Transforming HR

Changing workplace means changes for the profession, say academics

Transforming HR
From left: Dionne Pohler, University of Toronto; Rick Hackett, McMaster University; Hayden Woodley, University of Prince Edward Island; Marie-Hélène Budworth, York University. Credit: Sarah Dobson

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While there’s been much talk over the years about HR’s move to become more strategic, recent changes in the workplace are pushing the profession even further, according to a group of academics.

For one, there’s a permeation of HR throughout the organization, said Nita Chhinzer, associate professor and graduate advisor in the department of management at the University of Guelph in Ontario.

“In the last few decades, we’ve seen organizations really take a much more organic approach to who’s responsible for activities,” she said.

“We see this in things such as the competency-based approach to jobs, and we’ve also seen this in things such as job descriptions where an individual may be responsible for HR functions within their role, but they’re not given an HR job.”

At Google, for example, people who aren’t in human resources may crowdsource recruitment, said Chhinzer, leading a panel discussion of academics at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto in June.

“Essentially, there’s a whole pile of non-HR functions that are being permeated through the organization that a lot of managers, entrepreneurs, line managers are responsible for.”

Work is fundamentally changing, said Dionne Pohler, assistant professor at the Centre for Industrial Relations & Human Resources at the University of Toronto, citing the increasingly contingent workforce.

“HR has to really grapple with that changing nature of work,” she said. “We’re seeing less permanent, full-time careers — not just that people are switching organizations more frequently but we’re actually seeing a fundamental change in how work is managed inside organizations.”

“There’s a lot more scope for HR people to really think clearly about how we actually have a lot of different employment systems within the same organization, increasingly more so, and to think about how that actually changes the nature of the HR person’s role.”

There’s no longer one consistent policy for each employee — there can be more of a mishmash, said Pohler.

“For HR people to be really successful… they have to be able to really deal with systems thinking — not even just strategic thinking — systems thinking across multiple levels and across silos in the organization. HR is the only area in organizations that is uniquely situated to be able to do that, so that’s one major competency.”

Another important skill is a tolerance for ambiguity, she said.

“There’s so much more uncertainty today that even if we use… evidence-based thinking and application of ideas, the reality is most of these studies that show correlations, causality between X and Y, that’s based on data in the past, and the world is changing. And so those same constraints or circumstances may not be there in the future, so we have to really think about what that means for how we move forward and how we make policies in uncertainty, when we don’t necessarily know what the outcomes or what the input variables are even going to be.”

York University’s HR programming has shifted from a focus on the functional areas of HR — such as compensation and talent selection — to leadership competencies and decision-making, accoding to Marie-Hélène Budworth, assistant professor of human resource management at York University in Toronto.

“(It’s about) competencies around ‘How do we make decisions about how to manage people? How do we make decisions about how to motivate people? How do we put together suites of interventions, programs, policies that really help people perform at their best?’” she said.

“We have a greater emphasis on decision-making, so as HR professionals, how do I look at the information in front of me and make an informed, evidence-based decision? How do I either analyze the data (or) collect information? How do I make decisions that don’t allow me to fall into trends, traps, discriminatory practices… taking shortcuts? How do I make sure I’m helping my organization make thorough, evidence-based decisions?”

Focus on analytics

HR analytics have been around for years, but it seems like the world is just waking up to the idea HR management involves number-crunching and informed, evidence-based decision-making, said Rick Hackett, professor of HR and management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“A lot of organizations today are challenged with bringing together data sets across a bunch of different functions, and there’s a bunch of siloed data,” said Hackett.

“(It’s a) priority for large organizations in particular to break down the silos and integrate the data to have a fully comprehensive, integrated data analytics system.”

Employers are now seeking people in HR who are not administrators but people who can think strategically, have some business skills, and some background in analytics, said Hackett.

“The biggest changes I see are more appreciation of the strategic role played by people in human resources management. All those administrative functions, I’ll just underscore, are now being taken over by enhanced technologies, bots, robotics, artificial intelligence.”

More and more, organizations are looking for people who can bring value to the multi-disciplinary team, he said, “and in the area of analytics, you’re talking about people trained as statisticians, people trained in information technology, some sociologists mixed in with the best psychologists and business people.”

“And unless you can bring strategic value, that you can collect and analyze data in a way that’s going to be of strategic importance to the organization, helping the organization achieve its business outcomes, you’re not going to be very successful.”


Mixed messaging

As of 2014, there were two main HR designations offered across Canada: the CHRP (Certified Human Resources Professional) in Ontario (with three levels) and the CPHR (Chartered Professionals in Human Resources) in the other provinces and regions. But that’s causing confusion, according to a panel of academics speaking at the Ted Rogers School of Management at Ryerson University in Toronto.

It’s been challenging, especially in communicating the differences to students, said Hayden Woodley, assistant professor of management in the faculty of business at the University of Prince Edward Island in Charlottetown.

They’re asking, “Why is this happening, why is there not consistency across Canada?” he said. “It’s challenging to communicate why there are three different versions in Ontario, and what is the CPHR designation — how does it differ, where does it lie?... I think Canada, we will benefit a lot, across all programs, if we can create some unity across the board, come to some agreement.”

Students are unclear, especially those who are not sure where their career will take them, said Nita Chhinzer, associate professor and graduate advisor in the department of management at the University of Guelph in Ontario, adding some job ads now require “a” designation in HR.

“We’re seeing some confusion with employers and potential employees, and that’s still not worked out.”

Having the two separate credential systems is really bad for the profession, according to Rick Hackett, professor in HR and management at the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University in Hamilton.

“Quite honestly, I think it degrades it. I think most other professional associations look down upon it,” he said, adding some companies such as Google don’t even consider credentialism important.

“They’re looking for people with general business and management skills, some acumen with regard to yes, managing people, but they’ve blown up the term ‘HR’ — they (now say) ‘people operations’ or ‘talent management.’”

Having two main HR designations across the country at a time when the accounting association, for example, realized it needed to merge is a really bad idea, said Dionne Pohler, assistant professor at the Centre for Industrial Relations & Human Resources at the University of Toronto.

“There’s all these issues associated with inconsistencies across the provinces… Until the professional associations figure out what it is they should be doing and come and talk to us, it’s hard for us to constantly be trying to factor in what they care about in terms of what they think HR professionals should know.”

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