By Annie Hayes, HRZone Editor
HR academic, Skinner once said that the personnel function was just a ‘big hat and no cattle’ purporting the view that the HR function makes a minor impact on organisations; Editor’s Comment takes stock of the criticisms and examines what the future may hold for the HR professional.
The value of HR is one that is often debated indeed the function itself is openly critical of their contribution to organisational goals more so then any other profession.
As reported in People Management and Development by Marchington and Wilkinson, theorists, Guest and Hoque have suggested three reasons why this self-analysis has reached such proportions.
Firstly, they say the history and emergence of the profession has put it in an ambiguous position. Historically organisations and academics have held opposing views about the purpose of the function. Should HR be concerned with welfare or efficiency, intermediary or managerial control for example?
Secondly UK national culture has traditionally showed ambivalence for people management issues placing more focus, energy and importance on financial control and short-termism at times to the neglect of longer-term human resource development considerations.
Thirdly, UK Plc has always been sceptical about the value of HR because the contribution is often intangible with the benefits difficult to quantify. This is largely because the role works closely with line managers making HR effectiveness dependent upon them to put systems and policies into effect.
With this background of self-doubt and ambiguity of purpose in mind it is understandable that the HR function often receives a bad press.
One of the biggest criticisms is that far from being a business partner, HR fulfils a predominantly administrative role.
If this is the case, HR departments are in danger of extinction as employee self-service and outsourcing takes off.
Mary Sue Rogers, Human Capital champion at IBM Business Consulting Services seems to think a danger is lurking.
Reported in People Management magazine this month she said: “If you break down the HR department into its core activities, it is surprisingly easy to see how an unreformed HR function that is not adding anything to the business beyond admin-based tasks could be dismantled without anyone noticing.”
However, she goes onto say that if HR is being dominated by administration and has more to offer then paper-pushing, outsourcing those functions or introducing employee self-service solutions should not be seen as a threat but as an opportunity.
This stripping out of non-core functions, can thus allow HR to focus on the important role of strategic people development.
Frank Beechinor, CEO of Vizual Business Tools supports this view: “The HR Director’s role has changed beyond recognition – some may even say it is now redundant. Many facets of the HR role are being devolved to the employees to create a ‘self-service’ environment. This should be seen as an opportunity as it clears the way for the re-emergence of an HR function that actually adds value to the business.”
Professional body, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development disagree, however with the view that the function is under threat. Speaking to HRZone, Duncan Brown, Assistant Director General said: “Our research shows that the scope of HR outsourcing has been exaggerated. The whole strategic HR business partnering model relies on freeing up the time of HR people to play a more proactive business related role and that requires efficient HR administration to get information on how effective people management is in the organisation.
“Heads of HR want to spend time on developing HR strategy feeding this into key business issues, but they actually have to spend their time reactively on administration. Rather then a threat we see it as a critical part of the way forward.”
Strategic hands-on HRM, however, is a dream for many HR departments who don’t even get close to getting a seat in the boardroom. Evidence suggests that a business partner role is enhanced when an HR director can bring both HR and operational expertise to the table. In other words, businesses require senior HR professionals to make a contribution to the business first with HR issues coming in as a second priority.
Indeed most HR managers would cite the best route to the boardroom as being the ‘zigzagging approach’. That is professionals who have undertaken periods of time in general or line management before reverting to HR specialism.
The future success of the HR function seems to therefore lie in aligning the role with strategic decision-making. The challenge will be for HR professionals to develop new ways to assess and develop the skills and talent in an organisation and ensure these match the businesses strategic long-term needs.
Appropriate measures also need to be examined. In 2001 the IRS Guide to Benchmarking the HR Function presented data from 80 organisations which showed that the most widely used measure were ‘levels of staff turnover’ used by 80% of organisations. While absence rates were used by 74% and employee attitude surveys by 68%.
The HR function must be careful therefore to adopt quantifiable measures that hold meaning. For example, staff turnover levels may be explained by a number of reasons not only the success of the HR department just as absence rates can vary according to the way in which it is measured and reported.
The ambiguous and continuously changing nature of the HR function has exposed it to criticism. The situation is made worse by the trend for employee self-service and outsourcing of administration together with often inappropriate measurements of success and the tendency to seek quantitative assessments of HR work which are often too simplistic and meaningless.
With this in mind many have questioned what the future holds for the HR professional. The answer is for HR to take up the challenge and start making the ‘business partner’ dream a reality by making improvements in the bottom line and adding value through strategic HRM. In this way the HR function can rescue itself from redundancy.