I’ve worked in human resources for twenty years and was associated with professionals in the field for another fifteen. My involvement with HR dates back to the days when the function was called “Personnel.”
For the past quarter century, the profession has talked about the need to become more strategic and less siloed and about its desire to have “a seat at the table.” Yet there are still articles written on how to get HR out of its silo (see here and here).
Of course, the same is said of many other corporate support functions, including IT, Legal, and Public Relations. Every group wants a seat at the table, if only to insure its relevance. Although the plaint is true for all support functions, this post focuses on HR. How can HR become more strategic and less siloed?
Here are four suggestions:
1. Business Acumen — Both Financial and Specific
HR first needs to understand the impact of corporate policies and decisions on the bottom line. Every HR employee must be able to talk the business language of its business. Reading financial statements and budgets is a part of understanding the business, but only part.
Beyond familiarity with financial statements, HR employees also must understand the business drivers of their particular segment of the business. So, for example, if you support a production plant, you should know what drives productivity and quality. If you support a marketing group, you need to know the marketing cycle and critical events within it. If you support a law firm, you must understand both billable hours and alternative fee structures.
In other words, HR professionals need to worry about the same issues that your business partners worry about.
2. Communication and Engagement
Beyond understanding the business drivers, HR has to be prepared to help corporate leadership communicate with employees about the business. HR can offer expertise in employee engagement. But it is important for HR to focus on employee engagement from a business perspective, and not as social director or traffic cop.
The best way to increase employee engagement is to increase employee understanding of the business and of their role in it. HR should involve itself in educating employees about the business’s needs both today and in the future. HR provides the most value when it helps to shape the story that leaders tell in ways that employees can understand and internalize.
3. Collaboration Across the Company
HR can’t be the division that always says “no.” Along with employment lawyers, HR does have particular expertise in employment laws and regulations, which impact workforce management in every respect from hiring to compensation to firing. Sometimes those laws and regulations suggest that managers shouldn’t do what they want to do.
But the best way for HR to be strategic is to ask leadership “what is the outcome you want?” and then figure out how to get there. Risk assessment is a part of any field; HR is no exception. Pointing out the risks of various courses of action is a part of getting to the desired result. But just because risk exists does not mean the desired action should not be undertaken. And many times the same desired outcome can be achieved with slight changes to the plan.
Rather than focusing on what can’t or shouldn’t be done, HR can also help business leaders translate corporate strategies into workforce requirements. What talent will it take to make good on the strategic plans the business has developed? HR must step up to partnering with managers to hire, develop, and retain the best talent for the challenges ahead of the particular business.
4. Integration Within HR and a Customer Service Attitude
In addition to the perception of HR as naysayer, there is also a perception that HR is overly complex and compartmentalized. The great HR guru John Sullivan wrote back in 2006 about the need to knock down silos within HR. In many companies, this is still true today.
While specialization of some functions is important, HR should appear seamless to outsiders. Every HR employee can adopt the military attitude when asked a question—if you don’t know the answer or it’s not in your job description, you can say “I don’t know, sir, but I’ll find out.” No hand-offs from one HR department to the next. No visible arguments between HR business partners and functional specialists—the arguments need to be resolved within HR, not in front of the client.
If HR doesn’t have a cohesive sense of itself, then it cannot present a cohesive picture of people management to the rest of the company. And cohesion is key to any strategy.
HR has been saying throughout my career that employees are the biggest differentiator between companies. If that is true, HR has a critical role as partner in the success of the business—by helping to manage the people who work there.
The first step is getting out of the HR silo and assuming the seat at the table. Don’t wait to be invited. Provide the value, and the seat will be yours.
When have you seen HR professionals work outside their silos as a successful strategic partner?