HR Doctor: disconnection disorder

Symptoms…

  • Disconnected from the business, especially the commercial realities.
  • Physically separated from operations so no-one sees HR or knows what it does.
  • Never meets customers, so doesn’t understand what the business is about.
  • Provides solutions to problems that no-one knows they have, driving an HR agenda (often picked up from consultants or at conferences) that do not deal with the real business issues.
  • Benchmark against others – forgetting that best practice irrelevant of context is irrelevant.
  • No-one understands HR because it uses its own jargon.

Impact…

  • Everyone in HR is busy doing lots of HR stuff that fails to make a difference to the business.
  • This results in HR lacking credibility and being seen as disconnected.
  • HR is sidelined when important decisions are made.
  • The danger is key people issues are not taken into account and come back to haunt the organisation.

Examples…

1 While working with a telecoms company in Nigeria, I spent a day at its call centre – the heartbeat of most telcos and a good place to start if you want to understand the business issues. At the end of the day I had a debrief with the call centre manager, and one thing had intrigued me: even though HR was sponsoring my visit, I hadn’t met anyone from the team, so I asked what HR support he received. The manager said he had a dedicated HR business partner whose only job was to support the call centre.

I asked why I hadn’t met her, and he said she didn’t work in the call centre, but in the central HR team at the group head office several miles away – and potentially several hours away because of the infamous Lagos traffic.

2 I have seen a number of HR strategies that include all the usual things – talent management and employee engagement surveys – but make no reference to the business. I recently worked with a global business that showed me its HR strategy. If I deleted the company logo from every PowerPoint slide, I couldn’t tell what sector the business operated in, let alone what company it was.

It reminds me of a speech I heard from Paul Evans, professor of organisational behaviour at INSEAD, in 1993. He finished with the immortal words: “The world is full of solutions looking for problems”. At the time, I was guilty of reading books and implementing the ideas regardless of the business issues. Never again.

Cures…

  • HR professionals should think of themselves as business people first and HR people second. Loyalty should be to shareholders, or in the case of public sector organisations, a wider group of stakeholders, and not to HR.
  • Be fascinated not only by business, but by your business, reading about the industry and spending time understanding where the stresses are, how customers’ needs are met, and how money is made.
  • Spend more time on the numbers; the language of business is the language of finance. HR needs to speak this language.
  • HR must prioritise what it does against the impact it has on the bottom line.
  • Measure success against value creation and the difference HR makes – not against what it does.
  • Question whether there is a need for an HR strategy. Consider a people plan that is an integral part of the business strategy, owned by the whole business and underpinned by an HR operational plan that details how it will make a difference.

Nick Holley is director of the HR Centre of Excellence at Henley Business School.

The HR Centre of Excellence works with members from the private, public and third sectors to change the debate around HR; carrying out applied research aimed at advancing current thinking, and delivering programmes to enhance the quality of business and partnering skills for senior and high-potential HR professionals.

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