Resources: Blog Post

July 3, 2015

Is HR dead or alive?

Plant growing You may have seen the July/ August edition of the Harvard Business Review – apparently it’s time to blow up HR and build something new.

Harvard Business Review July AugustRather than taking such a direct attack on HR personally, I urge you to celebrate the fact that such prestigious publications are dedicating so much print to our precious profession. As Phineas Barnum, the American showman and circus owner once said, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity!”

But what do these articles say? To be honest, it’s not pretty reading. They point to CEOs having human capital as one of their top challenges, but then ranking HR as their 8th or 9th most important function. They suggest HR is at a crisis point. A crisis of identity, confidence and credibility.

In one article, Peter Cappelli argues that people don’t like HR because people, “don’t told like being told how to behave.” He goes on to say, “HR makes us perform tasks we dislike, such as documenting problems with employees. And it prevents us from doing what we want, such as hiring someone we ‘just know’ is a good fit. Its directives affect every person in the organization, right up to the top, every single day’.

In the same edition, Ram Charan argues that HR needs to make the same leap as Finance and become a true partner to the CEO. Many of you will remember Charan’s earlier HBR article in 2014, when he argued that it was time to, “say good-bye to the Department of Human Resources,” and split it in to two strands: one focused on HR – Administration, and the other focused on HR – Leadership and Organization, which is responsible for improving people capabilities.

Perhaps HR is dead. Perhaps it is time to put us down so we can be reincarnated as a new force of power in modern organizations.

Some argue HR just needs a name change to something more contemporary, such as People and Culture – but for me that isn’t enough. What we do need to do is dust ourselves off, be confident, take a good look around our businesses and learn a few new tricks from some of our colleagues. We need to make sure we are fully prepared to consistently play the critical role that organizations need us to play.

1. Deliver for your customer by learning from sales and marketing

I’ve been lucky to work with some amazing sales and marketing people and they’re a bright bunch that we can learn a thing or two from. They focus on identifying what a customer wants and needs, developing relevant propositions, influencing them to “buy,” and then measuring the effectiveness of what they have done so they can improve it for next time. Sounds simple, but how often do we follow those steps in HR when we are coming up our latest people initiative? How often do we stop and ask what our people really want or need rather than prescribing our metaphorical medicine that we know will make them better?

2. Build better business cases by learning from finance

Charan argues to have the CHRO as a true partner, “the CEO should create a triumvirate at the top of the corporation that includes both the CFO and the CHRO.” He calls this the G3. So what better time than to learn from our bean-counting colleagues in finance? Our ability to influence based on relationships and charm has only taken us so far. These days our peers are looking for much more rigor in our analysis and our business cases, so in order for our ideas to be taken seriously, we need to produce more of what the best CFOS demand – evidence of the results!

3. Build an efficient and lean HR team by learning from operations

I don’t think many “typical” organizations are going to heed Charan’s advice and split the CHRO role in to two – not that I completely disagree with the sentiment. Assuming our HR functions stay as one, we need to make sure it all works efficiently. There is a disproportionate amount of focus on the “front of house” with lots written and talked about around the role of the HRBPs. But, if the kitchen can’t get the food out, we’ll be calling Gordon Ramsay for help! We can learn a lot from our friends in operations around lean process, automation and digitalization that will make us an efficient HR function. Not only do we need to make sure the foundation of HR is working efficiently so we can credibly support the business on the all-too-common transformation agenda, but it also means we’re in a position of strength to challenge other functions to optimize how they are organized.

It’s an amazing time to be an HR professional. The challenges facing organizations as they start to get their heads around the Future of Work present us with the perfect opportunity to make our mark. But let’s not rest on our laurels or react to the criticism from others. Let’s take the high road and demonstrate our ability to continuously learn, improve and show that HR is very much alive and kicking.

Is HR dead? Share your perspective…
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About the Author

Photo of Mark EdgarMark Edgar joined RSA in January 2011 in the role of Vice President, Human Resources with overall responsibility for HR across all companies within RSA Canada. Previously Mark was based in the UK as Head of Human Resources within Centrica Plc; a major energy company operating in the UK under the British Gas brand. Mark has also worked for BSkyB, a TV, broadband and phone company, in an HR role responsible for their operational business units and customer facing teams. Mark holds a BSc (Hons) in Management Sciences from the University of Warwick and is a member of The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

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