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Is HR becoming obsolete?

Changes in technology, roles of line managers may mean fewer HR professionals required

By Brian Kreissl 

Paradoxically, I believe HR professionals can prove their worth by essentially working themselves out of a job. That’s because a large part of an HR practitioner’s role is to build managerial capability. So, if managers are highly capable and have the tools necessary to do their jobs, HR becomes largely redundant — at least in theory. 

Of course, in the real world that usually isn’t completely possible because line managers at most organizations still need coaching, advice and guidance. Managers frequently have little knowledge of things such as employment law, performance management, training and development, or the basics of how to terminate an employee. Because of that, they still need assistance from HR. 

And even if some of the transactional personnel-type tasks traditionally associated with the HR function are “downsourced” to line managers through technology or other methods, managers still frequently require assistance in handling those types of tasks. In other words, other than in the smallest organizations, it’s unrealistic to expect line managers to do it all on their own. 

It’s also important to remember HR needs to provide much of the framework and consistency around effective people management in the form of HR policies, practices and programs. And there’s also the important employee advisory role many HR practitioners play (although HR exists primarily to serve the needs of the employer, not employees). 

In spite of these realities, however, there is now more of a focus on equipping managers to be effective supervisors and leaders. That’s true not only at organizations but as part of academic programs in business and management. 

Business schools now recognize it isn’t sufficient to train future executives by teaching them solely about technical aspects of business administration such as finance, accounting, marketing and business strategy without teaching them about the “softer” side of management and equipping them to be effective leaders. This trend can probably be at least partially attributed to the writings of McGill University business professor Henry Mintzberg — especially his groundbreaking book Managers Not MBAs 

Fewer HR professionals needed 

This has important implications for HR. 

Because managers and business leaders are becoming more savvy when it comes to people management, and are increasingly taking on more HR responsibilities — after all, there is a lot of truth to the cliché that to some extent every manager is an HR manager — we will probably need fewer HR professionals in the future. 

I also believe cost-cutting, downsizing and outsourcing are resulting in organizations more or less permanently adopting a “lean and mean” orientation towards their HR departments. We are already seeing evidence of this with so many HR professionals being out of work and many new entrants into the HR profession having a difficult time securing meaningful employment in their field.  

In the future, those who do remain in HR will increasingly need to operate at more senior and strategic levels. In other words, there will still be roles for highly talented and capable HR professionals to contribute at the most strategic levels. 

There will still be quite a lot of transactional work to do too, but much of that will be completed by outsourcing providers or line managers, largely through the use of technology. Because of this, HR is in danger of becoming a profession consisting largely of “haves” and “have-nots.” Therefore, the advice becomes “be strategic or perish.” 

Advice for HR professionals 

Yet all isn’t doom and gloom. There are several growth areas in HR that individual practitioners should be aware of, as well as specific skills they should look at acquiring in order to make them more marketable. 

Some of the skills I believe are going to be increasingly in demand include organizational design and development, alternative dispute resolution, employment law, HR project and program management, total rewards management, performance management, talent management, employer branding and social media. I also believe HR professionals should increase their knowledge of topics related to management and leadership so HR can truly become a centre of excellence for people management at organizations. 

Even if HR practitioners need to reinvent themselves, that type of knowledge and experience would be beneficial for a career as a line manager or some new hybrid type of role combining both HR and line management responsibilities. Therefore, it will also be important for HR to acquire more industry and business knowledge — either to function at a more strategic level within HR or to successfully transition to a role in the line. 

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.

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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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5 Comments
  • RE: And pigs will fly
    Friday, August 17, 2012 12:00:00 PM by Brian Kreissl
    I've had a couple of comments that essentially seem to be replying to the title of this blog post and assuming that I'm advocating the end of HR. However, if you read the full post, you will see that I'm not suggesting there will be no HR function in the future, or that there shouldn't be an HR function - just that the profession will need to change and adapt (and likely contract) in response to some of the developments in the economy and the workplace. Since some business leaders (and employees) would like to see HR effectively "blown up" (there are enough scathingly negative comments about HR on other forums to suggest this is the case) our challenge as a profession is to continue to reinvent ourselves and to be seen to be adding value.