Surveying HR’s role, future and best practices (HR Manager's Bookshelf)

Creating a Strategic Human Resources Organization • Best Practices in Organization Development and Change • Human Resources in the 21st Century

HR is becoming strategic but will there be an HR department to follow through?

Is human resource management leading or bleeding, succeeding or receding? After years of fanfare about HR’s transition to a more valued, strategic and business-oriented profession, what’s the actual profile of HR in organizations today, and where is it headed?

We begin with Creating a Strategic Human Resources Organization, a survey of HR’s positioning, focus and modus operandi in large organizations.

First, the uncomforting news: HR needs to be radically redesigned for the future, and many practitioners don’t have the skills, motivation or know-how to carry out the required future role.

The good news is things are getting better.

The second publication reviewed here, Human Resources in the 21st Century, also provides a big picture look at the HR function.

The third book, Best Practices in Organization Development and Change, shares valuable, realworld experience and lessons learned in strategic HR, performance improvement, leadership, coaching and staff retention.

Creating a Strategic Human Resources Organization
By Edward E. Lawler III and Susan Albers Mohrman, 135 pages, Stanford University Press (2003) ISBN 0-8047-4702-4,

Subtitled “an assessment of trends and new directions,” this publication reports on the third study on the HR function in large corporations by the Center for Effective Organizations at the University of Southern California, updating the findings of earlier research done in 1995 and 1998. It examines how changes in the business environment affect HR, and to what degree HR is becoming a strategic business partner to management.

About 150 companies participated, with average employment of 21,000 and with approximately 25 per cent of revenue and employees outside of the U.S. The average HR staffing level was 234 full-time equivalent positions; 75 per cent of the heads of HR have an HR management background.

The HR function is examined in the context of strategic focus areas and change initiatives:

•growth — global presence, acquisitions, new businesses;

•core business partnering and realignment;

•quality and speed of performance — cycle time, innovation, quality improvement;

•knowledge and information strategies — process automation, technology leadership, e-business;

•restructuring, downsizing, outsourcing, cost containment;

•performance building through re-engineering, teams, total quality management and employee involvement; and

•competency and knowledge management initiatives.

The book opens with a comprehensive survey of the literature on HR’s present role, forces for change, design of the function and future role. The study reveals definite, but limited, movement toward the business partner and strategic role for HR. For instance, while 79 per cent of HR managers identified themselves as business partners, only 53 per cent of their line managers shared this view.

Readers will find detailed breakdowns of these 150 organizations’ practices in HR organizational approaches:


•service teams;


•resource efficiency; and

•staff rotation (within HR and across functions).

Specific chapters deal with trends in shared services, outsourcing, use of IT in various HR functions, progress with e-HR systems (ERP, ASP, self-developed), and levels of HR skills (administrative, business partnering and organizational dynamics skills) and related satisfaction.

The study raises many questions, insights and themes that may delight readers or make them anxious:

•The cost of HR is not a significant issue, compared to the question of HR’s impact in the organization.

•Does HR influence the direction of organizational change initiatives, or vice versa?

•Outsourcing is an outstanding option to enable growth, fulfill the desire of HR leaders to get out of transactional and service activities, and provide access to knowledge and expertise.

•Even in large companies, HR is at an early stage of IT adoption and benefits gained. However, IT can shape “an entirely new HR” and fundamentally change HR’s role and modes of delivery.

•The skills of many HR practitioners often fall short in all three roles: administrative, business partner and strategic. It’s time for these individuals to either get out of the “comfort zone” or out of HR.

Some of these factors have been obstacles to change. Yet the book also lists important indicators that may help HR move toward a more strategic role. These would include:

•the head of HR having a solid HR background, but also a strong business background;

•the company’s challenges requiring the support that HR can deliver;

•HR staff having the right skills for the future; and

•the presence of a completely integrated HRIS enabling HR to play the business partner and strategic roles.

The authors conclude: “We have articulated the need for a new business model for HR . . . but the HR function still appears to be at the very beginning of the changes that are needed in order for that new model to become a reality. Our study has demonstrated that the change process is slower than anticipated, but it has identified a very clear action agenda that can yield an HR function capable of adding more value to the business . . . the HR function needs to look seriously at how it can reinvent itself. The old approaches and models are simply not good enough.”

Human Resources in the 21st Century
Edited by Marc Effron, Robert Gandossy and Marshall Goldsmith, 332 pages, Wiley (2003) ISBN 0-471-43421-3 Available from Wiley Canada, 1-800-567-4797,

Similar themes are explored here, this time in the form of 34 brief perspectives on HR’s focus, practices, challenges and professional outlook from contributors in industry (including Cisco, Pfizer, IBM, Bank One, GE and Colgate-Palmolive), academia (Stanford, Rutgers, Wharton, Cornell, The University of Michigan) and consulting (including several from Hewitt Associates, the firm of editors Effron and Gandossy).

Part I addresses “People: HR’s bottom-line asset.” Chapters include:

•Getting extraordinary results from ordinary people (by the global HR head of Yahoo! Inc.);

•The 21st century workforce: implications for HR;

•Engaging the generations (sagely silents, baby boomers, generation X, the millennials); and


In Part II, emerging practices are described in fields like leadership development, talent management, learning, knowledge and technology. A couple of chapters deal with measurement and business performance as connected to HR management.

Organization and culture are the focus in Part III, with chapters on innovation, HR leaders as business leaders, HR’s role in change management and global total rewards. One of the messages is that HR’s changing role “requires a new form of partnership, one in which both leaders and HR managers understand the business, understand the employees and take appropriate action that deals with both sets of needs.”

Part IV tackles change leadership:

•Unilever’s path to growth — a journey in progress;

•Finding the missing link — connecting your business strategy and leadership strategy; and

•Convergence of HR — leadership and change management.

Eight varied views are presented in Part V, “The HR profession: coming demise or new beginning?” The writers include futurists, HR executives and HR gurus David Ulrich, Jeffrey Pfeffer and William Bridges. Some deal with the ultimate survival question: Is this the end of HR? Topics also include: profession at a crossroads if HR and power is an oxymoron, and transforming your HR department into a startup professional services firm.

In her foreword, Rosabeth Moss Kanter observes: “Today’s HR function covers a wide spectrum of activities requiring very different skill sets, from compensation and benefits administration (highly quantitative) to employee relations (highly qualitative). There are legitimate organization design questions about whether that bundle needs to be together in light of new realities and technologies . . .

“I think all this change signals the end of the HR empire, not the end of HR activities. The senior HR executive is not endangered, but the HR department is; and that senior executive might not even be a ‘professional’ or specialist in HR, just a savvy leader who knows how to connect people and strategy. There will continue to be high-level executives dedicated to people or to workplaces or to culture and values, but there will be a shrinking department under them, and a lot of specialists once in HR but now reporting to finance, IT, or corporate relations.”

Best Practices in Organization Development and Change
Edited by Louis Carter, David Giber and Marshall Goldsmith, 551 pages, Jossey Bass Pfeiffer (2001) ISBN 0-7879-5655-X Available from Wiley Canada, 1-800-567-4797,

A Linkage Inc. ( research study identified five highest demand OD/HRD topic areas:

•organization development and change;

•leadership development;

•recruitment and retention;

•performance management; and

•coaching and mentoring.

This book presents 17 in-depth “success” case studies from companies ranging in size from 175 employees to 220,000, including:

•Kraft Foods’ implementation of a high performance work system;

•merger integration through solid leadership at SmithKline Beecham;

•culture change related to crucial safety performance in the nuclear industry at Westinghouse.

•empowered work groups and customer satisfaction results at Xerox;

•approaches used by Boeing, Johnson & Johnson and Sun Microsystems for leadership development; and

•leading edge recruitment and retention programs at Cellular One, Advanced Micro Devices and Allstate Insurance.

A consistent framework is used in each case study, providing the reader with six key “how to” elements:

•analysis of the need for the specific OD/HRD initiative;

•development of a solid business case;

•identification of the audience or stakeholders for the initiative;

•effective design of the model and approach;

•systematic implementation; and

•evaluation of effectiveness.

Practitioners from the companies have shared their action and design approaches, even specific assessments, methodologies and tools, making this a valuable reference and handbook.

The editors provide guidance on how to get the most from the book: “Work with a team to develop a list of the components in a few case studies that fit your organization. Analyze why these components are most applicable to your organization and its culture. What interventions and key features best fit your organization’s goals and objectives? How might you go about implementing such a program at your organization? Why do some programs work for your organization better than others?”

An accompanying CD-ROM includes numerous sample tools outlined in the case studies.

Ray Brillinger is a senior consultant with IBM Business Consulting Services. He provides change management, business transformation and organization effectiveness strategy and implementation support to clients. He can be reached at (905) 316-8733 or [email protected].

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