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The value of navel gazing and why HR must focus on the future

23rd Feb 2015
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There’s no doubt that one of HR’s most time consuming preoccupations is reflecting on its own future. Communities like HRZone provide us with a wealth of rich information but have certainly contributed to the amount of introspection taking place as well. And then you’ve got people like me finding something to challenge the HR profession about on an almost daily basis too.  No wonder most HR people still don’t read blogs, and why there’s a healthy level of resistance to excessive self-absorption!

But HR’s tendency for navel gazing has a really important role to play as well.  Firstly, yes, of course, other functions do it too. Finance, IT etc all have major concerns, and are engaged in new thinking, about their respective roles.

Secondly, what is different for HR than other functions is that we get higher levels of challenge (and sometimes simple abuse.) Ram Charans swipe at us, suggesting that we retain HR-A (for administration) but that Finance take over HR-LO (leadership and organisation) was one of the most recent of these. If other areas of business are going to challenge us about our value we need to have a good response. So if we do navel gaze more than other functions there is a good reason for that.

But thirdly and more importantly, HR has a more flexible, amorphous role to play in organisations. Finance is Finance and Finance. Well, not quite - there are a number of forms it can take and roles it can play but what it does is, and has to be, fairly consistent across different businesses. HR isn’t so constrained. Just about anything we can do can be performed in multiple different ways and most often there is no one ideal solution, just a choice of different pros and cons.

Fourthly, there’s not just an opportunity to be flexible there is a strategic imperative that we should flex our approaches too. In the old days when we were Personnel this requirement didn’t really exist - business strategy focused on differentiating products and services and all that organisations wanted to support their people was standardised approaches to payroll and employee welfare.  Even today, HR management, connected with and supporting the business strategy, is largely based around certain best practices.

But the most recent opportunity for HR is to create business strategy through what we do with our people and the value, or human capital, they provide. This is why I call this new opportunity HCM, human capital management ie the management of people to create and accumulate human capital. However strategy is always about doing things differently rather than the same so it’s not just the very best human capital we need but that value which is the best fit for the particular business that we work within. And if we want differentiated human capital we need to have different HR approaches too. (If we use the same approaches as everyone else we tend to get the same outcomes as everyone else as well.)

Some commentators (including Ram Charan) suggest that HR should be more like Finance ie more fixed and consistent in our approach. But I think this would be completely the wrong thing for us to do. Instead we need to build upon the opportunity and requirement to be different and focus on creating unique and tailored approaches to HR. This means that instead of having a single, standardised future there are a variety of potential HR futures. Any of these possibilities may fit a particular time and context, but most can probably be made to work - with enough ambition, bravery and creativity to make this happen.

This need for flexibility in approach requires more introspection too. We can’t just learn about the way things are done and then implement this. Instead we have to learn about different ways of doing things and continually enhance our views about what may work best. And we have to accept that there are different models which may all work well.

So the prevailing focus within HR is towards being a science, but a more artful approach may also work for some. Similar choices exist with regard to analytics and intuition; business partners and no business partners; putting HR in Finance or making the whole organisation a bit more like HR (eg having line managers who understand the need to coach, or who do more introspection too.)

And we need to remember that none of the rich information on HRZone and elsewhere (including this  article I suppose) is ever always the best thing to do, but simply provides challenge and insight to help you develop your own HR ideology or worldview about HR i.e. to clarify your own beliefs about HR’s future.

The other thing you’ll need to do this is a bit more reflection. Depending upon your worldview, data and analytics may provide a sound basis for a potential future of HR but from my worldview at least, the development of your worldview is unlikely to come just from data and analytics.

Time for a bit more navel gazing?


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