Dusting off HR’s crystal ball for 2012 (and beyond) (Guest commentary)

Google's HR team highly dependent on statistics, measurement
By Dave Crisp
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/15/2012

The New Year’s Eve celebrations are but a distant memory. Last year is in the books (for a look back at the highlights from 2011, see pages 15 to 18 of this issue). But what’s in store for HR professionals in 2012?

For one, organizations have become pickier and, therefore, slower in hiring for fear of mistakes. Uncertainty about changing needs and economics are also causing hesitation.

Tools for hiring haven’t changed much — interviews are still fallible yet addictive for most execs. Hiring mistakes continue, as does the aftermath of dealing with poor employees or managers, which eats up so much time — so the time starvation most HR executives feel will undoubtedly continue.

HR professionals will struggle in the ongoing effort to find magic bullets that save money and improve engagement and performance — seemingly mutually exclusive goals. Attempts to save money through layoffs have further eroded the already down-trending employee loyalty. Few organizations have found effective ways to balance these conflicting pressures.

The answers lie in two real trends — analytics and improving leadership skills — and maybe a third, which we’ll call “paying HR professionals more.”

Catch analytics fever

Most HR departments are missing the trend to analytics, but not at Google. Being led by and working largely for engineers, its HR team changes nothing in human resources without exhaustive statistical proof this will have an impact. That also means followup measurement of new programs and the elimination of those not producing results. This prevents flavour-of-the-month programs and increases the likelihood HR will be taken seriously.

A significant barrier to the implementation of analytics in HR is the widespread lack of interest by other senior executives. There is no point deluging the C-suite with numbers if they aren’t willing to make changes suggested by the results or mull over what the numbers in HR prove. Training them (or encouraging them) to pay attention will be a necessary ingredient before this can take root. It’s a developing trend that will make massive improvements in results.

Leadership, leadership, leadership

Interestingly, these analytics led Google to “Project Oxygen,” proving with its own stats leadership really does make the greatest measurable difference. Did Google need to do that in light of the overwhelming evidence amassed from studies and decades of anecdotes? Isn’t it a given the golden goals of retention and performance depend on effective bosses?

Google wasn’t alone in needing in-house evidence. A lack of leadership skills has been the biggest headache for many, especially CEOs, and been at a fever pitch for years. It continues as a top need HR must address, yet there is little evidence HR’s answers are being heard as execs aren’t changing their behaviour to improve the situation. Nevertheless, the push to improve leadership development will remain a trend long-term.

Even more interesting, Google parsed out the eight skills it believes distinguishes the best leaders from average and turned it into a training program. In other words, it actually took action — a feature that distinguishes the most successful organizations.

It should be no surprise these are the keys that have been reinforced continually for years now, in study after study, though few organizations have succeeded in building them into development programs or culture. The latter requires management, especially senior management, to become convinced these rules of good leadership mean “us” — they themselves have to walk the talk with these behaviours.

Anteing up for HR

The third trend — paying HR substantially more and giving it a higher profile (maybe with regulatory oomph) while separating strategic from administrative functions more visibly — will arrive before HR actually makes a big dent in the key result-driving elements: analytics and leadership development. Why? Because senior execs will continue to hope, however much in vain, that appointing the right knight on a horse in HR will remove their own responsibility to better manage their own behaviour to be better leaders.

Finally, when they pay HR execs enough, senior execs will want results and will, ultimately, listen to this very basic message we all try to communicate but which often goes unheard. Then the trend toward the tough conversations that need to happen between HR and the CEO and other members of senior management will become OK and start to happen naturally. These conversations will be desired by senior executives as valuable feedback that can actually help the bottom line.

May the day come quickly. In the meantime, HR has some breathing space to develop the skills sorely needed for this to happen sooner.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com. He also writes a weekly blog for Canadian HR Reporter on Strategic HR. You can view it at www.hrreporter.com/blog/Strategic-HR.

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