A couple of weeks ago, we published a posting – Chinese whispers and the Captain’s Table – that looked at the potential implications of HR being downgraded within an organisation, or losing its own voice. Like so much else in the wake of a major financial crisis (and the speculative vacuum that is the run up to a General Election that may – or may not – bring a substantial change of socio-economic tone and context), the future role of HR is up for debate. CIPD – through its Next Generation HR research and its People Management magazine – certainly seem to believe so.

Writing in People Management’s 25 March 2010, Dave Ulrich encourages us to See HR as a professional services firm, making the argument that HR is as the forefront of making business “more sustainable in the wake of the economic crisis”. Interviewed by the magazine, Ulrich neatly illustrated the ability of HR functions to recruit staff – and speakers – who stay on message while making his point:

It’s no coincidence that many of the organisations leading the way are professional services firms. […] I think that HR people should see themselves as a professional services group within their own organisation, being a key account manager for the most important clients. Their job is to assess the resources available and use their knowledge to determine how best to transfer those resources to client productivity.”

Bonus points should be awarded to Logica – a professional services firm themselves – for hiring a speaker who would give them and their own HR director, Stephen Kelly, coverage in the CIPD’s magazine as a spin-off. CIPD’s Next Generation HR research project – also mentioned in the article – is one of a number of voices calling for a more pro-active role for HR that extends beyond the internal market, and starts to entwine with elements of roles hitherto usually considered the remit of other functions – Marketing, Customer Services and PR along them. Another way of looking at this is to see it as teaching an ‘old dog’ (no offence) some new tricks, or at least an angle from which to see the world that is not coloured by a knee-jerk tendency to impose processes and cut-costs. Siting the examples of Honda and KPMG in cutting pay and hours rather than jobs, thus retaining talent), Kelly commented:

HR’s response to the challenges it has faced in the past 12 months or so shows that it has become more outward in focus. The experience of previous recessions would have suggested that reducing costs and making redundancies is all that HR is good for.”

While the Next Generation HR report raises many good and intelligent points, it is not the first intelligent or thought-provoking report that identifies how things should or might be without necessarily making it clear how we get there from where we are. In promoting a future role for HR as architects and guardians of organisational health and sustainability, ensuring that culture supports and encourages necessary change, and that staff and customers alike are authentically involved in meaningful dialogue, it paints a promising world. Yet pausing to consider talent management as an issue (albeit one it confesses that it did not focus on), I couldn’t help but notice the following extract:

For too many organisations, it appears that a big assumption is that talent is about filling the pipeline, rather than also understanding how leadership demands might need to evolve. As one senior executive put it, ‘If we are not careful, we are perfecting the art of developing leaders who will be able to run yesterday’s business.”

In championing the role of HR as behavioural commentators, CIPD are keen to see HR functions that are ready, willing and able to challenge even the most senior leaders, even though they are concerned that many organisations pay only ‘lip service’ (their words) to this idea, and that HR departments risk being seen as ‘maverick’ where they do so.

The report identifies the biggest factor in making the best HR functions’ actions relevant, timely and impactful was ‘organisational insight’ – defined as a combination of three ‘savvies’ – business, contextual and organisational. This goes beyond Kelly’s and Ulrich’s point: it is not just that HR needs to avoid its own knee-jerk responses, but also to discourage senior leaders from resorting to their own.

The report is not devoid of thinking on how we get from A to B, although the role of HR in creating new partnerships within the organisation – and particularly with marketing functions, as social media make organisational boundaries more porous (and organisations realize that people outside their walls discuss their brand and their reputation too) – is included. The HR blogs are already exploring these topics – see for example HR Bartender’s It’s About Marketing and Brand for Talent’s Is HR the New Marketing? – and as Ulrich pointed out in his People Management interview, 80% of organisations are either ‘already there’ or ‘moving in the right direction’.

There is much to be recommended on the types of behaviour that the next generation of HR will need to develop and display, and CIPD’s existence as a national professional body and qualification awarding body will be important in enabling this voice to be heard.  But there is undeniably a large education and development ask ahead. As the report says:

The calibre and experience set of HR practitioners who can deliver to this more expansive agenda is very different from much of our current population.”

Yet not all of the necessary attributes are elements that HR functions can put in place on their own. A senior management that continues to see HR in a traditional light will not position the function in such a way that those working within it can make the contribution that CIPD sees not just as possible but vital.

Perhaps more crucially, an HR function operating in its traditional role will not put its staff in a position to gain the organisational or contextual savvy to offer the insight-lead HR role that is being championed by the profession. The view from a silo is renowned for its restrictions: it’s not easy to see round the pillars of an institution, but it’s even harder to see clearly from within them.  If HR will need development of its own, it first needs to make the case for it.

This might not be impossible – after all, making a case of staff development (and particularly development that is aligned with business objectives and the development of leadership potential) should already be a core HR skill. But organisational context is critically important – especially in those 20% of business that Ulrich considers would “never get it”. If your CEO’s response to wanting the chance to win his ear is to suggest you organise a charity raffle, how do you proceed from there?

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