Dave UlrichGuest AuthorHr Library

How to Appreciate Your HR Department as Much (or More Than) Your HR Professional

By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization

How often have you heard a version of this: “I like my HR professional, but I don’t really like HR.” (Or perhaps you’ve heard this variant: “I like my Congress representative, but I don’t like Congress.”)

In this post, I offer a third commentary on the recent research from the HR Competency Study (HRCS) eighth round to show how to we can appreciate and transform our HR department) as much as (or more than) an individual HR professional. This eighth round of HRCS is sponsored by the University of Michigan, The RBL Group, and nineteen HR associations, and is performed by Pat Wright, Mike Ulrich, Erin Burns, and Kaylene Allsop. (Full disclosure: I have been centrally involved in this HRCS research since 1987, but I am an advisor and not a principal investigator on this eighth round.)

Why focus on the HR department?

Almost every organization has an HR “department” (or function) with reputation, customers, purpose, governance, and accountabilities. In HR departments, HR professionals come together to design and deliver HR practices around people, performance, information, and work to increase value to customers, investors, communities, business strategy, and employees.  In HR departments, HR professionals learn, have career opportunities, and build relationships.

We have shared the research finding that the “whole” (HR department) has far more impact on business results than the “parts” (individual competencies). When HR professionals engage with others, they represent both themselves as individuals and their HR department.

From the research, let me reinforce two observations about how to upgrade and transform your HR Department. 

Focus the HR department on the right priorities.

When HR professionals come together, what should they be talking about, working to improve, and making happen as a collective HR department?

Over the years, I have been privileged to participate in many HR department planning initiatives. For many years, and too often today, these HR planning sessions are about HR, often with an agenda to set priorities about which HR practices to improve. Hopefully, these conversations are pivoting to focusing on the business. Instead of asking “What are our HR priorities?” the first question should be, “What are the business priorities?” Then comes the question, “How can our HR work support those priorities?” By focusing on business more than HR priorities, HR contributes to business performance.

Ensure that HR transformation is more than structure.

In our work on transforming (or reinventing, reimagining, or upgrading) the HR department, our research finds that an effective HR department is not just tweaking the HR operating model, or structure. In the HRCS, seven dimensions of an HR department deliver business value (see figure 1). And in the Organization Guidance System research, nine dimensions of an HR department create value for employees, business, customers, investors, and communities (see figure 2). While these seven and nine dimensions overlap, the fact that we don’t have a definitive set of dimensions of an HR department may indicate that HR department effectiveness continues to be a work in progress. However, we found some common messages that should inform your HR department’s transformation effort.

1. Build a business case for HR transformation.

Begin the transformation with “outside-in” thinking. As noted above, don’t start with HR goals but business results. Explore trends in the marketplace to be aware of (e.g., technological innovations, competitor moves, customer expectations, etc.). Define stakeholder value (especially customer value) as the ultimate purpose of an effective HR department. Be clear about business strategies for growth and how HR helps make those strategies happen. By doing these things, there is a clear business case for why HR work matters.

2.   Create a desired reputation for your HR department.

Explore and declare what HR should be known for by both HR professionals and users of HR services. This reputation may evolve from doing the foundational (basics) well to delivering functional excellence (best practice) to aligning with strategy and eventually succeeding in the marketplace through human capability by delivering great talent (employees), organizations (capabilities), and leadership.

3.   Audit and measure the HR department.

Collect data through the Organization Guidance System’s HR pathway (www.rbl.ai or another tool) to set both a baseline and desired state for HR transformation. Track the progress of how the HR transformation delivers outcomes that matter and keep the transformation on course.

4.   Focus on relationships more than roles.

We have an ongoing movement (or even obsession in some cases) to improve the HR operating model, or how the HR department operates, that is focused on role clarity through the structure or design of the HR department. Generally, this design work is how to connect HR specialists (in people, performance, information, and work) with generalists who work in organization units (businesses, geographies, or functions). Effective HR work requires deep functional expertise (specialists) but also the ability to make that knowledge productive by offering human capability solutions to organization units (generalists). Roles (HR design) matter less in achieving business results than relationships. Relationships come when HR professionals (in specialist or generalist roles) work together with a shared purpose, respect for differences, caring for each other, willingness to disagree, and commitment to growing and learning together. When these relationship enablers exist within the HR department, they may extend to relationships with peers, business leaders, and all employees outside the HR department.

5.   Form and rely on an HR transformation team to set an agenda and monitor progress.

The HR transformation team will likely include representatives from all parts of HR, business leaders, employees at large, and external stakeholders. By having broad representation on this HR transformation team, the agenda aligns with business, offers systems solutions, enacts changes, and monitors progress in business terms. 

We found that HR departments have more impact on business results than individual HR professionals. With the right HR priorities and HR transformation agenda, when someone says to you, “I like my HR professional,” I hope you can say to them, “What a great start. Let me help you also like your HR department.”

Let us know (www.rbl.net) if we can help you transform your HR department! 

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