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Kate Phelon

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Colborn’s Corner – HR transformation: Are we there yet?


Quentin Colborn

Is HR up to transformation and transition to alternative approaches to business, such as e-HR? Quentin Colborn questions how many HR professionals are willing to engage in transformation, and examines how effective these top tips are.

Go into many large organisations and speak to the HR team and ask them who manages change the best and the chances are they will foist that accolade on their own team. ‘HR is a people activity. Change is a people activity. Therefore HR manages change well.’ Sounds logical – until you peel it back a bit. The ultimate test is how HR manage change within their own function.

Change in HR takes a number of guises. It may be a reorganisation to reflect business changes, often going down the route of centralising, decentralising and then centralising again – often following on from the appointment of new chief executives. Sometimes change is in the form of rebranding, becoming ‘people-centred’ or perhaps ‘business partners’ or even ‘change agents’ – nice one that! On other occasions change takes place to fundamentally shift the way an HR service is provided, perhaps outsourcing support, giving responsibility back to line management or shifting to e-HR.

Whatever the reason for change you can be pretty sure that there will be a fair degree of anguish in the decision-making process. I have worked in teams where long days have been spent identifying what type of function we want to be, often with irreconcilable differences between competing workgroups – often with strong personal loyalties. The one thing HR teams lack, at least in my experience, is a strong change manger from outside the function. Propose an external change manager and in many teams there will be shock and anguish – ‘they can’t possibly understand what goes on in HR’ will be the cry. Instantly ignoring the fact that good change managers, like project managers, don’t have to be an expert in the subject matter. To my mind much better that they are from outside the function, that way you can have a dispassionate view of what goes on in the function. Of course outsiders don’t know the technical detail of how to structure an interview, an employment contract or an appraisal scheme, but they don’t need to! If we insist we can transform our function by solely relying on those within the HR team we stand to loose a lot – as well as our credibility.

In terms of what we do, how good are we at going back to square one and really reconsidering what we do? Of course there are constraints; contracts have to cover 14 points, equality laws need to be recognised and so on. But how often do we hear ‘you can’t do that, people wouldn’t like it’? Do we really want to transform how we do business? In his article Paul reflects on the need to orientate documentation to the Google generation, I wonder how much of what we see now is really written with the end reader in mind? I think we can all find examples of HR jargon that few, either inside or outside the function can read. How easy is it for us though to take the pen to our long-cherished employee handbook and turn it into something that the average employee can understand? Or is there a tendency to make things difficult so we are needed to interpret what we’ve written?

Of course there will be fine examples of HR transformation and perhaps I paint too gloomy a picture, but is there not a degree of protectionism in all of us? And if there is, what type of transformation programme will be required to change it?

Tell me I’m wrong! Let us hear your views of HR programmes that have worked well and produced lasting results for organisations. Equally, if you have examples of where we as a function protect ourselves by creating barriers that need not be there, let’s hear about those as well.

Quentin Colborn is an independent HR consultant based in Essex who advises management teams on operational and strategic HR issues. Quentin can be contacted on 01376 571360 or via “>email

Colborn’s Corner: series articles

One Response

  1. HR transformation – gaining an outsider’s perspective

    In response to your 17th July feature, HR transformation: are we there yet? I would be inclined to agree with your comments on gaining an outside perspective. From any experience in business, be it HR, through to marketing and sales, we can all be inclined to stay set in our ways and develop a mentality where any outsider could never appreciate or understand the overwhelming ‘complexities’ of our jobs. In essence, we like to feel a little put upon, almost (though we wouldn’t like to admit it) as an excuse not to embrace change. Unfortunately for HR, change is not only happening all the time, with the constant raft of legislation and initiatives for upskilling the workforce, but also in a very demanding and public way. As most HR professionals will experience in the day-to-day, people across the organisation, from senior managers right though to employees, are constantly wanting answers on how things are progressing and more importantly, how it affects them.

    Accepting a little help, even if, as you say, this means gaining an ‘outsider’s’ perspective, can be invaluable in making the right steps to take things forwards. The advantage any individual has on not being immersed in the detail of a person’s job role, gives them a level of clarity and perspective that is hard to achieve otherwise. By this I do not mean necessarily paying for contracted help, but looking to employee steering groups, asking the advice of internal comms (if the function exists) or even dividing work up so that people are involved in tasks that they may not traditionally have had much influence on. With all of these you gain a variety of opinions and with the latter, benefiting from an ‘outside-inside’ approach. But what is most important to remember? Don’t see criticism as necessarily negative. Even if you discover your way may not have been the best way, this is how we learn to become great.

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Kate Phelon

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