Professor/Associate Dean Durham University Business School
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Reshaping HR to drive organisational change

HR has suffered an identity crisis. Rather than simply facilitating change within organisations, we should be leading it – so how can we make that shift?

1st Feb 2021
Professor/Associate Dean Durham University Business School
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Young businesswoman giving presentation on future plans to her colleagues at office
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Over the decades the HR function has been exhorted to play a more strategic, transformational role, particularly in organisational change.  Despite this, there appears to have been little shift in this direction in practical terms. Indeed, an overwhelming 80% of participants in a global survey that Mark Crabtree and I conducted of 500 HR practitioners and non-HR managers from 30 countries operating in 20 industries described HR as being primarily focused on transactional issues. Only 20% agreed that HR is primarily focused on strategic issues such as organisational transformations.  

With rapid and continuous change occurring within and beyond organisations, the decision about where to focus time and attention is a critical one. 

In practice, while in some organisations HR has made a great deal of progress moving towards shaping and facilitating strategic change, in others the identity of HR remains in the comfort zone of responding to, and implementing change.

Although the nature of HR’s participation and the context may have altered, supporting organisational change has long since been accepted as a component of HR’s role. There is, however, a need to clarify what this means in organisations now and in the future, in order to ensure that HR plays an important role in the process of organisational change rather than merely being a bit player.

A clear role for HR

The proposal based on the findings from the global survey and outlined in our book, Reshaping HR: The Role of HR in Organisational Change, is that since people are of significant importance to the success of change, and HR knowledge and expertise is vital to the experience and engagement of individuals and teams both internal and external to the organisation, there needs to be clarity about the role of HR in transformations.

This is not to say that HR is not already involved in organisational change, but that the role of HR lacks clarity and focus with respect to how transformational change affects the whole of the organisation, in an age of accelerating, complex and continuous change. HR’s raison d’etre needs to clearly focus on the people aspect of organisational change and this needs to be done within the context of improving organisational effectiveness and individual wellbeing. This does not imply that HR should be solely responsible, but rather that HR and especially line managers should work together in leading and managing the process of change.  

To do this effectively, HR will need to connect to the broader context, in which the organisation operates and to external as well as internal stakeholders. HR will also have to change the conversations they have with stakeholders. They will need to be prepared to challenge views, provide innovative ideas, have a healthier appetite for risk, and be courageous and bold in order to build trust and credibility with stakeholders.  This approach will allow HR to go beyond the usual efforts to improve the workplace, to a role where HR practices are aligned to meet the expectations and improve the experience and engagement of internal and external stakeholders in organisational change.  

Culture Pioneers link

Focus and influence

The current vision of HR, in which depth in particular functional verticals is critical, must become a thing of the past. Moving forward, deep specialisation in a specific area, such as benefits, employee relations, or compensation, will be less important than the ability to work horizontally across functions.  As work changes, so will the foundation upon which HR is based, so that in the new world of work, the foundation for HR will be one of focus and influence.  HR will need to extend its scope of influence beyond the traditional lines of the function to the organisation and ecosystem as a whole, and broaden its focus from employees to the organisation and its’ stakeholders. It will require some significant changes to maximise its impact, including:

  • Thinking about stakeholders differently
    Rather than considering stakeholders from an internal perspective only, they should also be considered from an external perspective. Applying a stakeholder lens will drive a critical shift in HR thinking and this shift is the foundation on which other transformational priorities can be built.
     
  • Developing new capabilities
    HR will need to adopt a new mindset and embrace new skills and behaviours that will allow the organisation to thrive in the digital age.
     
  • Increasing the efficiency through which HR transactional activities occur using automation
    HR will have to widely deploy advanced technology in order to promote productivity and value and to simplify the employee experience. In addition HR will have to capture data that will facilitate the development of more data driven decision-making.
     
  • Expanding the expectations and stature of HR
    HR must elevate their focus through driving tangible, measurable value across the organisation.

With rapid and continuous change occurring within and beyond organisations, the decision about where to focus time and attention is a critical one. The areas outlined above should be at the forefront of the HR agenda in order to transform the function into a finely tuned and effective engine that is transformational, relevant, a value creator, and stakeholder-centric helping to drive the organisation forward.

Interested in this topic? Read Business transformation: there’s more to HR’s role than meets the eye.

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