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Christine Williams


Head of Global Membership

Read more about Christine Williams

Talking Point: How professionalised is the HR profession?


As the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development prepares to mark its centenary next year, the event raises an inevitable question: how has the HR profession changed over the last 100 years and where is it at in professionalisation terms today?

Compared to some of the newer professions such as information technology or facilities management, HR may appear relatively well-established and mature.
But for those practicing in the field, the drive to be ‘professional’ – and understand what that means in practice – is continually evolving.
In the past, HR was positioned very much as a service function (sometimes as a police service, sometimes as a welfare service) and its credibility and influence stemmed from delivering excellent service to internal customers.
But many HR departments subsequently increased their sway by transforming themselves into becoming the owners of key organisational processes – or in other words, they became process-driven functions.
However, based on our Next Generation HR research, it appears that the next big evolution will see HR morphing into more of an insight-driven role.
When Jackie Orme first joined the CIPD as chief executive, she acknowledged that the profession was undergoing “a shift from a primary focus on supporting line managers to manage people well, to a primary focus on ensuring organisations have the sustainable capability it needs to deliver its aims both today and in the future”.
Shifting sands
This meant that HR practitioners needed to “truly understand the drivers of sustainable business performance, and the barriers to achieving it,” she added.
And our research found some excellent examples of this shift. In the same way that marketing has become a consumer insight-driven function, so some HR departments are starting to offer a unique understanding of the business and its people in order to help organisations find new ways of meeting current and future challenges.
Being able to do so, however, partly involves practitioners becoming more business-savvy and understanding what drives and destroys value or profit within the organisation. But interestingly, another piece of research entitled ‘Where has all the trust gone?’ alsoidentified the need for HR professionals to resist becoming overly servile in the boardroom.
Instead it was crucial that they retain their role as the conscience of the organisation, challenging the relentless pursuit of short-term goals in favour of longer-term success and growth.
The changing nature of the HR profession itself means that ‘professionalisation’ is firmly on the CIPD’s agenda, however.
Recognising that in order for the concept to flourish, the focus cannot be on technical skills alone, we have also defined standards for best practice that focus on behaviour – so that it’s not just about what you do, but also how you do it.  
Our HR Profession Map likewise puts additional meat on the bones by defining what HR personnel should be able to demonstrate in terms of knowledge (what they need to know), activities (what they need to do) and behaviours (how they need to do it).
These standards underpin all of our qualifications and membership criteria and, while neither are compulsory to work in HR, professional membership of the CIPD is now considered to be a benchmark for best practice, not least because of practitioners’ commitment to continuing professional development.
The three ‘savvies’
This maintenance of professional knowledge and competencies makes up the first line of our Code of Professional Conduct, to which all members must sign up, agree to be bound by and be held to account for any breaches.
The code and its supporting disciplinary processes lay out a common set of basic standards with which all members must comply. It also provides a clear indication to both members – and their employers – of what is expected of HR practitioners.
As to the future, meanwhile, our research programme reflects the belief that the role of HR professionals will, over time, increasingly focus on how to create sustainable organisational performance. 
While in the past many HR functions concentrated on process and service delivery, as we move to become more of an insight-led profession, practitioners will need to master three important ‘savvies’.
Firstly, you will need to be savvy about your organisation and what makes it ‘tick’. Secondly, being savvy about context and the market in which you operate will be required in order to understand current and future business challenges.
Finally, business savvy – or a deep understanding about what drives (or destroys) corporate value – will likewise be vital.
As one head of global HR said: “Operating at the intersection of the three domains represents HR done well. I’m part of the management team running a business, with my particular focus on people. We asked our leadership team and they told us they value us most when we’re in that space.”
What it means to be to be ‘professional’ has clearly come a long way from simply delivering the basics such as payroll and recruitment admin effectively. But what our recent research entitled ‘Business Savvy: giving HR the edge’ shows is that professionalisation does not entail being unquestioningly servile to boardroom interests either.
Courage of our convictions
Having the ability to lead, the courage to move beyond traditional role stereotypes and the will to challenge how sustainable business performance is delivered will become increasingly crucial in future.
As we become increasingly insight-driven, the relevance and impact of our work will increase and HR professionals will be seen as trusted advisers, partners and provocateurs.
While it might seem that HR is already at least part of the way there, our experience and research suggest that only a handful of functions truly understand their organisations deeply and apply the three savvies effectively.
In the majority of cases, this is more by luck than judgement and is based on the activities of a few bright, curious individuals. It is certainly not systematic nor supported by conscious systems or processes.
But, as one chief executive, pointed out: “HR has a ‘360-degree view’ of business – I don’t expect this of other functions. Part of their toolkit needs to be ‘total immersion’ (see, feel, experience), but combined with an analytical skill set to interpret and analyse.”
If a cadre of leaders emerges to take the profession in this direction, there is little doubt that HR will increasingly be able to highlight the value that it can add.
Today, much of this work goes on behind closed doors in the shape of the hundreds of conversations and invisible activities that HR people get involved in every day. Creating a language that is able to describe this shift will, therefore, be a vital stage of the journey.
If we are prepared to have the courage of our convictions, HR can truly become an applied business discipline and professionals will be in a position to work with leaders who see business as an applied HR discipline. Perhaps then organisations will finally get the HR that they truly deserve.

Christine Williams is the CIPD‘s head of global membership.

2 Responses

  1. Strong medicine

    Great post John.  In my time at Council on CIPD, there has been much hand wringing about the need to learn business skills and so on but insufficient action.  I think Christine’s post hits the nail squarely on its (round) head, yet it is a problem of execution rather than intention.  Fine words are not enough.

    The medicine is right, the question is "does the patient want to take it?". 

    Perhaps the ‘new kid on the CIPD block’ will have a crack at this before the ‘patient’ submits to 19th Century conditions of the blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm.


  2. How professional is the CIPD is probably a more pertinent questi

    The decision to join Bridge and adopt their spurious ‘insights’ was probably the single, worst decision the CIPD ever made in its very long history of disastrous decisions.  After 100 years we have a ‘professional’ body that agrees that you do not need to be qualified to practice. What sort of profession is that?

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Christine Williams

Head of Global Membership

Read more from Christine Williams

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