Does HR need to go back to basics?

In the first of a series of articles on the role of HR, Personnel Today asks: Does HR run the risk of taking its eye off the basics by focusing too much on strategy?

Talk to people outside the HR function about what HR does and many of them will say: “Oh, they manage the payroll”, or “That’s where I go when I have a problem with one of my staff.” Ask HR where they stand in the organisation, however, and there’s a high chance they may tell you they “steer the talent agenda” or “underpin the company’s growth by engaging its best asset – people”.

This chasm in understanding is nothing new. Ever since the Ulrich model of business partnering was popularised back in the 1990s, HR has had to manage a tension between making sure the basic, transactional side of its job is done accurately, while at the same time having an influence on how employees help the organisation to achieve its wider commercial goals. Ulrich’s vision was to separate out the delivery from the partnering – but is it possible for an effective HR function to be good at both?

“Most people’s interaction with HR is through something they want or need, and how you deliver that sets the tone for what they think of HR as a function,” says Neil Morrison, group HR director for publishing company Random House. “I don’t think it’s an either/or [process or strategy], it’s an also/and. Why would anyone give you permission to do a big change project if you can’t deliver on a day-to-day basis?

“If you go to a restaurant, it doesn’t matter how good the food is if the service is so bad you go away with a bad experience. HR can lose sight of excellence in delivery because it’s obsessed with the bigger picture.”

Making the right impression

Viki Holton, a research fellow at Ashridge Business School, argues it is important to partake in “impression management”, that is, looking around and seeing what influence you have – but this needs to be balanced with ensuring core HR processes are taken care of.

“In our research we found that you do have to lift your head up above the day-to-day tasks from time to time,” she says. “There’s no point doing a brilliant job if you don’t also have an eye on other things. But there’s always a danger that if you’re focusing so hard on getting attention from the CEO, you’re not concentrating on the day job. So perhaps you’re always at a conference or a meeting you don’t need to be at, rather than looking at what HR actually needs to deliver.”

Of course, in many organisations there will be a formal, Ulrich-led split between those staff that perform the transactional aspects of HR and those who focus on strategy, but Morrison argues all HR teams should embrace a blend of delivery and creativity: “Every person should ‘own’ delivery. Just because I’m an HRD doesn’t mean I’m not responsible for delivery too.”

Morrison advocates hiring a “blend of preferences”, referring to Belbin team roles such as “completer finishers” (process focused) or “shapers” (strategy focused).

According to Kathryn Austin, HR Director at Pizza Hut Restaurants UK, HR needs to get the “hygiene factors” right, but should not make them its key focus. In November 2012, Pizza Hut was acquired by a private equity company and Austin is now a stakeholder and board member, which has forced her to really consider where HR’s priorities should be – shaping the experience for the customer.

“There is basic, ‘personnel’ activity – we have to make sure we pay people – but our primary function is change, transformation and culture,” she says.

An eye on the bigger picture

Indeed, too great a focus on these hygiene factors can run the risk of HR losing sight of the bigger picture. A recent unfair dismissal case, Mental Health Care (UK) Ltd v Biluan and another EAT/0248/12, highlighted that blindly following process should not drive decision making to an unnecessary extent.

In the case, the employer decided to select the staff it was going to make redundant by using assessments that would normally be used in its recruitment selection processes. None of the team conducting the assessments had any experience of working with the individuals who were being assessed, which might be normal in a recruitment process, but not in a redundancy selection. The Employment Appeal Tribunal upheld a decision that this process was flawed.

The judge said: “We are not surprised that the tribunal thought that a blind faith in process – the characteristic “déformation professionelle” of HR departments – had in this case led to the appellant losing touch with common sense and fairness.”

In short, the judge is referring to a tendency for HR to look at things from the point of view of its own profession, rather than from a broader perspective.

Keep it simple

With this in mind, how can HR develop a symbiotic relationship between managing transactional or administrative tasks and shaping strategy? Making processes simpler is a good start, according to Morrison.

“It’s about not overcomplicating things. We’re our own worst enemies sometimes, coming up with complex processes we can’t deliver efficiently,” he says. “So if you have a recruitment process where people need to go through 12 levels of authorisation to come up with a job request, if something goes wrong, you’re seen as inefficient by the managers who are the users of that system. The simpler the process, the easier the delivery.”

Getting to know what goes on at the customer-facing side of the business is also crucial, Austin says: “We took our investors back to the floor in our restaurant in Piccadilly at peak time. These people are used to running multinational portfolios and they couldn’t believe how brilliant the staff were or how complex the business was. The stuff you see [on the shop floor] helps you put the pieces together in the boardroom.”

This lesson is also a valuable one for HR. Getting the basics right is a given; shaping the strategic direction of the organisation on top of that is a realistic goal. It is possible to do both, but one should never be at the expense of the other.

Personnel Today has further information and features on HR strategy.

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