A joke recently cracked at the HR Case Studies Blog for your entertainment. And the answer (no sniggering at the back: the Internet is interactive – we can hear you): “None. But they would like to be represented at the meeting!” Which, metaphorically, is where the ‘next generation HR’ theme – much discussed after the recent CIPD report of the same name – is coming from. And the response is varied. It seems to range from “Hang on, I think I’ve seen that light bulb before …” to a less sceptical response that’s something along the lines of “The light bulb’s not the issue. What they need is a stepladder, so they’re in a position to reach high enough to change it”.

The CIPD report called for an ‘insight-driven future for HR’, where the HR function takes on board wider business issues and can provide what a commentary on the organisation from the hard and soft data available to it. It also encouraged HR functions to act as ‘positive provocateurs’, going beyond acting as partners.  A quote from the HewlettExecutiveTalent blog captures the flavour of some areas of the debate:

HR Director of Tesco, Therese Procter was quoted as saying at a recent conference how HR plays a pivotal role as the ‘conscience’ of the organisation, ensuring values are met at every stage of the process. HR’s role could be seen as the ‘soul of the business’ and the natural ally of the CEO.”

There seems to be an implicit dichotomy here between two outlooks: a business-centric one (held by CEOs and which HR professionals should increasingly share or understand), and a people centric one. The latter could, perhaps, be a stumbling block? One part of the challenge of being actively listened – the challenge HR functions have in gaining and maintaining the ear and the interest of CEOs – to is to have something to say. Given that we more readily pay attention to those who can communicate in ways that use our own language, and address our own outlooks and concerns, one reason to applaud CIPD’s call for insightful HR that demonstrates business and organisational ‘savvy’ is that such an approach is more likely to be listened to.

But communication is a two-way process. The other part of the challenge for HR functions of forming effective relationships with CEOs is to find a receptive ear. As Jackie Orme said addressing the CIPD 2009 Conference,

Central to our efforts to build that strong, confident profession lie two important principles. The first is the recognition that HR is a broad church. One that relies on both specialists and generalists to be an effective profession. And diverse of background – made up of people who’ve been in the profession all their working lives, and people who’ve entered at other stages in their careers, from different disciplines and with different experience to bring to the profession.

The second principle is our unshakeable belief that HR is an applied business discipline, and that business, in turn, is an applied HR discipline.”

For a CEO who is not naturally or personally inclined to give much weight or importance to HR as a function – or HR as an important factor within their organisation – it will be all too easy to dismiss that second principle in a vein similar to the immortal words of Mandy Rice-Davies. Younger readers may not recall the Profumo Scandal, but under questioning during the trials hen the prosecuting counsel explained that Lord Astor denied having had an affair with her, she replied, “Well, he would, wouldn’t he?” A CEO that is not inclined to give greater credence to the advice of an HR function is unlikely to change their tune at the behest of the HR function’s professional body: to the unpersuaded, special pleading is still just pleading.

The March issue of People Management, CIPD’s magazine, featured a series of profiles of relationships between CEOs and HRDs, showing how they can work together effectively. The working relationships outlined in businesses as diverse as Mouchel (civil engineering and infrastructure), McDonald’s (fast food) and the Guardian Media Group give strong evidence of the impact of the kinds of approaches that CIPD championed in their report, which itself acknowledge that – in some companies at least – practice on the ground was running ahead of ‘documented best practice. The following brief extracts from these interviews give a flavour:

There should be a mutuality in a CEO/HRD relationship. Steve has certainly developed my commerciality and analytics. I’ve always had an interest in HR becoming more of a science and less reliant the art, and he has encouraged my curiosity in that area. I’d like to think the values, behaviours and confidence work we’ve done in the organisation has helped develop him too. But in order to get that mutuality you need an organisation that has agility and a complete disregard for silos.
David Fairhurst, McDonald’s vice president, HR, on Steve Easterbrook, CEO

Sometimes I won’t be able to put my finger on why I’m uncomfortable with something – I just am. If I run it by Ruth, she’s often able to identify the problem for me, and I probably go to her for that more than anyone else.
Richard Cuthbert, CEO of Mouchel on Ruth Mundy, director, HR

The great thing about C [Carolyn] is that she brings HR into all decision-making. She’s available all the time. We work on the basis of if we need to talk we’ll talk, rather than having to make up something for an hour every week. When I need decisions, I get them.
Carolyn Gray, group HR director, Guardian Media Group, on Carolyn McCall, chief executive

These are all terrific examples of ‘how things should be’, of course. But there seemed to be another factor in the profiles: these were strong working relationships that had been actively and mutually sought from the outset.  The HR directors all had, or sought to develop as a matter of urgency, keen business senses and commercial awareness, looking to operate pro-actively outside the strict confines of ‘HR’. But the CEOs were all, from the outset, open and receptive to the HR angle. As Richard says of Ruth:

I’ll never forget taking up a reference on Ruth that said “She will want to have a very close relationship with the chief executive.” I thought, why would I bother hiring somebody who didn’t want that?”

It’s a lot easier to win battles when you’re fighting on the same side. Consider one of the more critical voices (though he is careful to admit it is easy to be seen as such when your intention is positive) among those commenting in the blogging world: writing on his Strategic HCM blog, John Ingham commented:

I believe our main need is to understand the opportunities to create new capabilities in our organisations, and to show our colleagues in the rest of the business how these capabilities can provide the basis for transformed performance and competitive advantage.

To gain these benefits, organisations need to put people first.  And this means HR people need to be ‘people people’, or better, ‘human capital people’, as I don’t mean to suggest a return to being ‘touchy feely’ or focusing on ‘tea and sympathy’.  I just think our biggest opportunity to contribute comes from developing a deep insight about the way that we can influence our employees’ attitudes and behaviours.

Yes, of course, we need to understand the business.  Absolutely.  But our biggest contribution comes from being different to other functions rather than the same.”

Just as HR needs to ‘engage downwards’, influencing the attitudes and behaviours of staff from the lowest to the upper-middle classes, so they may need to work – possibly rather harder where relationships and mutual respect have been difficult to achieve – to ‘engage upwards’, while being mindful of maintaining that difference that enables that biggest contribution to be made.

One interesting example of approaches that may increase understanding between the less easily noticed vertical (as opposed to horizontal, function-defined) silos in an organisation is one used by Tesco, with its TWIST (Tesco Week In Store Together) initiative: what is easy to dismiss at second hand is harder to do face-to-face, and – like anything else – it is easy to see HR issues on the ground when you view them close-up.

What I haven’t yet found is an example of a company that recognises it has a difficult relationship between its HR function and its senior leadership that adds a ‘twist’ to TWIST: job swap senior roles in organisational management with senior roles in HR for a week, or one day a month to not just encourage greater mutual understanding but also give immediate context for the conversations that might just arise as a consequence. Sometimes, it takes two: if it takes HR and half the Board to change the light bulb, at least everyone gets a little illumination as a consequence.

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