take a whole systems view of how the business operates and is resources,” it says. “HR needs to continue to hold the mirror up to its organisations, but perhaps it also needs to turn the mirror on itself.”

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