Global links and strategic HR

The
future role of HR will be less about providing answers and more concerned with
asking the right questions. Alison Thomas explores the new role of the
personnel manager as coach.

In
today’s turbulent world of the global marketplace, new demands are being made
of HR as Caryn Vanstone, business director of Ashridge Consulting, explains.

"We
are currently working with several well-established, blue-chip, global
technology companies. Over the past 10-15 years their business operations in
Europe have focused on integration across the continent. This has resulted in
large, rambling, matrix-style HR functions which somehow have to knit together
to provide a service for organisations that are going through rapid change in a
highly volatile environment.

"This,
together with the increasing use of outsourcing and electronic processing for
transactional tasks, has led top management to rethink the very structure and
role of the HR function. HR managers, long accustomed to being valued for their
expertise, are now being asked to operate as change agents or internal
consultants. It is no longer what they know that counts but what they do.

"We
run workshops to train them in consultancy skills but that is only part of the
picture. What blocks many HR professionals has more to do with an emotional and
often subconscious attachment to being an expert. They are no longer being
asked to provide clever answers, instead they are expected to ask smart questions.
That transition is very difficult for most people, especially in this sector,
where their colleagues from engineering and scientific backgrounds are also
prized for their specialist knowledge. So everything around them is screaming
‘People get valued here for what they know.’ That is where one-to-one coaching
comes in.

"The
role of the coach is to serve as a sounding board, helping individuals reflect
on those moments when they feel they are being pulled in different directions,
holding up a mirror to illustrate how their assumptions get played out in the
choices that they make. The more their awareness is heightened, the more adept
they become at managing their own joys and anxieties as they go through change.
They are also encouraged to think about the experience itself. HR departments
are great at running change programmes for others. Being on the receiving end
gives them an insight into how they can effectively coach and support other
managers through transition.

How
coaches and participants are matched up depends on the individual
circumstances. "Some people need someone like myself from an HR background
who has direct experience of making the transition from HR management to change
agency. Others need their strategic head and business orientation shaken up.

This
is where a former customer of HR, such as a finance director, can be very
effective. Someone who will ask questions like: "What will your customers
think? How will operations react? Is that the priority for the finance
department or is that just your priority in HR?" HR has a tendency to be
self-referencing. One challenge of taking on the role of strategic partner is
to break this mould and become more externally focused.

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