The number of articles predicting the demise of the HR profession continue to stack up. We are accused of failing to adapt to the faster pace and greater complexity of business, being too slow to incorporate digital technologies, remaining stuck in the roles of ‘nursemaid’ or ‘compliance officer’ and failing to remain relevant in a disrupted world.
Being told we suck is not a totally new phenomenon! We’re pretty used to the jibes by now. But we’re also seeing an increase in the appointment of people into quite senior HR roles who don’t have a background in HR at all. I recently met a FTSE Exec who had just been given responsibility for HR in his organisation. He had no training or experience in HR (he had previously been head of logistics) and yet suddenly had overall responsibility for the people agenda in a large, blue chip company. Far from daunted, he believed his lack of experience in HR was a positive asset. Should we be worried about this trend? Or could it offer us some fresh insights and a well-needed makeover? It made me wonder which other of our main Board Directors would make the best HR Directors and what we could learn from them? I’ve given them marks out of 10. How would you mark them?
The Finance Director
Ahh, the age-old battle between HR and Finance. Long our superior in status in the hierarchy, most HR professionals groan at the thought of Finance going anywhere near the people agenda. Insufficient empathy. Overly focused on the tangible assets and the numbers rather than the intangible value of people. Too interested in short term deliverables and not enough in building long term capability. Too black and white in their judgement. Every HR professional I’ve ever known has voiced these concerns. There are many examples of the FD being responsible for HR. What do they bring to the agenda? Is it all bad?
Well, they would be great at the compliance part of the job. Whilst their corporate governance rules tend to leave less to individual judgement than ours, they are pretty good at saying no in ways that doesn’t seem to annoy their colleagues as much as when HR puts the blocks on. They are typically great at presenting a coherent argument based on intelligent data and analysis. Something we could get better at in HR? A while back a survey by Deloitte only 14% of companies reported an analytics capability in their HR function compared to 81% in Finance. FDs never seem to struggle with impact and gravitas at the Board and have a level of influence we in HR have possibly envied if we’re honest?
Finance Director doing HR rating 6/10
One of our key clients and source of work, Operations Directors I have worked with would rather do any role than HR. They see exactly how difficult the task is as it’s their people problems we often have to deal with. Whilst we often get frustrated by their determination to talk to us about getting rid of their “problem children” or hiring them a new PA, when we want to engage them in loftier discussions about their future talent strategy, it is typically a relationship based on mutual respect.
What would HR look like if we handed Operations the reins? On the plus side we would probably see a reduction in process. The arguably overly bureaucratic aspects of HR of which we’ve all been guilty of pushing could be replaced by approaches based on genuine business or individual need. Their intimate knowledge of how the business actually works on the ground would mean that people development, engagement and even compliance could feel much fresher and more agile. Moreover, the commerciality test which we sometimes avoid applying to HR initiatives would be very much in force. They’d have to make their own decisions about their people and even better, they’d have to explain those decisions directly to the affected individuals, rather than passing the buck to HR. That could certainly drive a more honest and open culture? Those organisations who are already doing much of this by removing the traditional HR business partner role are positive about it in the main.
Of course, we’d probably have a few more employment tribunals. But wouldn’t that change over time once they’d had the unedifying experience attending one as a witness? Certainly, the Operations leads I’ve known who have had to justify their decisions in a legal process tend to avoid similar mistakes in the future. We would also worry about the more strategic aspects of people agenda. Would Operations think too short term and too much about their own empire and not enough about the broader organisational needs? Possibly, but then isn’t that what Non-execs are there to counteract? I think Operations could make pretty decent HR professionals.
Operations Director doing HR rating 7/10
Increasingly seen as the “must-have” role on any Board, the CIO would make an unusual but interesting choice to take over as HRD. What could CIO’s bring to the HR party?
Well, much of the same commentary would apply to them as the FD, so we would certainly worry about the potential lack of empathy and discomfort with the ambiguity which is an inherent part of every HR Director’s role. But wouldn’t they be a real asset in making a step change in the way HR uses technology in L&D, attraction and engagement as well as improving the more obvious processes around reward and HR admin? This is a world where more than a billion job searches a month are on a mobile device and yet only a fraction of the Fortune 500 companies provide a job application process on mobiles. Nearly a million companies are profiled by their employees on Glassdoor, yet how many HRDs have a clear social media strategy for engagement? I’ve been looking at how many of my friends and colleagues in HR even have a Twitter account? Not many. Whilst not without its risks, increasing the number of digital savvy HRDs could be quite an exciting thing for the profession.
CIO doing HR rating 7/10
The Marketing Director
In the past HR often felt we occupied a different world to our colleagues in Marketing. They thought about the outside environment, HR the inside. They dealt with customers, we dealt with employees. We had limited budgets, money seemed no object to them.
But this is changing. Social media has practically merged internal and external communications. An increasing emphasis on employees as brand advocates means that we can no longer afford to see our people as so distinct from our customers. Marketing and HR have started seeing each other as possible partners, maybe even allies. When you think about it, the ambitions for HR and Marketing are not so very different. We both seek to change perceptions, to change behaviours and to increase brand loyalty.
So, what would Marketing bring to HR if they ran it?
Marketing brings a fresh perspective to HR because they see leaders and employees as potential customers who need to be won over. They can deploy a range of consumer marketing techniques that could have huge value for our profession.
Genuine insight, not an annual survey
I am always amazed at the insights consumer organisations now have about me as their sophisticated algorithms assess my buying patterns and demographic profile and predict my next likely purchase or tap into my psyche to suggest one I hadn’t even though of yet. This next level of insight could greatly enhance our current approach in HR where we typically rely on two sources of data; the “asset register” that contains the base information and is usually linked to a finance system and the annual engagement survey. The former tells us how many employees we have, where they are located and what they’re costing us. The survey provides us with a sporadic and high-level view of their views at a certain period and typically tells us exactly the same things it tells every company – “we want better comms, better leaders, better pay and better career development”.
If we were to think about our employees the way Marketing thinks about its consumers then we would do things differently. We would insist on better analysis, better predictive data, better granularity of understanding. We would recognise that surveys can only provide the most superficial of snapshots and we would deploy qualitative research and harness line managers as the means to get to a much richer appreciation of our people. We would want to know about their learning styles, their preferred ways of working, their unique skill sets. And we would use this information to help us segment and target our HR delivery.
Before launching a new product, Marketing try and find out every detail they can about the customers they’re aiming at; this shapes their branding, route to market, pricing, and advertising, so they can tailor what they do to different groups. Many of us in HR make a virtue of the opposite of segmentation. We are proud of the fact that we have applied a one-size-fits-all approach to say, performance management or induction.
With a Marketing lead in HR we might do more to ensure our delivery is tailored to our people’s needs. We would recognise that shoe-horning employees into one size fits all processes can’t possibly work and we would segment and customise our approach based on the nature of the people we’re serving. We would accept that our people are sophisticated, messy and complex entities that need to be engaged in a variety of ways, with multiple channels and with a coherent internal brand that is consistent in terms of its manifestation through HR processes.
Marketing would also ensure that the latest trend in HR to develop our employee experience becomes a genuine game changer for us rather than just a cosmetic re-brand. Marketeers get the need to create ‘moments of truth’ for customers that align and support the brand. This kind of thinking could help HR think more holistically and creatively about the experiences we are creating for our people rather than following the accepted wisdom of best practice processes.
Finally, Marketing’s ability to ‘sell’ an idea, product or service could be really useful to us. Their presentations are always so much cooler than ours aren’t they?! With their great graphics and use of video whilst we are still trying to work out how to do a decent chart in PowerPoint. They are great at combining just the right balance between data and narrative to make a point, using story-telling to influence. They understand the power of social media and using key influencers. They know how to plan and execute a great product launch. We could really use some of this to help us with our own launches which can be a bit on the dull side?
If the doom-mongers are right and the ‘end of HR is nigh’ – then we could do a lot worse than leaving our legacy in Marketing’s hands.
Marketing Director doing HR rating 9/10.
Of course, this is largely academic as most Directors on the Board would run a mile from the HR job! However, a number of CEO’s are choosing HR Directors from non-traditional backgrounds as they want to bring different outlooks and skill sets to bear on the people agenda. Is this a bad thing? There are risks certainly. But in a world where the traditional HR approaches are having less and less impact, we can definitely get some fresh insights from our colleagues.
As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer messy solutions to the challenges we face. In this blog we explore what 'messy' HR looks like in practice.