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Building much-needed business savvy

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13th Oct 2011
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Learning and talent development professionals are used to expanding the skills of others in the business.

Customer service has to improve and technical skills must be upgraded. Staff need to acquire knowledge of new technologies and leadership capabilities should be refreshed and strengthened.   But a key development area that will also pay real dividends in the future is in building up the skills of our fellow HR professionals. In the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s ‘Next Generation HR’ project, we identified the fact that HR personnel are in a unique position to sit at the centre of the organisation and truly influence it as a result of ‘leading through insight’.   One of the core ‘insights’ required is ‘business savvy’ as well as an ability to exert influence over both the organisation and its operational context. According to a number of researchers (Hesketh, 2009; Roebuck, 2011; Briner, 2010 and Boudreau, 2010), however, some HR professionals are still failing to link commercial and business issues when developing policies and strategies or undertaking a specialist intervention.   The latest report by the European Association for People Management and the Boston Consulting Group entitled ‘Creating People Advantage Europe’ pointed to a continuing gap in perception between what HR functions deliver both service-wise and at a strategic level and what others in the business would like to see.   This perception must be dealt with, which is why we have introduced a new research and learning project entitled ‘Business savvy: Giving HR the Edge’. This initiative will define exactly what ‘business savvy’ is as well as how to build and embed it into the HR function as standard behaviour.  Learning business smarts  But of those HR leaders and practitioners that we have come across to date who display this characteristic, we have found that they tend to lead and operate with influence, purpose and integrity. They also have a laser-sharp focus on business goals and aim to meet them both through their people and by meeting performance objectives.  (We will be sharing some of their stories and insights at our annual conference and exhibition on the 8-10 November in Manchester.) For HR practitioners to become truly business savvy, however, learning and talent development professionals have a critical role to play. But before they do anything, they must understand that the usual narrow grounding in financial skills and sector-specific business ‘smarts’ will not be enough to generate the desired commercial awareness.   This is true not only in the case of HR personnel in the private sector, but also of those working in the public and not-for-profit sectors as they increasingly discover a need to re-interpret their roles in light of new commercial, competitive and operational realities.   Universities, for example, will henceforth need to operate in an environment of maximum student fees, resulting in massively increased customer expectations, while the NHS may soon be operating under a radically different business model to anything previously experienced.   As a result, learning to read balance sheets and profit and loss accounts - vital as they are - or a hasty swotting up on the company’s financial report to prepare for a meeting will no longer suffice. So what can be done?  Here are a few of our emerging thoughts on how learning and talent development functions can help to become a catalyst for developing business capabilities within the HR department:   1. Cultivate Curiosity   I once recall asking an HR professional working at a major chocolate company why they sold so many outsize bars for a quid. The individual said: “I don’t know, but it’s probably something to do with marketing”.   In contrast, a colleague talked passionately about how she had worked with a team of production engineers to help deliver a new product line, before giving chapter and verse on how it was delivered. She truly understood the value chain and value creation.   She was also curious, passionate about the business and wanted everyone to know. Her colleague, to be honest, simply couldn’t be bothered. So the lesson here is that curiosity acts as a cornerstone in making a commercial and organisational impact. It is a quality that we just need to coax and cultivate.   2. Encourage Collaboration   Because learning and talent development practitioners work across the business, they are in a unique position to generate insights. They can open up conversations, help people to connect and collaborate and support higher levels of staff performance, engagement and innovation.   The idea is to encourage HR people to engage in business dialogues rather than HR monologues.  3. Offer simple, common-sense solutions   HR professionals must ensure that service delivery is deft and well-defined and always provides organisational value. They should be encouraged to ask themselves whether a given solution is appropriate to the business today and meets the challenge faced by the group requiring support? Another important thing to think about is whether everything could be simplified.   4. Coaching as a vehicle for promoting business savvy   As our latest research entitled ‘Coaching Climate’ shows, when HR people are coached or mentored themselves, a lot of the agenda revolves around personal effectiveness and other aspects of personal development. But by broadening out the focus to business awareness, coaches and mentors can help boost these capabilities within the HR profession.   As HR evolves and attempts to transform itself during these testing times, the argument for the creation of an insight-driven profession becomes stronger. Business savvy is a key component of this vision, and learning and talent development practitioners have a critical role to play in promoting the collaboration and knowledge necessary to help build it.   

Dr John McGurk is learning and talent adviser at HR industry body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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