What are the key skills for the HR practitioner in the future? by Carol Humphries

Introduction

Before considering what the key skills for HR practitioners in the future will be, it is essential to identify the future challenges for the HR service.






WarningWarning: This article was first published in 2007

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The role of HR is changing as a result of many influences. These include: globalisation resulting in increased competition; a change from a large manufacturing base in the UK to service-related industries such as finance; demographic trends evidenced by falling birth rates and extended life expectancy. These trends affect the labour market and have resulted in skill shortages in specific areas. The HR practitioner needs to understand the impact of these factors on their organisation.

In considering key skills, much will depend on the functionality of HR in the particular organisation.  The function may deliver a mainly transactional service or may have moved towards the strategic business partner role, but certain factors will remain the same regardless of model of delivery. In many organisations the administrative function of HR has already been outsourced, for example payroll and pension administration.  

There can be confusion about the role of HR as it moves from one model to another, and HR practitioners can find that they are still heavily involved in the operational role, handling grievances and discipline while new demands are made of them. The expectations of the service and individuals need to be clearly articulated and managers need to be clear about their role in managing people.

The challenges for the future include:

1. Added value

HR needs to be able to demonstrate clearly how it impacts on the business. However, measuring the effectiveness of HR is not easy. Much research has been conducted on whether there is a link between good HR management practice and increased productivity.  In a study by the Centre for Economic Performance, London School of Economics and the Institute of Work Psychology. one of the questions was: “Do HRM practices predict change in company performance?” The results of this survey found a 19% change in profitability and an 18% change in productivity. The report states: “This is a clear demonstration of the link between the management of people and the performance of companies.”

However, increased monitoring and collection of data can be administratively cumbersome and tie up a lot of time for HR practitioners.  This needs to be carefully implemented or it does not add value but becomes simply another administrative burden. 

2. Recruitment and retention

In view of the global and sector changes outlined above, there is a tightening labour market in certain areas. It is important that HR understands the labour market it is recruiting from and also the need to retain key talent in the organisation. 

3. Succession planning

There needs to be a clear workforce development plan, identifying areas which could be affected by turnover or changes to the business. By planning in advance, the organisation is not left trying to cover gaps in key areas. This can also inform the organisation in terms of identifying future managers and leaders. Career routes can be identified and linked to an individual’s career aspirations. This development plan will also inform the learning and development function of HR.

4. Motivation/engagement

If HR is to make an impact and demonstrate that people make a difference, there is a challenge with employee motivation and engagement. There is evidence to suggest that motivation and engagement are linked to certain factors. Some of these are listed below.

5. Employer of Choice

To engage the best talent and keep these people motivated and engaged, many organisations now invest in their image as an employer of choice.  The Sunday Times undertakes a year survey of the 100 Best Companies to work for in conjunction with the Department of Trade and Industry and Investors in People.  

In the 2005 survey it states: “This research clearly demonstrates that a person’s experience of their workplace is a result of their feelings and perceptions in the following areas: leadership (the leadership and senior management of the company): my manager (the local management on a day-to-day basis); personal growth (opportunities to learn, grow and be challenged); wellbeing (balancing work-life issues); my team (immediate colleagues); giving something back (giving back to society and to the local community); my company (the company and the way it treats staff); and fair deal (pay and benefits).”

Key Skills

In view of the areas identified above the key skills for HR practitioners for the future are:

1. Communication

Clear, concise communication – both verbal and written – is essential. Without these skills, the practitioners cannot engage productively with individuals, nor with the top table.

2. Business understanding and influencing skills

I have linked these two skills together as in my opinion the HR practitioner needs to be able to influence the organisation by using examples and information from other organisations in the sector of activity they support.  This requires not only a sound understanding of their own organisation but also wider knowledge of how other organisations have approached similar problems. 

3. Data literacy/analytical skills

The HR practitioner of the future needs to be data literate and be able to question the figures and reports which they read.  The data needs to be interpreted and an understanding of the wider picture is necessary to identify underlying factors which may be influencing what they read.  For example, during a time of change there may be an increased level of sickness absence, in considering employee turnover are there peak periods or is it steady throughout the time period?

4. Coaching and inter-personal skills

HR has a role in enabling managers to be confident in people management, and this should be supported by individual coaching. Inter-personal skills feature in most of the work of an HR practitioner but these skills are paramount in giving feedback to the people being coached.

There is also a need for HR professionals to be able to access coaching for themselves to identify their own development needs.