For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been reasoning (again I would say) on the role and (human) future of HR. I’ve been especially challenged by the idea that “HR is a job for losers“. I have tried to understand where we can still make the difference, which around (re)taking ownership of the relationship between the “work” and the way the organisation uses it.
I think I’ve now come to an (initial) conclusion, and this is probably going to be the area in which I will be reasoning most in the future. I genuinely think some part of our profession has moved in the wrong direction in the past two decades, chasing a path that has derailed us from the real objective of our job. And in a moment where technology becomes even more present, we must take an entirely new different approach.
I know I’m not the first using this concept. The first article I could trace on The Human Future of HR dated back to 2012 and was focused on Diversity. But it is in last months that I’ve heard this concept coming back. Up to today, when even Josh Bersin has published an article titled: The New Role Of CHRO: Making Work More Human. The challenge, however, is not (just) reshaping some aspects of our role, but challenge the way we see ourselves within our organisation.
The challenges to overcome for a Human Future of HR
When reasoning with colleagues and peers, I see three challenges in the way we operate.
- We have detached ourselves from the fundamentals. The three most essential functions that HR should preside in an organisation (payroll, labour law compliance and organisational design) are, in most cases, outsourced. Most HR Business Partners see the idea of working on a payroll project “uninteresting”. Yet, paying our employees correctly is probably the most critical element we’re valued for. Labor Law and Employee Relations are becoming more and more the domain of niche experts, and Org Design is usually done by consultants that intervene as parts of assignments that in many cases don’t even include internal HR representatives.
- We pretend to own processes we don’t control. If I add up all the time I spent working on onboarding processes over the last 18 years of my career, it would probably get to a size that should make me a real expert in the field. Yet most of these projects failed. Why? Because it’s the manager that owns that process, not HR. Same for Performance Management, Recruiting, Development. All processes where excellent managers perform well despite the HR processes we build around them. Adopting Human-Centric design principles can help, but alone is not a solution for a truly Human Future.
- We tend to avoid people. Let’s face, a generation of HR transformation projects has built a distance between the HR function and the organisation’s employees. We are now well hidden behind portals, responding machines, chatbots. Most HRBPs have been so engaged in ensuring their seat at the table, that the most developed skills in HR today is “managing up”. A lot of front-line employees never have a physical contact with HR (which BTW, makes the role of the manager grow even more), or interact only in the presence of a negative case (ER issue, often dealt with a lack of sound competency, as seen in point 1).
We have done what many Customer Service organisations have done over time, trying everything possible to make ourselves useless. Within this framework, the real danger is now coming with Automation. If AI will be able to substitute human decisions in the last pieces of processes we built for us, the entire survival of the function is at risk.
The only way out of the corner we’ve been getting ourselves into seems to be a structural rethinking of our role. A strong foundation can be built upon the word Human. Let’s use this as a “purpose definition” term for our profession. We should probably think back also on the name Resources, as the process-focused accounting-like connotation it gives is, perhaps, part of the problem.
Re-humanizing work appears to be the real purpose of a renewed HR function that can achieve new standing. Rethinking the organisation of HR means rethinking most (if not all) of its roles. Demolishing the Centers of Excellence that we have created, and that ended up just becoming sterile ivory tower detached from the business problems. Dismantling HR processes we built, which don’t have any validity if not seen through the lens of our internal customer: the employee. Rethinking the need to continuously call us “Business Partners”, letting the business discover the real value we can deliver by focusing on the diffusion a of the importance of culture we can provide, becoming true actors of the revolution that our organisations need in becoming “nimble and agile”, not by cost-cutting, but by reinventing work.
Not an easy challenge. But one each of us should take now and in the future. Not to preserve our profession, no this would be the wrong objective. But to create a new one that will endure in the age of digital maturity, preserving the human spirit of discovery and development. And questioning the ethical aspects of what the organisation does, as it reflects on the Meaning of Work (with multiple types of Work today), and the question: if we automate everything, who’s going to buy our products?