Agent of change: How HR can become a “cultural architect”

The HR function is experiencing a significant shift in its focus and nature and is becoming more of a “cultural architect”

The HR function is experiencing a significant shift in its focus and nature and is becoming more of a “cultural architect” in some leading firms, according to an expert in leadership and cultural change.

Over the past two to five years, there has been a shift in models of strategic business partners on one level, and centres of excellence with specialists in talent, culture and leadership on another, said Corinne Canter, a senior consultant with Human Synergistics.

“That’s been happening a lot, and more organisations have been moving to that model,” said Canter, who predicted that HR is in for even more change in the coming years.

“Rather than being functional specialists with depth and currency of knowledge in a particular sector, in the future they will be recruited on how they think about things, the judgement calls they can make, how good they are at connecting with other people in the organisation, how forward-thinking they are and how innovative can they be.”

This will require HR to play the role of “cultural architect”, said Canter, who explained that HR is critical to understanding what a culture needs to be in order to be fit for purpose to deliver the required business strategy.

“HR can play a role in enabling that, and talent – recruiting the right people in the right roles and developing them, is really important to this process,” said Canter.

 Talent scouting was an example of this, and Canter predicted a shift towards more open briefs whereby people are not necessarily employed, but HR keeps an eye on the market for talent and implements more flexible working arrangements under different employment structures to keep talent engaged.

 “It’s thinking differently about the kind of processes and systems that can provide a lot more fluidity and ease for the business”

Innovation within HR would become a more important trend, added Canter, who said that organisations need to shift their thinking to become more fluid, agile and adaptable in their approach to management and HR systems.

Most organisations are operating in the 21st Century with 19th Century management principles, with systems and processes that are designed to support a command and control approach to leadership, and Canter said organisations need systems that are much more flexible.

“So a business might be attached to a particular kind of remuneration or reward incentive that has to play out for the next 15 months, for example.

“Even though there might be a better remuneration strategy or model for attracting talent, and even though the organisation might know this, they say they can’t because they’ve already got a system in place,” she said.

“So it’s thinking differently about the kind of processes and systems that can provide a lot more fluidity and ease for the business, and more innovative and broader ways of employing, managing, developing and rewarding people.”

Many remuneration and reward systems are historically based on extrinsic motivation, ie pay for performance, however, Canter said there is a shift towards intrinsic motivation in more forward thinking organisations.

“This is about meaningful work; work that has a purpose that can keep people motivated – even when things aren’t going well,” she said.

“Discussions need to be about purpose of progress”

HR can also change its approach to working with managers in shifting away from a hard compliance role to more of an enabler, she said.

“There are ways of complying and achieving ends in ways that are not so literal,” said Canter.

“I think that’s one of the challenges for HR, to move away from being literal in compliance requirements with managers in what they can and can’t do, to helping leaders work through the problem solving process.”

Canter gave the example of job descriptions, which are like laundry lists of activities and not really about contribution or purpose.

“Discussions need to be about purpose of progress,” she said.

“So this is about performance in terms of moving forward and making progress, rather than the typical performance review discussion around ‘What are you delivering: how are you going?’”

While some principles of managing organisations to make sure people deliver are still important, she said the ‘how’ of this process is changing.

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