HR must find a new role in Internet age

Profession should take a proactive approach in nourishing, developing and protecting our vital resources

The recent blip in the assault of Nasdaq on the world markets may give HR professionals a chance to reflect on their role in the new economy. But before the personnel agenda is overtaken by events, think about what matters most. For example, where does HR believe it should be heading in the era of e-commerce and the Internet?

I know HR is doing well at the moment, so why make trouble? And, some of us would add, we are not to question “why”; we are but to serve. The point is this: if we won’t come up with an agenda, can we be assured that one will not be found for us?

Let us take stock of the past decade or so. Strategic HR management has been a staple part of our role since the mid-1980s. We have been aligning HR with business strategy. Strategic HR is now mainstream in business schools and HR managers are part of policy and board decisions. The trouble is, before long someone will say, “If strategic HR is really that important, surely we can’t leave it to HR alone”.

The past five years have seen an avalanche of reports in journals and corporate headquarters reflecting a numerical assessment of our contribution to the bottom line. So now we are not just strategic partners to business by default, we can also prove that we actually earn a seat at the board. To paraphrase General Motors’ Alfred Sloan, we are not here to do HR; we are here to make money. By the same token, if HR doesn’t deliver profits, it presumably becomes redundant.

Now we are into the dotcoms and HR is looking for new masters to serve. Or should it? Here is a novel idea: how about HR coming up with its own agenda for a change? If people are the ultimate competitive asset in the era of the knowledge economy, why shouldn’t HR call the shots? We need a platform first, a mission and catchwords, the usual package – and I would like to propose one.

Environment issues have risen up the agenda since the ozone layer turned out to be more than just hot air. So let us imagine HR as an environmental project, which permits us to take an axiomatic position, namely that their welfare is paramount and that sometimes they come even before profits. Therefore our role as HR professionals is to nourish, develop, protect and advocate this scarce and vulnerable resource. I believe this is not only cool but also fashionable, with all the talk about emotional intelligence and feminine leadership.

In this new role we would guard human rights in the workplace, help people develop their careers (inside as well as outside the organisation), act as honest broker between line management and employees and advise top management on real investment in people.

I believe it was management guru Peter Drucker who taught us the orchestral metaphor for organisation. In the old “philharmonic” economy, HR had a clear role and recognised mandate within a well formed functional structure. The e-economy, on the other hand, has been portrayed as a jazz band with individual players improvising in ever-changing harmonies. So let’s take five and figure out where we want to come in – who knows, perhaps the world will start dancing to our tune.


 

Yochanan Altman is research professor of international HR management at the University of North London business school and an independent HR consultant

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