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Jan Hills

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Power methods for developing HR staff


Are you using the most effective methods to develop the skills and careers of your HR team? Jan Hills discusses which methods work best and how you can combine these to achieve more results for your investment.

Recent surveys suggest that some 80 to 85% of medium to large companies have already, are in the process of, or are about to undergo, an HR transformation.
Many transformations have involved a move to David Ulrich’s 'three-legged stool' model of HR business partners (HRBPs), shared service centres (SSCs) and centres of expertise (COEs). Others have involved the outsourcing of various aspects of the function’s role. A few more have involved upgrading the HR generalist’s focus to that of a strategic business partner without a significant structural change to the rest of the function.
Whichever form the transformation takes, what they all have in common is significant change for at least some, if not all, of the HR staff involved. Substantially different skills are inevitably required after the transformation than before.
Powerful path

In our work with clients we have found that developing HR staff is the most powerful path to increasing the function’s effectiveness. However it is also the least recognised approach to making a significant change in the contribution of the HR function.

This view is borne out by a number of research studies which suggest that incremental investments in staff development can lead to more than three times the impact of investments in HR technology and twice the impact of changes to HR’s structure. That said, although technology and structure do not drive HR performance as much as staff development, HR functions still need strong capabilities in both these areas to be effective. 
We believe that HR development represents an under-leveraged opportunity in many organisations where the tendency is to invest more heavily in the technology than in the people.
In the context upgrading the HR contribution to the business, it is particularly important for human resources organisations to have staff with the business acumen and influencing skills needed to be strategic partners to the line.
Once the decision to invest in HR development has been made, it is also important to consider carefully how that investment is used. Of the many skill-building methods available, in our experience a few stand out as 'power methods' for building critical skills. 
We recommend that organisations focus their investment on three high-impact skill-building methods:
  • Designing stretch HR roles that provide greater business exposure and personal challenge for staff
  • Internal network building (for example, connecting people with skill strengths with colleagues who need to develop those skills)
  • Custom training
Let's explore a little more about best practice in each of these methods:
Stretch roles
It is well recognised in leadership development circles that giving talented managers exposure to stretch assignments or projects is the most effective way to develop their skills, test their potential and grow their maturity as leaders. The same holds true for HR professionals. Creating opportunities to move people around different HR roles and across HR and the business creates a deep understanding of the breathe and depth of the modern HR function, and develops both technical skills and those needed to work with line clients and colleagues to influence change. Our research into HR careers showed that leading a major change project successfully is a key requirement to getting the top HR role and at every stage of development different types of assignment can create new skills.
A well-structured and well-supported stretch assignment can be one of the most challenging and rewarding growth experiences people ever have. Care must be taken to get the stretch right – too much and overwhelm and failure will likely result, but too little and growth will not occur. Out at the scary edge but within fingertip reach is where to aim.
Job-shadowing of HRBPs by SSC and COE staff can be enlightening and useful. Job-shadowing of line clients by HRBPs can be equally eye-opening. The best organisations plan in these stretch assignments alongside individual’s career plans and are constantly on the lookout for projects and other opportunities to test their HR talent in.
Internal networking
HR people see themselves as poor at networking yet the most successful attribute their network as one of the key elements that has lead to their success. Organisations that employ this method most effectively tend to:
  • Actively encourage networking through setting up internal opportunities such as conferences, off-sites and lunch and learn type events
  • Use technology to help people get in contact and stay in contact. For example, one of our clients set up an intranet portal which allow people to chat about HR issues, share best practice and access internal experts who could act as mentors to others
  • Reward both through promotion and example people who use and contribute to the sharing of knowledge through their network.

Custom training

We see two areas where best practice reaps rewards. The most effective intervention is cross-functional development of the whole HR team at the point of change, and covers the skills in technical HR topics; what HR needs to be able to do to meet the business strategy as well as how HR needs to work with the business and colleagues. This combination is essential for success. An imbalance leads to a technically-knowledgeable HR function which does not have the skills to work with line clients to understand the business, influence and manage change.
The very nature of a shift to a strategic HR model creates the potential for fragmentation in the HR function. Silos can easily develop, as can toxic notions of first and second-class citizenship between HRBPs and their colleagues in the SSCs and COEs. We have found that by taking all parties through a common development process, they generate a common language and understanding of the value of the various roles. This directly countermands the tendency to separate and be at odds with one another as the new structure is established.
The second approach is to tailor the training to the exact needs of the organisation and to reflect their language, culture and the service model they are putting in place. Needs analysis focuses on how HR needs to behave in the future and the kinds of issues they need to be able to tackle, rather than analysing the gap in current skills. This tailoring helps learning transfer back to the workplace as does incorporating methods to embed the learning.
We recommend setting up mechanisms to embed the learning over a substantial period of time. Through this it is possible to design ongoing cross-functional support networks and meeting opportunities, such as lunch and learn sessions and co-coaching pairs. Add to that the use of cross-functional action learning sets, working on real-life projects between development modules and while investing in building the new skill-sets, you also begin to build a new organisation that leverages and values its interdependencies.
As discussed above, the return on investment case for focusing on skill development of HR during transformation seems clear.  Making this an area of focus and an integral part of the HR transformation makes good business sense.
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Jan Hills


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