Even in the best of times, the place of HR in many organizations is never quite assured.
To address the persistent threat of losing relevance, HR has attempted to reinvent itself numerous times in order to become more strategic. In particular, HR has eagerly adopted technology solutions to reposition its resources so as to fit in better with the more quantitative, strategic planning-oriented business functions.
Yet for those ranking business functions, being strategic specifically means driving competitive advantage. For HR, being a strategic partner also increases the pressure on HR to both justify its activities that might be judged as peripheral, and make more efficient those which are core.
HR transformations are complex, often including departmental along with organizational transformation. However, despite several waves of technology-led transformation, HR frequently finds itself no better off balancing its own managerial tensions, let alone those of the rest of the organization. When push comes to shove, HR declares itself to be a work in progress, thereby raising doubts about its ability to lead enterprise transformation.
The right stuff in the wrong places
One of the ways HR has attempted to become more strategic has been through restructuring its own department in order to consolidate resources, clarify roles, and bring the HR department in alignment with value-producing business processes.
In the past, such an endeavor has involved HR 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 really core or peripheral. In many cases, such scrutiny has put HR in the position of a customer, where it actually receives services from an outsourced provider in order to deliver peripheral HR services to the organization.
No longer the generalist, HR professionals often become forced into one of these three roles, which in turn often represents a false dichotomy between the strategic and tactical. Furthermore, it forces HR into an overall competency model that fails to specify what is needed to perform in such transformed roles, particularly the HR business partner.
For HR activities that get outsourced, valuable firm-specific HR skills are often lost as service roles are displaced. Simultaneously, the vendor becomes preoccupied with contract management and achieving high-satisfaction customer service scores rather than developing critical HR department skills in the customer.
Not surprisingly, restructuring HR in order to make it more strategic often has disappointing results. An artificial division of HR tasks into strategic business partnering and administrative services has fragmented HR, taking it further from the line managers 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.
HR, do unto yourself as you do unto others
After several decades of effort, HR has learned that it does not become a strategic partner simply by changing job titles, deploying fancier technology, or even winning a seat at the table. Rather, HR has learned to adapt to a sometimes hostile environment, developing new competencies while improving existing ones, all while equipping itself with more sophisticated tools to manage services.
HR can continue to adapt successfully by applying some of its organizational savvy to its own survival, including implementing service delivery solutions that also provide 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 cloud-enabled. The HR function cannot be rendered simply by foisting yet another workflow improvement program upon the HR department. In the cloud-enabled business, adapting HR service delivery to make it more manageable is far preferable to forcing radical changes throughout the HR organization.
An earlier version of this blog entry appeared in SAP Business Trends