Don’t Just Bash HR – Help it Succeed

Don’t Just Bash HR – Help it Succeed

01.14.13Ron Ashkenas

The likely reason that people have negative experiences with HR functions is that the HR profession is going through a major transition

In today’s business environment, recruitment, retention, and development of human capital are critical success factors for almost any organization. Yet the function charged with helping line managers leverage their human capital – Human Resources – is often regarded with outright disdain. Just look at a few of the comments readers made in response to a thoughtful HBR post by Brian Hults from Newell Rubbermaid called Why HR Really Does Add Value:

“I have yet to see HR add value to any organization.”

“[HR] is more often an obstacle that needs to be navigated to complete real business processes.”

“The fact that the author essentially advocates turning HR into something that would be called ‘strategic planning and integration’ is exhibit A as to the complete uselessness of HR…”

These comments are not unusual. In many organizations, HR is perceived as inefficient, ineffective, overly bureaucratic, and incapable of contributing to results – despite the fact that its role is absolutely critical. So what’s going on?

One possibility is that the criticisms could be true. Some organizations do have weak HR functions that mostly perform transactional work that doesn’t add unique value. But in my experience, and that of colleagues who have worked with dozens of other firms, this level of HR incompetence is rare.

The more likely reason that people have negative experiences with HR functions is that the HR profession is going through a major transition – and it’s not finished. This transition is happening in two ways: On one front, corporations are spending millions of dollars on systems (e.g. PeopleSoft, SAP, Workday) to streamline basic HR transactions and improve HR information. Putting these new processes in place takes time, not to mention major shifts in roles and responsibilities; and it rarely goes smoothly. Simultaneously, these same firms are trying to strengthen the more strategic and consultative roles of HR – such as talent assessment, leadership development, change management, and organization effectiveness. But this also takes time, both to develop people and to build the processes necessary for them to be effective.

Jeff Shuman, the former head of HR and Administration for the Harris Corporation, one company that values HR as a strategic business partner, explains what it took to get through this transition at Harris:

“Five years ago, managers wanted HR to do all the employment- and talent-related work. We had to push back and make it clear that managers were accountable too for their people and that HR was there to take an enterprise-wide approach, guide, and provide tools, but not do everything employment-related for them. We then invested in technology to help managers do the basic transactions, focus the HR generalists’ role, and grew our skills in OD, leadership development, and talent. Now managers have most of the HR components they need on their desktops – employee assessments, development plans, reward and recognition reminders, and things like that. That has freed up the HR staff to help managers solve more strategic problems, identify elephants in the room, look at the human capital implications of business strategies, and challenge them to assign the best people on the most critical assignments. This took a strategic approach, and it didn’t happen overnight.”

So HR’s evolution – like the one that Shuman spearheaded at Harris – does not just concern changing HR. It’s also about helping managers take more accountability for people and culture, and eventually blurring the rigid distinction between “HR” and “management.” In fact one of the key contributors to success at Harris was much greater rotation of people between HR and the line organizations. This has created an environment where there is less “HR-talk” since managers and HR people have common perspectives and language.

Given the human capital challenges facing almost every organization, perhaps it’s time to ease off the HR-bashing. Instead, let’s figure out what it will take to accelerate the transition that most HR functions need to make, and how line managers can make the journey with them, side by side.

What’s your experience with the evolution of HR?

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Ron Ashkenas' blog post on Forbes. Join the discussion.

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