Last June, we wrote an article – inspired by a post, 10 Tenets for the New HR at – about the imperatives and priorities for HR in our current workplace climates. Our concern was that HR needed to purchase training intelligently – grilling suppliers about transfer and application, evaluation, return on investment, progress measurement – so that had compelling evidence to back their arguments and claims not just for budget, but to have an maintain a seat at we might refer to as ‘The Captain’s Table’. This time around, we want to look at this from a different angle: asking HR to consider what happens when that seat is lost, when the debate continues without them and they have no voice of their own to speak with.

Here, as a starting point, are the words of what was originally Tenet 10:

We’re going to put the “human” back in Human Resources. They’re not numbers on a spreadsheet or “human capital” that can be traded like a commodity. They’re people, with fears and hopes and dreams. And for a few hours a day, they come to our place. We’ll make sure that (along with #1) we remind ourselves every day that what we do is about people. Mediocre people = mediocre business. Great people = great business.”

Hats off, three cheers, run up the bunting and give our regards to the chef – we totally agree. But. If HR can’t get the Captain’s ear, or has to speak through another, who exactly is going to make sure that point gets through the most senior levels within an organisation? In our experience, it tends to be the Finance Director.

We realise as much as anyone that rewarding performance (and recognising it, depending on how your organisation demonstrates its recognition) comes at a cost, but our experience is that many Finance Directors – as a predictable tendency of role that sees pound signs in front of everything – see every aspect of people as a cost. Even ‘human capital’ – which at least includes the ‘h’ word – is an improvement of seeing people as simply an expense.

And even Finance Directors need learning and development, but which department is more likely to argue for a training budget to be at least maintained. If great people = great business is an equation that your HR Department wants to embed in your organisation’s mathematical education, your HR Department will probably need to be heard directly.

Which brings us back to our original position: as the mountain probably will have to visit Mohamed, the onus is on HR to prove – rather than simply proclaim – the worth of not just people, but of developing and encouraging them too. Of course, achieving that goes beyond our original proposed Tenet 11: Buy Responsibly.

To quote ourselves for a moment, if you will forgive the vanity:

Shouldn’t HR’s strategy be more like “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime”? Not just engaging with the business’s top management – a good thing, but there’s always the danger of a faint squeak of trumpet blowing – but with the line managers nearer the ground, enthusing them about developing and encouraging their teams?”

Truly effective learning and development – and its successful transfer and application – means ensuring that the working environment encourages and supports learner before and after programmes and interventions, not just paying for them. It means encouraging line managers to take an active interest and involvement in delivering that environment, and in providing that encouragement and support – and opportunities for learners to put their new skills and behaviours into practice.

That downward voice within the organisation is another vital role for HR: line managers are the biggest single influence on learners. If a culture that’s hostile or even merely indifferent to supporting learners and allowing them to scope and space to practice new behaviours is standing between an organisation and stronger, more sustainable performance, it’s a critical role for HR to address this ‘obstacle’. If a lack of innovative thinking is damaging competitiveness, HR’s ability to recognise this and argue for developmental support can help to make a real – and measurable – difference. If the organisation is consolidating – or being consolidated by a rival, the ‘people’ aspects are critical to success (as we’ve previously discussed: see our earlier posting Making mergers work: people are the strategic imperative).

But if the HR voice at that Captain’s Table is coming from the mouth of the Finance Director, what words might be used? Or is silence more likely? If learning and development is delegated downward (as we mooted with our tongues in our cheeks when we wrote Shouldn’t HR make themselves redundant?),who will oversee arguing for the size of the cake that each function will receive a slice from? And who will keep watch to prevent learning and development activity from raising, rather than lowering, silo walls between different areas of a business. There’s an important difference between ‘anarchy’ (which simply means a lack of government) and ‘chaos’ that usually annoys me when the words are used lazily, but that scenario might tempt me to excuse it.

(As an aside, before we’re accused of singling out Finance Directors, consider the situation if a Sales and Marketing Director speaks for HR. With an emphasis on the external rather than the internal audience, they’ll probably be all in favour of sales, negotiation, presentation skills and communication skills training. But as their focus is often heavily on short-term sales targets, talent development, succession planning, and the development of competences such as influencing and strategic capability may fall victim to ‘tunnel vision’. We would say HR are the best people to run HR, but there’s still the argument about the difference between doing things right and doing the right things – not to mention the one about managing tasks and leading people …)

Yes, IT matters. Yes, Sales and Marketing matter. Yes, Finance matters – it surely goes without saying that we have to be solvent to trade at all. But even businesses that are mission-critically dependant on processes or technology still need the human skills of their workforce: processes need engineers, systems need software designers and network managers – people with not just technical knowledge, but (at the best of these professions) insights into the impact of their work on the people of a business, and the people it sells its good and services. Pay a social media company or a web developer or a programmer, and what you’re paying for isn’t ultimately ‘technology’: it’s the time it takes one or more people to design, develop and implement your solution.

That ‘#1’ referred to in the definition of Tenet 10 at the start of this piece was the other end of the HR equation:

HR has one job: business success. Anything else is useless and a waste of air. If it doesn’t have to do with business, we’re not doing it.”

The task for HR is to get the organisation to believe them on Tenet 1 so that they can then get to believe in and buy in – literally, where investment is needed – to Tenet 10. Good luck with that, as they say …

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