The New HR: If We’re the Business Engine, It’s Time to Make Some Noise

First of two parts

Here are some slogans I bet you’ve heard recently:

  • We’re a talent economy now.
  • Engaged employees are more productive. 
  • Workforce planning is key to business success.

Here’s one I bet you haven’t: Human Resources departments (the ones driving those first three slogans) are the new business engine.

Continuing to fight an image problem

Let’s face it, as a profession we’re not great at self-promotion. We’re often so busy in HR promoting the work the rest of the company is doing that we forget to toot our own trumpet.

Talent analytics may be a key driver of business growth, but stereotypes take a long time to die and too many people still associate HR primarily as the place they go to fill out health insurance forms.

This image problem isn’t new, of course. Ten years ago, Fast Company penned its infamous Why We Hate HR article, which described human resources as a “necessary evil” at best. A lot has changed since then, though you wouldn’t know it from a recent Harvard Business Review article (It’s Time to Split HR) which derided us as “process-oriented generalists” detached from our company’s business goals.

That description couldn’t be further from the HR rock stars I know, or from the qualities identified in Deloitte’s recent study of high-impact HR teams. These new HR professionals are smart, business-savvy specialists who can sling quantitative analysis and KPIs with the best of them. They know how their work fits in with company strategy and are proud to contribute to overall performance.

Not every company is so fortunate, of course. PwC’s latest CEO survey found that 70 percent of U.S. CEOs were concerned about the talent gap – whether they’d be able to find people with the right skills. Even among HR professionals, less than one-third would rate their talent management programs as excellent or good, according to a separate Deloitte study on trends in human capital.

To me, that just means we need to work even harder to raise the profile of our profession and identify the key qualities that the new HR rock stars possess. That will make it easier to woo great new people to HR, and to give even more companies the power of a great HR team.

The new HR: Here’s what to look for

Let’s identify the key qualities of this awesome new generation of HR professionals:

  • Specialists — The era of the HR generalist is over. Just as in other parts of the modern company, outsourcing and software-as-a-service has automated and made routine much of the work that the generalists used to do. The new HR professionals are highly trained in specific areas, such as recruiting, forecasting, leadership development, data analysis and organizational change. They have a deep knowledge of their vertical and keep the rest of their team informed about the latest research about best practices in their area.
  • Business-focused —  One of the most interesting responses to the HBR’s Time to Split HR article came from Cathy Benko and Erica Volini at Deloitte. They compared the current status of HR to that of how finance teams developed from a support function in the 1980s to the key strategic partner they are now. We’re still in the middle of that process, but it’s clear that smart HR teams are the ones who have aligned themselves with their company’s business goals. On an individual level, that means HR professionals who can read their corporate balance sheets and know where they can add the most value. It also means developing line-of-business expertise, so that they can act as informed consultants to business units, rather than simply giving general advice.
  • Tech-savvy — This applies to everyone, not just those specializing in tech-heavy areas such as performance management systems or data analysis. Even “soft” areas of HR are impacted by technology, such as developing guidelines for the appropriate use of social media and wearable tech in the workplace. HR professionals who can quickly adapt to new technology will likely also be more able to embed successfully with business units moving at an equally fast pace.

Skills development applies to HR, too

This is the ideal, of course. Yes, many HR professionals still start out as generalists. I’m not suggesting only hiring math Ph.Ds or quant-focused MBAs. But a key part of developing great HR teams is seeing where people have the aptitude and interest in growing their skills, and giving them the opportunity to do that.

And that also applies to non-traditional HR hires, too. If you find a great stats geek from another department, they will still need time and resources to learn how to apply those skills to HR.

If this sounds familiar, it’s because this kind of skills development is what you’re already doing for the rest of the company. Don’t be like the fabled shoemaker whose children go barefoot – invest in your own development needs as well.

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