What are HR’s priorities?

Survey shows transactional role still most important

When Foresters, a Toronto-based fraternal benefits insurer, signed a deal last year to acquire Unity Life of Canada, it made a sharp shift in strategy — a move that had big implications for the HR team.

The deal, aimed at increasing Foresters’ sales capabilities, saw the organization move to a new distribution strategy, one where the producers — once employees — became independent insurance agents.

“We had to start treating them as customers, a whole different approach to the way we do business,” said Suanne Nielsen, senior vice-president of HR and employee communications at Foresters.

The challenges that move presented, and the creative solutions required to meet them, demonstrate a key finding in a new study, co-sponsored by Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) and Canadian HR Reporter.

The survey asked more than 500 senior HR practitioners and consultants, who work closely with senior executives, what issues they see as priorities in the near future.

Talent acquisition and talent management are clear leaders, suggesting the profession continues to be burdened by transactional issues.

“The reason why HR still is bogged down in the transactional work versus strategic work is, frankly, the needs of the business,” said Nielsen. “In our case, the strategy was changing and, when the business changes, things need to get done — hiring, on-boarding, terminations, that sort of thing.”

While many of the respondents complain of unrealistic workloads and increased expectations, Nielsen said that picture is slowly changing.

“HR folks generally lack an understanding of the business and have limited financial skills or strategic business thinking so, consequently, they gravitate to what they’re best in. Those tend to be the things that require the softer skills, like customer service skills and interpersonal skills,” she said.

The study’s author, Dave Crisp, a leadership expert with Crisp Strategies in Toronto, said the results are disappointing at first glance.

“All of us feel that the HR work out there is becoming more complex,” he said. “In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been surprised. The basics in HR are still recruiting and finding the right people.”

This is especially true in an economy short on labour. However, talent management ranks as a more pressing issue than recruitment, which indicates there is a “strategic” drive to resolve these shortages, said Crisp.

“Talent management really talks about managing all of these people within your company — doing succession planning, figuring out how they’ll be promoted and, yes, who’s going to fill in at the bottom,” he said. “But also how are people going to move up through career ladders, and from lateral moves, so they get better experience somewhere else.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that leadership development is just as important, with engagement also ranking as an acute concern, said Crisp.

Other high ranking issues include change management, team development, compensation, governance and communication. HR metrics and work-life balance follow closely behind. Ethics, outsourcing, diversity, globalization and employment branding are seen as less critical.

Many respondents said managing and appealing to different generations is a growing challenge, as is retaining baby boomers nearing retirement.

They also said there’s a greater need for HR departments and executives to build better credibility with chief executive officers and line managers. To do that, professionals face the task of “being on top of their game” and adding value, said Sharon Hooper, director of HR with EDS Canada, a Toronto-based IT firm.

“Unless you keep current and you show the value that HR can bring every day, not once in a blue moon, then your value is questionable,” she said. “It’s being out, networking, belonging to organizations. It’s understanding the best and greatest and knowing what’s going on and translating that into policies or actions.”

That’s difficult to do, according to respondents, who said organizations need to find ways to cope with the daily demands and still keep working strategically toward larger goals. The solution lies in making better use of technology, self-service and outsourcing, said Hooper.

“HR is notorious for holding onto everything because they feel like somehow, if they recommend outsourcing, they’re doing away with jobs,” she said. “As time goes on, everyone will get more bogged down in these transactions unless we decide we don’t want to do this anymore.”

There are some differences between consultants’ and senior HR leaders’ responses. Many regard transactional work as a hindrance and while consultants agree, they consider a lack of good candidates to be a larger problem. Senior HR leaders are also more likely to blame senior management for keeping them from doing their job effectively, whereas consultants call for more support from mid-line managers.

HR professionals managing less than 400 people give operational issues a high priority. Talent acquisition and leadership development in particular are of greater importance.

“They don’t see as much systems stuff,” said Crisp. “Their HR people need to be recruiters plus people trouble-shooters, and so on. Above 400, you’re getting into sort of specialized HR.”

The survey also finds respondents gain their most useful information through experience, followed by networking.

To download a free white paper on this Canadian HR Reporter/SCNetwork survey, including complete survey results, go to www.consultcarswell.com and click on "White Papers" under the "Knowledge Centre" heading.

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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