What kind of role does HR play in an organisation ?


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What kind of role does HR play in an organisation ?

The picture above illustrates the thinking that has emerged during recent years. Many of us have read the books by Dave Ulrich and we may have seen many articles/ presentations  (e.g.  http://www.slideshare.net/zulmohd1/changing-role-of-hr-v30 ) and more books regarding HR role in the organisation and how HR needs to transform to support business better.

Underlying thought being that HR needs to partner with business. Full stop. I fully agree with this but somehow I also see the risk that HR is making a pendulum swing i.e. making a radical move and changing to totally opposite direction. It is all so sexy to work with the business and go along with whatever business wants. The balance in between operational responsibilities and business partnering needs to be found.

I think HR has a unique position and a role in a workplace with objectives & tasks that nobody else may look after. HR must maintain the functional expertise and drive it’s own agenda but align it well with company strategy and the needs of the business lines.

It is a delicate balancing act, taking care of the routine processes and operations defined by company’s annual cycle and being a part of strategic renewal & business driven operations.

I recently attended a HR Morning Coffee event by local training institution (many thanks to Tiina Kauppi and Jouni Hanhinen/ TAKK) and Tiina Kauppi had a simple but effective way to describe the responsibilities of HR organisation allowing it to maintain the routine tasks but still being a relevant partner for the business.

To me it resembled a classic pyramid of hierarchy (similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) where you need to satisfy the needs of the lower parts before you can move to upper layers of the pyramid. Assumption is of course that lower layers need to be defined and fully operational before you can move/ should move to more value adding parts and closer to requirements of the business. And don’t get me wrong, those basic building blocks and routines must exist and need to be taken care of without a glitch. Otherwise the other operations built on top of those will fail if the basics are not in order.

In short the pyramid for any HR operations would look like this, starting from the bottom layer:

  1. HR Basics/ “hygiene level” operations (HR processes & personnel mgmt topics)
  2. Performance management & continuous improvement
  3. Managing change, transformation and strategy deployment

Another way to look at it would be looking “HR roles” as defined by Ulrich:

  • Administrative expert
  • Employee champion
  • Strategic partner
  • Change agent

HR as a function ideally supports all of that but nature of those roles and related requirements are so different from each other that it probably calls for specialization. Segmentation can be done based on seniority levels but also on different nature and preferences people have. Seniority is needed both on operational side and on more business oriented HR (HR business partnering) side.

Some people love routines and predictability where some people enjoy change and business driven challenges to solve. Rarely these qualities are found in one person which makes it difficult to master all of those roles in small HR function. That is probably why small company HR focuses on getting the basics right because they are the foundation to build on. And if that fails there’s very little point or possibility to focus on more strategic or more long term development things because one is constantly forced to firefighting and solving emerging problems.

When the foundation is sound and operational it leaves HR function more freedom to focus on performance issues, continuous development on wellbeing topics or employee engagement or even competency development. But even these can be counted as operational topics if they are not closely linked with company strategy or business transformation.

The true value add and business partnering starts only when operational issues do not cause problems and headache for the line mgmt and for the business. Then the focus can shift to e.g. supporting business transformations, renewal, change leadership and supporting strategy deployment to the last foothold in the organization.

I’ve been thinking can one HR person master all of that? And should she/he? Or would it be better to specialize and master one dicipline at the time since requirements and needed qualities are so different from each other. Is there a HR career path where you need to work your way from the operational stuff to higher levels?

Or do you even need to know all of the basics to be able to support business with change or strategy? There are many views to this I’m sure. I’d love to hear yours!

In any case I think the idea that HR should add more value to the business than just operational stuff is correct and desirable way to proceed. Business partnering would be the ideal state where HR better justifies it’s existence and moves from operational service provider status to more value adding function.

But you can’t make the quantum leap to business partnering without solid foundation and sound HR practices. HR team needs to work their way up with solid performance in HR core capabilities. The challenge is of course that one should not stay there either and sub-optimize all of the foundation level processes and tools to perfection. That is hygiene level stuff – it is expected that it works but it hardly provides the value add needed.

HR needs to come out of the comfort zone and engage with the more demanding HR challenges – strategic resourcing, strategic capability & competency development, supporting change and business renewal, ensuring fact based management and value based leadership in variety of demanding leadership situations.

It is great when company has well defined and well oiled machinery to tackle the annual cycle operations seamlessly and efficiently. But the biggest need for partnering and greatest support to business comes in situations where are no readymade answers nor processes but HR is there as an equal partner to address the issue and to be accountable partner for the business to solve challenges in “HR domain”. Succeeding in this is where the value of HR partnering is measured. Everything else is just an enabler for the success.

About sleppane

Experienced human resource development professional who has a passion for innovation and development in Learning & Development arena. Passionate about Learning 2.0 - integrating Web 2.0 and more with pedagogical aspects. Keen on developing workplaces, practices and processes if they enable more satisfied workforce. Service Manager @ Sovelto for Learning 2.0 concept
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1 Response to What kind of role does HR play in an organisation ?

  1. Great! I agree with Sami. HR must remember all the roles ’cause nobody else takes care some of the tasks if HR doesn’t (!) Business partnering do requires different competences from HR professionals, but it also gives new purpose to HR function – and permission to speak…Isn’t it true, that HR routines and processes are not the main reason to stay in business…

    I also liked the pyramid for HR operations. It important to make these steps clear and remember that it is usually vital to see future challenges in different aspects and domains. HR professionals can offer this (hopefully) new aspect.

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