I’ve been in HR now for more than 15 years. In all these years the “strategic” role of HR has not been out of the debate.
Through the years I’ve noticed that this strategic role is complex and intangible. I will not try to define and describe the word strategic in this blog. You could check other literature for that. I am looking for what defines the strategic role. And I would like to answer the question how HR could become more strategic in the future. I am aware it’s not perceived as strategic today.
The management team
There’s a perception that being a part of the management team is the most important indicator for the strategic nature of an HR manager. Only when you’re on the team, you are strategic.
But this is nothing more than a perception. I’ve known HR managers who are member of that team but who were not strategic at all and vice versa. So it’s not that. So it’s not team membership. Could the strategic role depend on the person?
If an HR manager is not perceived as being strategic, surely it’s due to his or her own behaviour. There is one key question. Does the HR Manager have enough power to influence the strategic decision-making ?
Being able to influence is always an advantage. Sometimes it might be necessary. But it’s absurd to limit the strategic power of the HR function to the personal impact of the HR Manager.
So it’s not team membership or the HR Manager’s behaviour. What then is the determining factor for HR to become strategic?
The functions and roles
Dave Ulrich has introduced one of the most influential models in HR. He clearly described 4 roles for HR. HR was to become next to the administrative expert also a champion for the employees, a change agent, and a strategic partner.
This offered a framework that helped HR departments to develop into what they are now. Various people fulfill the different roles within the department. Those people need to collaborate with one another and with the internal client.
The focus on the internal client cleared the way for the HR business partner. This is a generalist who functions as a single point of contact for the internal clients. This function also integrates a change driving and strategic dimension.
So here we were and are.
HR finally became a full function, covering the four roles. And the people in HR departments started integrating the strategic dimension in their roles. The strategic HR role was born.
Was it ?
If all of this were true, why hasn’t the discussion about the strategic role of HR not stopped? Why have certain HR functions dramatically felt the crisis? Why have they been hit by serious cost cutting? Why was HR unable to turn the continuous “noise” about its HR strategy into satisfaction ?
Could it be that we have forgotten the people?
Employees and their managers do not benefit a lot from the fact that the HR function is strategicallypositioned. That’s because there’s a long way between the definition of a strategy and the experience in the field.
Suppose your manager:
- is a member of the management team.
- supports and communicates the HR decisions to the own department.
- is actively participating in the HR decision-making process.
- has the active support of an HR business partner.
Then chances are that
- the implementation of the HR strategy will go ahead smoothly
- you will effectively feel “something” of what the HR strategy is all about.
But even then. Interpretations, convictions, emotions and misunderstandings about roles and responsibilities between the business and HR could spoil the party.
Should we conclude that an HR department can be as strategic as it wants, but that at the end of the day it’s the people who mess up ?
If people perceive the collaboration between HR and their department negatively, there is a problem. People do not experience the HR strategy as intended. In that case HR has seriously messed up.
HR and the company face a huge challenge here. An HR strategy can only be successful if there’s a good collaboration between HR and the line managers. And I’d take it a step further. The line manager should become the real owner and executor of the HR strategy in his/her department. The HR business partner can give support and not drive the HR agenda. It’s about coaching business people towards HR (strategic) decisions. The HRBP should not take this decision him/herself.
The people processes
So the line manager is responsible for HR. And the HR business partner has a supporting and coaching role. We cannot expect our line manager to set up a “mini HR team”. That would not work. That would only lead to ineffective fragmentation of the HR function.
But line managers manage a lot of processes. So they can also manage HR-processes if they’re supported by experts and coaches. Some examples are:
- Performance management
- Outflow of weak performers
- People Development
- Team building
Let me introduce a new process the business could perfectly drive: the HR strategy process.
Control + Alt + HR function
HR Strategy is about the continuous improvement of people processes. It’s driven by the business. HR is no longer a function. It’s a process, driven by the business.
How do we have to understand these processes?
Some examples. Improvement of:
- Hiring. How and where to attract our future talents ? Business people know the market better than HR people.
- Talent acquisition and development processes. Which competencies will we need within 5 to 10 years? Business people know the future needs of the customers better than HR people.
- Industrial relations. How can we convince the unions better than by telling them how the business is working ?
- Internal communication. How can we integrate social media in the existing employee communication platforms?
- Retention. How can we use the output of exit interviews more appropriately?
- Team building and collaboration. How can we better deal with conflicts in our teams?
- Leadership development. How will our own leadership have to evolve if we want to stay successful ?
Imagine managers becoming responsible for driving and managing these people processes. They are not only responsible for driving existing people processes but also for co-creating new ones. Of course, they are supported by colleagues and HR.
I think these managers will be much more willing and able to:
- see the HR strategy as their HR strategy
- make it much more concrete for their people.
- transform employee’s negative perceptions about HR into transparent understanding of it.
That is the real meaning of strategic HR.