What’s old and what’s new

In the midst of the turmoil and sometimes tragedy of the global pandemic, HR professionals and departments have frequently been preoccupied with the above tactical activities. These short-term hygiene pressures may have occasionally pulled HR away from its strategic contributions, writes Wayne Brockbank, Clinical Professor of Business, University of Michigan

As COO in charge of HR and organization strategy in an industry leading global organization, MRM faces a major set of challenges. In light of the emerging post pandemic future, he is considering two dimensions around which to organize his HR activities: tactical versus strategic activities and continuing versus new activities. This article will help MRM organize these two sets of dimensions into four combinations.

Which HR activities are of tactical value that MRM will need to continue into the post pandemic future?
A number of HR activities that have been done in the past will need to continue into the future. Some of these must continue even though they tend not to create competitive advantage. These might include activities such as benefits administration, entry level recruitment, and new employee on-boarding. In addition, HR departments may be involved in addressing work-life balance and grief counseling. These activities are likely to continue. But since nearly all HR departments do tactical activities and do them reasonably well, they tend not to create competitive differentiation. As you can see, these activities tend to be hygiene factors.

Which HR tactical activities must MRM create in the post pandemic context?
In the post pandemic context, HR will need to undertake an additional set of activities which must be done but tend not to create competitive advantage. For example, perhaps the greatest change in a post pandemic future is how work get done. This is a combination of virtual technology and working from home. MRM has had to scramble to train his employees to efficiently use Zoom, MS Teams, and a plethora of other technologies. He has also had to provide training on how to contribute to on-line teamwork. He has had to provide alternative ways of how to work at home with children or aging parents. These are activities which HR must undertake. But since virtually every company is providing these services with generally the same levels of success, they tend not to create competitive advantage. These are emerging hygiene factors.

Which high value-added HR activities will MRM need to continue into a post pandemic future?
In the midst of the turmoil and sometimes tragedy of the global pandemic, HR professionals and departments have frequently been preoccupied with the above tactical activities. These short-term hygiene pressures may have occasionally pulled HR away from its strategic contributions. In the post pandemic world, the basic logic of business remains the same: companies must identify, create, build, and distribute products and services faster, better, and cheaper than their competitors.

Thus, MRM’s fundamental contribution to competitive advantage has been and will continue to be building and sustaining the organizational capabilities and culture that are the foundation of competitive advantage, hiring developing and retaining leaders that will take his firm into the future, ensuring that his firm has the technical knowledge and skills that are required for future success, and creating, leveraging, and unifying a diverse workforce better than his competitors.

Which high value adding HR activities will MRM need to create in a post pandemic future?
The pandemic is forcing companies to rethink key aspects of their business models. The basic components of business models are

  1. identifying business opportunities
  2. building and distributing products and services
  3. making money while doing the first two.

In a virtual world with its stay-at-home workforce, what HR activities optimize the performance in each of the three business model components? First, MRM will need to upskill the technical capabilities of his workforce in areas such as AI, machine learning, algorithmic complexity, and big data analytics.

At the same time, he must develop new ways of thinking (i.e., culture) to create and leverage the new information analytics agenda. Second, he must infuse new capabilities for building and distributing new products and services. For example, in many businesses, covid restrictions have limited traditional retail store distribution channels and have forced them to emphasize on-line distribution. This will require a new skill set as well as a new mind set.

Finally, MRM must help his organization to undertake these activities with greater efficiency. This means greater attention to the reduction of hidden costs and low value-added activities. And it may also result in a reduction in the total number of employees per revenue dollar. This latter issue will be the topic of a future article in Inside HR.

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