Will HR be about strategic partnership or operational support in 2028?

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As I look around, I constantly see evidence that we are living in the 21st century. I see people walking in the streets talking on their mobile phones. I sit on the train and watch people using their BlackBerries to keep in touch with colleagues by e-mail. I stop at the motorway service station and see people with laptops writing reports, studying spreadsheets or surfing the web.

And if I really want to see proof that we are now in the Information Age, I just need to look at how the millennium generation joining the workforce uses technology to communicate with their friends.

We are now in the age of Facebook and YouTube, and we have yet to see the real revolution of video communications, which is just around the corner. So it is hardly surprising that the new generation of workers is looking for something different from their work than those of us who started their working life in the last century.

There has always been a generation gap between managers and their younger employees, but now it is a gaping divide that is growing rapidly as we accelerate into the Information Age.

Responsive HR?

So how is the HR function reacting to all of this? Is it leading the way by encouraging managers to adopt different ways of leading, motivating and rewarding the new generation? Is it challenging the traditional organisational culture based on hierarchical principles and driving through radical change to introduce the networked, virtual organisations for the 21st century? Does it champion the use of new technologies to help people work more effectively and measure the increased productivity of the workforce? No, no and no.

Despite the fact that the so-called human resources function now has the greatest opportunity to provide organisational leadership, it is failing to take up the challenge.

If it is truly responsible for the human assets of the business, it should be defining the way those assets are managed to meet the organisational goals. It should be challenging the 20th century employment practices based on rewarding people’s effort and introducing output-based measures to reflect the new world of the empowered employee. It should be offering choice and flexibility to employees so they can choose their patterns of work and not have to fit in with outdated and rigid views of the way work has to be performed.

But too often the HR function is holding back progress, not wanting to rock the boat and guarding against any slight change that might expose the organisation to any risk. So even if a line manager dares to approach HR with a suggestion that they want to try something new, they are likely to get a “don’t set a precedent” or “we don’t have a policy for it” reaction.

It’s not surprising that the HR function is struggling to get recognition for being business partners at board level. Until they become strategic thinkers and leaders of change, they don’t deserve to be there.

Delivering productivity

The biggest challenge for most organisations is to get the best out of their people. Whether they are in a competitive market and need to beat their rivals, or they are public sector bodies trying to get the best value for the taxpayers’ money, every organisation needs to aim for the maximum productivity from its people. So getting the best match between people’s motivation to work and the environment presented by their employer has to be a key goal for all HR departments.

But how can we ensure that what we are offering people in terms of working conditions meets their personal needs? We may pay lip service to ‘work-life balance’ as a goal and introduce ‘family-friendly’ policies, but are we really giving people the freedom to control their lives?

As we move towards 2028, the HR function has an exciting opportunity to be at the centre of a revolution in the world of work. We are already seeing an explosive growth in the desire to work flexibly, not just for people with family commitments but for older people who want to run down to retirement, or young people who want to travel the world. Concern for the environment is already challenging the ridiculous pattern of commuting that millions of people endure on a daily basis. And technology is now freeing people up to work when and where they wish.

Yet many managers, supported by their HR team, are not recognising the signs of this revolution and are sticking to outdated management practices invented in the 19th century, embedded in the 20th century, and totally inappropriate for the 21st century.

The change challenge

So my view of the successful HR function in 2028 is one that spends its time looking forward at the changing world of work and is ahead of the competition in managing a productive workforce. It will have working practices that attract and retain the best human resource (not necessarily in the form of employees), and will be the source of competitive advantage and business success for the organisation.

HR will be the champions of change, constantly challenging line managers to move with the times and understand what people want out of work and the place it takes in their lives. They will be experts on the future of work and, finally, will have earned the right to be responsible for the most critical asset of the organisation: the human resources.

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