Is there a HR skills crisis? Or does HR have an identity crisis?

HR needs to invest in its own professional development to establish itself as a strategic part of the business (and not just a “partner”), writes Josh Bersin

Much has been written about the skills crisis within the HR profession. The Deloitte Global Human Capital Trends 2015 report shows that HR rates itself a C minus in our ability to understand and drive business results, and companies spend very little on developing their HR teams – fewer than 15 per cent of HR professionals receive any formal development in a given year. So much of the talk in the market is about “reskilling HR” or “hiring people with MBAs” and teaching HR professionals skills like analytics, modelling and behavioural economics.

There’s no question that the world of HR is a rapidly changing space. Working full time as an analyst and researcher in this profession, I see an ever-growing list of new topics, new technologies and new management trends to track. New disciplines like behavioural economics, predictive analytics and design thinking are creating an ever-expanding “competency model” for all the things HR people need to learn.

But are HR skills and development really the issues? Or should we look more broadly at the issues of “identity”, “role” and “positioning” of HR as the solution?

Our research clearly shows that professional development is a problem. Just as software engineers need to keep up on programming techniques and technologies, and salespeople need to keep up on products and customers, we in HR have to keep up on our domain. We need to be vigilant in learning about new trends in psychology, management thinking, technology and regulations. And yes, we do need more investment in professional development for ourselves.

“We must stay current, become specialists and invest time and money to develop ourselves as professionals in our field”

Perhaps the underlying issue is bigger and more profound than skills: it’s how we define our jobs, how we define our role, and how we position our function. The bigger issue may be that we need to define ourselves as “business professionals” who have the responsibility and honour to become the “expert consultants” on the people side of our companies. We are not “recruiters” or “trainers” or “compliance experts” – we must think of ourselves as people who solve problems, using the technical skills we develop and the experience we gain over many years.

If we reposition ourselves in this way, it will become obvious to our organisations that we must stay current, become specialists and invest time and money to develop ourselves as professionals in our field. If, on the other hand, we position ourselves as “servants to the business” or “generalists who help managers” or “administrative process designers”, we may not get this investment, and we will position ourselves as “relatively low-skilled tradespeople” who aren’t entitled to make strategic decisions.

Year after year we see and hear about the HR skills gap. While development is always needed, maybe the most important thing we can do is “reposition ourselves” as valued consultants, establish ourselves as strategic parts of the business (not just “partners”), and hold ourselves accountable to being the experts and leaders that our companies so badly need.

5 key takeaways for HR

  1. HR professionals need to more clearly define themselves as “business professionals” who have a role as “expert consultants” on the people side of their companies.
  2. HR professionals need to establish themselves as strategic parts of the business, not just “partners”, and hold themselves accountable for being the experts and leaders that organisations so badly need.
  3. If HR professionals position themselves as business professionals, it may become obvious to our organisation that we should stay current, become specialists and invest time and money to develop as professionals in the field.
  4. As part of this repositioning of their roles, human resources professionals should also press more aggressively for the continuing education they need to stay current in their field.
  5. HR professionals themselves need to also be vigilant in taking responsibility for learning about new trends in psychology, management thinking, technology and regulations.

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