The shared-service era is a sticking point for HR

The question most people want answered when they join an organisation is: what are the career prospects? Up until now, in the world of HR, we have managed to give people the experiences they need to make their ascent up the greasy pole.

For graduates, we have arranged placements and given them a good grounding in the profession. For others entering HR via different routes, there are often career development schemes and/or vacant jobs to go for within the business.

What will be the impact on this established order in a shared-service or mixed-economy era for HR?

Take administration, for example. People deal with contracts of employment, recruitment processes etc, which are categorised as ‘transactions’. There is important access to line managers and staff, and we can get loads of ‘soft’ information about corporate health and morale. It is an area of work that attracts individuals and encourages them to go further in HR.

If the service is outsourced, providers will deliver the admin role specified, but their emphasis is on good customer service rather than HR skills. If staff sit outside of the client, what progression is there for them within their bit of the emerging HR jigsaw puzzle?

Other aspects of HR can get ‘chunked up’ into separate boxes. You can have centres of expertise, which move from transactional work into the more complex advice areas, such as discipline, grievances etc. Then there are the specialisms of resourcing, pay, employee relations, business partnering, learning and development and strategy. High performance is achieved by high focus, and success is judged by quality and an attractive financial bottom line (ie, it’s cheaper). With such ‘chunking’ and focus, it can become difficult to navigate the route to the top.

Staff I have spoken to see this as a real issue, and fear that, even in an in-house operation, they will become so compartmentalised and focused that they will get stuck. Their concerns worsen when a mixed economy comes into play. A ‘best-in-class approach’ to outsourcing could result in different specialisms and providers.

New methods of delivering HR are still in their infancy, but surely as we all move on down a similar path we may have to convert from being travellers to explorers?

I want to ensure that we do not inadvertently shut off the supply of our future HR thinkers and strategists, who have the kind of HR knowledge and experience that will add value to the businesses we are in. Is the only career path in the future going to be via the mixed economy, including several specialist and niche suppliers? Evidence from other professions, such as property, has led to a career pattern that involves multiple organisations, so maybe that’s what lies in store for HR?

The problem for me is that I am not sure, in big organisations at least, that the ‘portfolio of careers’ is the best way forward. People should not expect their organisations to provide, nor is it entirely healthy to have, no turnover. But on the other hand, a career structure that effectively drives staff out of an organisation is not so great either.

The trick then must be to find a sensible way of achieving a win for the business and for the staff. The first step is to map out the elements of development and progress, so that we understand the issue properly.

Second, we should create routes where we can offer secondments and establish agreements between the compartmentalised sections, which allow development to happen – for example, in partnership with outsourced service providers.

Finally, we need to put more emphasis on continuous professional development, and provide practical holistic training opportunities for staff.

Failure to do anything will damage HR’s future as a key contributor and potential board member, and turn us all into ‘handle-turners’. If HR can’t find a sensible way forward, there is little hope for anyone else.


By Alan Warner, corporate director (people and property), Hertfordshire County Council

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