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I am passionate about making a difference to people and organisations- and I guess there are many who would like to do the same. I hope this could be a platform to share views and experiences so that we can all grow together and make a difference.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reflections on the state of HR in our organisations

For some time now, I have been thinking about the contribution of HR to organisations. Have there been organisations where HR has singularly made a difference. Or is this all led by the CEOs? And how do you measure HR contribution?
The last few years have arguably been a roller coaster for Indian business- and such tough times are the right environment for HR’s true contribution to shine through. But when I speak to some CEOs, they seem to be grappling with many people issues, and are still looking at HR to make a step change. Moreover, when I talk to employees, they don’t seem to be more happier. In fact, their expectations have been soaring on many aspects, and organisations & HR seem to be struggling to meet them. There appears to be a surfeit of initiatives and processes- and all this seems to be doing is to add complexity. Operating line managers seem to be wary of many of the HR processes, and given the multiplicity of activities, seem to be doing them with less heart and less ownership. I thought these were just my perceptions- until I spoke to a few CEOs. And Shiv Shivkumar of Pepsi vindicated my feelings, in a very engaging session, that spurred me to think deeper, and pen down these thoughts. 
And then there is the other side of the picture! HR is an enabling function, and we encourage line managers to own HR, and that's a reason that we get many views from people on what needs to be done. And when they say HR is not delivering, in a way they are projecting their own lack of success in managing and leading their people! However, given that there could be numerous perspectives, lets explore this deeper.

So what ails HR? 

As I was talking to a few people and thinking through this question, the following came across as some of the key problems facing HR. 

1)      Tyranny of the Process
Almost two decades ago, the HR team in Hindustan Lever consisted of 3 people- a Management Development Manager, a Training Manager and a Recruitment Manager (I am leaving out the Industrial Relations team here). This team did everything to do with management development- through a set of very simple processes, but with lots of rigour and senior management ownership, and they helped develop awesome leaders. Now, HR comes up with numerous initiatives and activities spurred by two prime drivers. First, we in HR have to show some activity in the short term to address an issue, and we launch a hyped-up ‘intervention’. Second, and this is just a hypothesis, is that we tend to address many symptoms and issues, and not really ‘attack’ the root-cause. Therefore, every issue or symptom is managed with an initiative and a process to support that. 

2)      HR training emphasizes process champions
Increasingly, what is being discussed in business schools and in the numerous HR seminars etc., are an increasingly ‘process’ view of HR. Everything is boiled down to a tool, a template and a process. While this may suit an ‘engineering’ mind-set of a majority of our leaders, this seems to be missing the point. The greatest HR contribution was never through these processes- the only way HR adds value is bringing insights on people and organisation to enhance decision-making and uphold the culture of the organisation. In layman’s terms, while we have built a lot on the ‘science’ (at times‘pseudo-science’ as most of it is not well tested and researched) of HR, we have not focused on developing the ‘art’ of HR. Do we even see the value of the ‘art‘ here? We have to train our HR people to think like CEOs on people and business. How do we do that? Not by teaching them competencies and skill assessment frameworks and templates!   

3)      The looming shadows on our credibility
Employees are increasingly skeptical of organizational HR initiatives- unless they see some clear benefit for themselves. Truth as a virtue in organisations is probably becoming rare. Well, let me rephrase this. I think organisations and managers still want to be open and truthful, but the perception of employees is that we are less truthful. Career aspirations of employees are often not dealt with objectivity and honesty- these are normally cloaked in subterfuge, uncertainty and are conditional. This is partly due to the uncertainty in organisations where leaders are hesitant to commit on a future course of action, further exacerbated by poor career counselling skills, a fear of people leaving if they don’t like what they hear, and a lack of clarity in judging people’s potential and future. 

4)      What are we in HR aiming for
I keep asking myself- what is HR really aiming for? While other functions are quite clear- Sales focusses on revenue, Marketing on Market share, and so on, we in HR seem to be all over the place. Sometimes I hear people saying they want to create a ‘great place to work’, and soon they say we want to build ‘capability’ in the organisation, and then move on to talk about building a talent pipeline, and end it all saying they want to be partners to the business! Add to this diversity, culture, new HR operating model and so on- the reality is that HR deliverables have become complex and numerous, and that is probably at the root of some of our issues. Moreover, to be contemporary, we at times tend to go after the fad of the season- the ‘best practice’ of other organisations soon become the hot initiative we are championing! What do we really enable and what are we truly accountable for? If I ask this question of HR people, what do you think we will hear? Are we clear about our responsibilities versus what we think is owned by the business/line managers. 

5)      Asphyxiation at the altar of copycat gamesmanship
The above multiplicity of initiatives not only leads to some amount of lack of focus, but also to a lack of depth in thinking, and makes us prisoners of tools and products that consultants or commercial organisations market very well. For instance, take the engagement surveys. Yes, it is good for every organisation to check what their employees think, and to benchmark that with a set of peer organisations. So far, so good. However, many companies then participate in various ‘best employers’ competitions- ostensibly to see where they stand, and to use it to talk about their employer brand! Now, as a group of HR professionals, can’t we share data on the engagement surveys amongst a set of peer group companies and see how we are doing, and work out improvement actions internally.  Do we need these best employers’ competitions and paraphernalia, just to tell us where we stand? Can’t we make this more useful to us by sharing data amongst a few, like minded peer group companies, and use it to make changes. This goes back to the question- what is HR really driving and what are we accountable for? 

6)      Silos and specialization
Over the last decade, the HR function in most organisations has been through transformative changes- and the model of having Centres of Expertise, Business Partners, and a transactional Shared Services is now the norm. However, reading professional literature and speaking to many people, I sense that a priority of most organisations is to continuously tweak this model and drive for productivity and cost efficiencies, with a big thrust on technology. While this is probably important, there is the risk that this takes the mindshare away from the more strategic issues. Second, the challenge this model presents is the balance between specialization and silos- how do we bring the power of specialization, yet ensuring it doesn’t  end up creating silos in the HR organisation. I guess some of these issues are also influencing how HR responds to the business challenges.

With changing aspirations of people, and changing organisations, we in HR need to wake up. Ram Charan, in the latest HBR, has raised similar questions- though more on the role and capability of HR professionals! There is a need for a big shift in what we bring to organisations. I don’t have all the answers, but there are some areas we can explore. Many of the Silicon Valley companies are pioneering some big changes- but large organisations are still slow to respond.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. There are great HR professionals and outstanding organisations- so I am taking nothing away from that. All I feel is given the big challenges, this is the moment for us in HR to show some thought leadership, and change our game.

But would like to have your views… am I barking up the wrong tree? Do you share these concerns, or do you feel these are not so worrying? Would be good to get some thoughts on this, and maybe we can together think of some possible solutions.  

A big caveat: these are my personal observations and reflections, and is in no way linked to any organization.