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Author: Angela Baron

It’s been a busy time for HR over the past couple of decades. Left in a bit of limbo after the heady days of industrial strife of the 1970s and 80s, in the 90’s HR professional were just starting to embrace a new role – that of business partner. Someone who worked alongside the business and for the business.

Trying to keep the employees signed up to the organisational vision rather than having to hunker down at the negotiating table. A strategic role less concerned with the day to day operational necessities of people management and more concerned with developing a framework for managing people informed by the business strategy and looking ahead to ensure the business could access the skills it needed to be competitive. Exciting times indeed!

Have we moved on from the 80s?

However, 20 years on respected HR academics John Boudreau and Ed Lawler wrote an article in 2015, which questioned whether HR has in reality moved on at all from the 1980s. HR they say is still stubbornly traditional holding on to their traditional involvement in administrative or bureaucratic processes rather than getting involved in strategic decision making. This finding is made even more stark by the fact that we have better evidence than ever of the importance of HR’s role in delivering engaged employees who contribute more to business performance.

One of the things I have noticed in my (more than I care to remember) years in HR is that a change of title does not bring about a change of function. When personnel departments started calling themselves HR functions, this did not necessarily mean they were doing anything differently. And neither does the job title “business partner” in itself bring about a change of focus unless HR practitioners both understand and apply the thinking behind the movement to their practice.

Stuck in a fire-fighting admin role

When Michael Armstrong and I wrote our book on strategic HRM in 2003 we set out a forward looking agenda for HR. We made the assumption that HR would rise to the challenge of the large body of work that was being published at that time arguing the case that better, more strategic people management was aligned to and a significant cause for business performance. We were led to the assumption by academics such as Peter Boxall who a few years before had remarked: “the critical concerns of HRM – such as choice of executive leadership and formation of positive patterns of labour relations – are strategic in any firm”.  Now some 15 years on I find myself still reading articles that suggest that far from grasping the opportunities presented, too much of HR is still stuck in the traditional fire-fighting, administrative role of old.

Well qualified professionals to lead the profession forward

And this brings me to the question of what are the big issues facing HR for the future and what are we going to do to break out of being the necessary cost to the business to the greatest value adding asset who is responsible for that one inimitable source of value – people? Needless to say the first issue is that we need a cadre of well qualified HR professionals with the right skills and competencies to lead the profession forward.   It’s encouraging to see that student numbers remain robust, and that bright and talented people are entering the profession. But will they be allowed to use those talents in the workplace. During some recent research I have carried out into HR reputation I picked up one very insightful comment from a senior HR director who told me: “Organisations get the HR departments they deserve!”. By which he meant if HR is allowed to be strategic it will and probably add considerable value as a result. But if HR professionals are expected just to keep costs down and the workforce in check, they will become a process driven admin function.

Building the workforce of the future

So it’s not HR’s fault then? Well just because it’s hard does not mean we can’t do anything about it. Recent headline grabbing articles in the press imply that many jobs will be automated in the next few decades and we are going to see yet more structural shifts in the labour market. This has happened before 65 per cent of librarian jobs have disappeared in the last 10 years and where have all the secretaries gone? But somehow, we seem to have created a whole new set of jobs as well, content managers, web-designers and digital analysts are much in demand. So there’s going to be even more work for HR re-structuring, equipping and building the workforce of the future. The secret is not to be content with being a reactionary function dealing with these changes as they appear over the horizon but to be at the forefront of change. The first big challenge for HR is to plan now for a very different employment landscape in the future. To get much better at accessing and understanding the markets we are in and recognising the needs of those markets in the future.

Learning brings about change

Aligned to this the second big challenge is to understand our role in knowledge management and learning. Knowledge management is far too important to be left to the IT department to build systems to capture data and knowledge itself does not imply that anything is being learned. Anyone can acquire some knowledge but it’s how they use it that is important. It is learning that brings about change not the knowledge itself. Encouraging people to use and share their knowledge in the pursuit of organisation success and to drive organisational learning is a big ask but definitely one where both the profile and the added value of HR can be significantly enhanced. This means persuading organisations of the value of trust, workers don’t share their precious knowledge unless they can trust their employer to keep their side of the bargain.   It’s also about recognising the value of practices to enhance employability, investing in job security by upskilling the workforce to enable people to feel secure in their ability to access good employment opportunities.

A better HR department

And my final big challenge is about how we report all of this? How do we generate the data that will convince business leaders that they deserve a better HR department? How do we persuade them they should give their HR professionals the support and space to develop an appropriate people management strategy for their business that adds value rather than simply controls costs? Well the academics are giving us a hand here by generating some research data to support this idea but it’s up to us to apply this in practice by constantly challenging and reviewing our own practices, learning about the business so we can make a real difference in our unique business context.