While the identity and purpose of HR have sometimes been questioned in the past, the future of HR is currently in the balance as it is currently experiencing a “tsunami of change” like never before, according to an expert in organisational development.
“This time it’s different,” said Ben Whitter, organisation and people development manager for The University of Nottingham in China and CEO of consulting firm Tsunami Leadership.
“There are fundamental shifts taking place in HR. Leading organisations, for example, are quickly moving to people analytics and data-informed HR strategies, which are becoming the essential ingredients of solid HR functions.”
The future of HR is about tuning into how to get the best out of people within the workplace and, as a profession, and he said HR is using data much more widely, carefully and creatively to define, develop and market great workplace experiences and the connected business strategy.
“It’s really all about a much stronger and visible impact on business performance, and progressive HR folks are showing where, how and why people strategy affects the bottom-line in a way traditional HR hasn’t been able to – and its adding massive value,” said Whitter.
Key changes for HR
Employee experience is currently a hot topic for HR (as evidenced by recent developments at Airbnb and Amazon), according to Whitter, who said there is intense attention and debate about the quality of workplaces.
“Some companies are trying to get ahead of the curve by bringing together key internal functions, and not just the typical HR stuff, under the banner of employee experience so that they can be much more focused and connected in ensuring organisational culture drives performance,” he said.
“This shift in expectations of the HR function is also affecting long-standing ‘norms’ within the workplace such as performance management, which has been thrown out of companies like GE, Microsoft, and Accenture.
“It’s still clinging on at companies like Google, but it seems organisations are becoming acutely aware that they need to move to more progressive people operations.”
All this combined means that HR is firmly in the spotlight and has an incredible opportunity to become a core part of the business across sectors in what is becoming a more meaningful economy, he said.
“People are now realising the true potential of HR, and CEOs the world over are looking at their current HR functions with a renewed sense of what could be, while at the same time understanding much more clearly what they’re missing out on by sticking to more traditional HR models.”
Skill sets in the future of HR
The traditional HR career and development path is blurring significantly as organisations are starting to recruit people who have shunned the ‘old’ ways in favour of the new, said Whitter.
“Tesla, for example, wants HR people who absolutely do not believe in the ‘old’ HR. They want ‘HR rockstars’ – people who are fully in tune with the business, but also practitioners who utilise data and know-how effectively within their operations to add significant value,” he said.
“This is about laser-like impact in the right places.”
Those well versed in the development of organisations and businesses are being seen as the key to lead HR functions, according to Whitter.
“This changes the career path completely in that more and more HR leaders are coming from very diverse backgrounds, bringing their unique skillsets into play, which can span across a range of functions, and [this] is decent-size step away from the more traditional career routes the profession has been used to,” he said.
The bottom line is that a wide ranging and diverse CV is becoming much more desirable to potential employers than a traditional, core HR background, according to Whitter.
Other critical elements of new roles involve an integration of skills across marketing, employer branding, training, communications, engagement, PR, and community/partnership roles, and other operational roles, he said.
“This is a very different brand of HR leader and a very different brand of HR.”
Taking the step up
HR leaders can take a number of steps to help develop the capability of their HR function, and Whitter said this starts from “where you are and with what you’ve got”.
“For me this means really going to deep into organisational cultures, getting out into the world, learning from each sector and its people.
“The really great HR people figure out a way to blaze a trail within their existing roles.” Organisations are very unique communities of people to explore, learn from and understand, explained Whitter, who said that in reality the challenges that HR people see may not vary too much, but the solutions usually do.
“What is right in one context rarely translates well in another,” he said.
“Those seeking to move into this new brand of HR leadership role will need to become immersed in the business from the get-go factoring in diverse experiences and cultivating a more progressive profile.
“The employee experience is front and centre within this though and securing a skill-set that includes business, data, people analytics, applied-research techniques, and psychology will become an essential requirement within future HR.”
The biggest, most immediate task for HR functions is to move from traditional HR thinking to employee experience thinking.
“This is critical for HR teams and makes clear HR’s role in partnering with the CEO and top team to lead an organisation’s culture,” said Whitter.
“The implied opportunity within this is that the HR function as a whole can become the consultancy of choice within businesses via an in-context development approach focused on the employee experience.
“This, alongside a more intrapreneurial style, will help HR functions seize the future in a way that breaks this support function mentality that holds the profession back.”
Whitter said the new economy needs leading-edge and progressive HR functions more than ever before, and predicted the new HR will not be a business partner and will not be fighting for a ‘seat at the table’.
“All that will fade away. HR has the opportunity to become so much more – a true business leader, and I challenge all HR professionals to make this so,” he said.
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