What are the key skills needed for the HR practitioner of the future?

Our link-up with Henley Management College to offer a place on its new MSc in Advanced HR Management to one lucky Personnel Today reader – a prize worth £18,000 – caught the attention of management and employment commentator and Financial Times columnist Richard Donkin. To win the bursary, applicants have to write a 1,000-word essay on the following: Based on your own experience and wider reading, what are the keyskills needed for the HR practitioner of the future?

This is a provoking question, so for my homework this week, I set myself the task of preparing some crib notes in the knowledge that the HR vacuum in my CV safely rules me out of contention.

One thing that struck me straight away is that the Henley qualification is a master of science. That seems one mighty assumption given that, historically, the HR profession has been torn between concerns for the ideas of ‘scientific management’ and those in human relations.

It raises a fundamental question from the off: is the management of people more art than science? If it is, the qualification needs to be renamed.

A clue might be found in those qualities needed for the future of HR. Near the top of my list is ruthlessness, as very soon in senior HR management, you will be confronted with the need to cut jobs.

Rather than an outright command, it is more likely to present itself as a budget target. This means that your portfolio of names, encompassing individual lives, their values, ambitions, aspirations, their skills, experience and knowledge, is reduced to a list of salaries plus overheads.

More likely is that there is a list of costs that and an agenda that may be influenced by some underlying business philosophy. Your talent for ruthlessness should equip you to talk figures from the start.

The big picture

Second, there is your ability to grasp the ‘big picture’. This is a useful way to accommodate your ruthlessness. For example, suppose the finance director is making a case for closing your north of England call centre employing 200 staff, and moving the operation to India. Your job is not to argue the welfare case for the UK call centre staff, but to assess the cost of maintaining the existing operation against the start-up, training and projected wage inflation costs in an overseas-based centre.

A ‘big picture’ perspective will enable you to look at the macroeconomic good of raising living standards and spending power in a developing country. Not that the board will care about that, but it will help you to sleep at night.

There may be other impacts. Will the closure sap staff morale? Could it alter the perceptions of your business among customers or potential job candidates? Sometimes there are hidden costs of change less evident in the profit and loss account. Do you know how to measure those intangibles and communicate those results to people who feel more comfortable with balance sheets?

Do you understand the concepts behind human capital? This discipline emerged from economic perspectives demonstrating that educational investment in people produced economic gains. Today, those concepts are informing all kinds of statistical measurement, but not in the same way that scientific management focused on efficiency gains.

Scientific management was about getting more for doing less. That created the kind of tension that leads inevitably to workforce failure, either in the form of revolt through workplace dissension, the loss of skilled people who vote with their feet, industrial action, or even sabotage.

More for more

Human capital management is about putting more in to get more out. It’s about training and development within a working environment that offers real career prospects, exciting project work, colleagues who are fun to work with, and the intrinsic reward of a job well done, recognised as such by those in management.

This kind of understanding requires more important qualities than ruthlessness. It requires empathy and insight: the ability to stand in the shoes of those around you and see the workplace as they see it.

If that is proving difficult, then a glance at the findings of Accenture’s Middle Managers Around the World survey should be enough to tell you there is widespread unhappiness among the middle ranks of corporate management. The most widely reported complaint in the survey, which canvassed 1,400 managers in nine countries, was that people felt mismanaged.

The only way to tackle this malaise is to understand the way that work and careers are dovetailing with people’s lifestyle choices. Some people no longer think of their careers as a ladder. Some, in fact, are not even thinking of careers. How can you engage the interest of these people, and should you even bother to try?

This is where your people skills will really be put to the test, because it will be your job to convince a sceptical management that a vibrant, adaptive company is going to need something more in potential employees than the ability to work head-down and pass exams. It’s going to need those same qualities that differentiate the pioneers from those who stay behind.

A company can survive, even thrive, for a while without those who are prepared to go out on a limb. But sooner or later it will be overtaken by those who do. This might, however, be asking the impossible.

Could you imagine a company such as Hoover, as it used to be, allowing scope for a junior employee – a young James Dyson perhaps – to tinker with new ideas in mechanical suction? I can’t. But Hoover has demonstrated its capacity to adapt to the competition, creating what it calls its ‘self-propelled wind tunnel’ technology to compete with Dyson’s ‘cyclone’ vacuums.

Bright recruits

Companies can’t adapt without managers focused on finding bright recruits and keeping them. Cynics might say that the alternative is to let the start-up companies innovate, then buy them. There is plenty of evidence of this behaviour in the latest round of mergers and acquisitions. But some of these takeovers will fail if companies do not have the HR and management expertise to build a corporate family.

Henley Management College is to be congratulated for bringing senior HR skills into the classroom, and there is enough going on just now to fulfil its desire to work on ‘live issues’. It could look at the recent cabin crew dispute over absence management at British Airways. In this case, at least, an ability to see the future might prove less useful than a good grasp of history.

By Richard Donkin, management and employment expert


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