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Making HR more strategic

Actions speak louder than words in taking HR to the next level

By Brian Kreissl

I don’t have a crystal ball. But, if I were a betting man, I’d have my money on predicting HR is at a crossroads and will undergo major change within the next few years.

While it was evident major change was coming for a while, the recent recession (and possible “double dip” recession) have further accelerated the pace of change in the HR profession.

On the other hand, I believe rumours of the demise of the HR function have been greatly exaggerated. While change is definitely afoot, HR will always exist in one form or another. We just need to adapt and change in order to survive and thrive in an ever-changing environment.

The need to be more strategic

Surprisingly, I remember reading an old textbook from the 1970s talking about the need for HR (although they probably called it “personnel” at the time) to align itself with the overall corporate strategy of the organization.

Therefore, the idea HR needs to be more strategic isn’t a new one. We’ve been hearing this for probably 40 years now.

But at the risk of trotting out tired old platitudes about “getting a seat at the table,” or “becoming a strategic business partner,” arguments about the need for strategic HR are more compelling now than ever before.

We must become more strategic — or HR will be seen as largely irrelevant, and be relegated once again to performing purely transactional work and be largely outsourced. This is because widespread cost cutting in many organizations has given top management the excuse to decimate HR budgets and headcounts.

Given the current climate, it’s time we started to prove our worth, not only through metrics and benchmarking, but also simply by doing what we say. The time for hand-wringing is over.

I read somewhere recently how it’s important for HR not to talk to clients — either internal or external – about the need for strategic HR. I completely agree.

Line managers and executives don’t care — and often don’t even understand — what strategic HR is all about. They care if HR can fill their job requisitions in a timely manner or fix their turnover problem. They don’t care about HR’s struggles to get a seat at the table or to be taken seriously as a strategic business partner.

Too many people in HR throw the word “strategic” around without even understanding what it means. Sometimes, it feels like they believe tacking the word “strategic” onto something makes it so.

Being strategic means understanding your organization’s vision, mission and values. It also involves understanding the macro-environment, being proactive and planning based on a long-term time horizon.

At the most strategic level, HR gets involved in actually creating, revising and implementing the overall corporate strategy by ensuring the organization takes the people side of the business into consideration.

In order to do this, it’s tremendously important to understand the business you’re in and be able to speak the language of business. Part of that is understanding what keeps line managers and executives awake at night.

Yet strategy is only one side of the equation. Without proper tactical planning and implementation – as well as constant tweaking and retooling – strategy is doomed to failure.

Someone has to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty. We can’t all be strategists, and even people in very strategic roles often have to get down to the nitty-gritty and deal with details at the most granular level.

I’ve met more than a few people in HR who thought they could get by with fancy buzzwords and trendy catch phrases. Those people often turned up their noses at anything they perceived as being remotely “transactional.”

“Don’t bother me with details,” they say. “I’m a strategist.” Yet, for many of those HR professionals, “transactional” is a codeword for something they don’t know or don’t understand.

Do some soul searching folks. Are you even a tiny bit guilty of this? Many people in HR are.

When HR professionals eschew hard work or don’t know the simplest details about how to perform basic HR-related tasks, they do the profession a disservice.  Worse yet, some HR practitioners even condescendingly label others who actually do know their stuff as being “transactional.”

That kind of attitude doesn’t help us get the proverbial seat at the table. It just makes others think we add little value and are just full of hot air.

Brian Kreissl is the managing editor of Consult Carswell. He can be reached at brian.kreissl@thomsonreuters.com. For more information, visit www.consultcarswell.com.

Brian Kreissl

Brian Kreissl is the product development manager for Thomson Reuters Legal Canada's human resources, OH&S, payroll and records retention products and solutions.
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