Reflecting on the previous 50 years of publication of the renowned academic journal Human Resource Management, Editor-in-chief Theresa Welbourne exhorted the profession to once again adapt to the changing business environment. Using the familiar metaphor of the “seat at the table,” Welbourne suggested that HR professionals shift their aspiration from gaining a seat at the table, to spending time in the jungle, “working with people in the business who are making things happen.”
Welbourne argued that achieving the goal of being at the table will not significantly change the kinds of activities HR is already performing. Instead, by virtue of being at the table, HR will continue to be ineffective by being consigned to a role where it does even more talking. And amid all the talking, activities once firmly at the core of the HR profession continue to be contracted out (e.g., payroll and benefits, coaching) or co-opted by other departments (e.g., employee engagement), rendering the survival of HR even more tenuous. More than ever, it is time for HR to act, and not simply talk about acting.
HR has in the past two decades attempted numerous reinventions of itself in order to become more strategic, and has eagerly adopted information technology as a way to reposition its resources so as to become more at intellectual parity with other more quantitative business functions. Yet, being strategic refers specifically to driving competitive advantage, which increases the pressure on HR to simultaneously justify some of its activities that might be perceived as peripheral, and make more efficient those which are core.
To be sure HR transformation efforts are complex, often including departmental along with organizational transformation. However, despite several waves of transformation, HR finds itself no better off in balancing managerial tensions (e.g., whom to serve), perpetually declaring itself to be a work in progress, and thereby raising doubt about its ability to lead enterprise transformation.
Not all change is good change
One of the ways HR has been attempted to achieve its goal of becoming a strategic partner has been through a restructuring of its own department in an attempt to consolidate resources, clarify roles, and bring HR departments in alignment with value-producing business processes.
Such an endeavor has involved HR transforming its roles by dividing departmental roles into business partnering, specialists and shared services, according to the so-called three-legged stool model. Simultaneously it has forced a closer examination of which HR’s activities are core or peripheral, in many cases putting HR in the position as a customer as part of an outsourced provider relationship for its peripheral activities.
No longer a generalist, the HR professional often becomes forced into one of these three roles, which in turn often represents a false dichotomy between the strategic and tactical, and belongs to an overall competency model that fails the specify the ingredients for performance in the transformed roles, particularly for the HR business partner.
For HR activities that are outsourced, valuable firm-specific HR skills are often lost as service roles are displaced, while simultaneously the vendor becomes preoccupied with contract management and providing high satisfaction customer services rather than developing HR department skills.
Not surprisingly, restructuring HR in order to make it more strategic often has disappointing results. The artificial division of HR tasks into strategic business partnering and administrative services has further fragmented HR, taking it further from line managers and where much value-added work resides, and decreasing satisfaction among internal users. Consequently, confusion results not only about role definitions but also about how these roles relate to the restructured HR work activities.
Roles and titles don’t need to change, but competencies do
The deployment and integration of information technology is at the heart of recent HR transformation efforts in most organizations, and has radically changed HR’s administrative role, putting it in the position of both and consumer and provider of services. Automation of administrative tasks and decentralization of the HR function has enabled a reallocation of resources favorable to becoming a strategic partner with the business. Yet the necessary competencies frequently do not remain latent within HR, and therefore need to be acquired.
Other experiences in HR transformation suggest that a high-level commitment to equipping HR staff with new competencies is critical for successful transformation. Yet the perception among many HR professionals is that shared services actually deskills HR staff, whose tacit knowledge of the organization cannot be substituted by any amount of IT investment. In other cases, unnecessary reductions in staff may follow a shared services deployment, resulting in a skills shortage of key HR personnel and reduced ability to achieve meaningful efficiency gains.
Another similar risk involves allocating wrong competencies to the wrong roles. In such a case, a shared services implementation creates a small number of staff within the HR function who facilitate the implementation, and are perceived as the insiders. They become a new set of technocratic HR elite whose primary concern is maintaining a complex information system that also happens to collect HR data.
Skills unrelated to effective HR become elevated as attention shifts to IT systems administration, rather than the people it serves, which in turn decreases the perceived value of HR skills and those having the skills. The result is frequently an HR implementation that falls well short of its potential, reaching only a few departments or regions, or delivering partially satisfactory services across the enterprise.
Help yourself the way you help your people
After two decades of effort, most HR professionals have learned that HR does not become a strategic partner by simply changing job titles and declaring intentions, or even by winning a seat at the table. Rather, the environment which HR finds itself inhabiting is becoming more like a jungle, a kill-or-be-killed world that requires HR to develop new competencies and be equipped with dependable tools. HR can adapt by applying some of its organizational savvy to its own survival, including implementing a shared services delivery platform that also provides HR with the apparatus for managing its own competencies.
HR is a complex business function, which at its core are the behaviors of people. Those same people belong to work organizations that are becoming increasingly distributed, mobile, and virtual. Although the HR function cannot be rendered simple by means of management techniques, adapting HR service delivery to make it more manageable is likely preferable to attempting radical changes throughout the HR organization.
HR roles need not be supplanted by organizational change initiatives, and indeed it is often not advisable to do so. Rather, new competencies ought to be added to already proven ones. Instead of segregating, and in some cases relegating, HR staff according to inflexible roles, new HR forms should emerge that integrate competencies of other functions, such as finance and operations. Streamlined or transformed service delivery represents an opportunity for adapting the roles for HR staff to facilitate even greater involvement in lines of business, bringing HR closer to the value that is created on the floor, and envisioned in the boardroom.
 Welbourne, T. M. (2011). Forget about being ‘at the table’ and get out into the jungle. Human Resource Management, 50(2), 167-169.
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