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The Future of HR is Human.

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.

The Future of HR is Human.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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?

If the Future of HR is Human, this means we need to be more Human ourselves.

Photo by Dmitry Ratushny on Unsplash

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Sergio Caredda

Digital Knowmad | Multipotentialite | HR Leader | Transformation Agent | Future of Work thinker | On a mission to re-embed Human into HR.

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  • Hi Sergio
    I have really been enjoying reading your pieces here... And I have actually saved them up for my end of year read. Well worth it. I'm curious, as a business architecture thoroughly engaged with human resources professionals as stakeholders to my professional activities, as well as in a consuming role.....how did HR get to this point? You've called out the processes and the automation that eventually led to separation from your customers, but that is a lengthy year's long event. What finally put HR as a profession in solid harm's way do you think? I ask this carefully, because as an employee, a consumer who believes in this cause, I've been lucky to even find an HR resource to speak with in the last 10 yrs, much less get answers. It leaves employees feeling very much out in the cold until they are found useful for responding to a new survey. What is the sentiment you face from the executive suite trying to cut the bottom line as you attempt to put the human back into human resources? It's desperately needed.

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    • Thanks a lot, Doug for your kind feedback, and the question. Which is not an easy one to answer. As with many facts, there are multiple reasons for the state in which HR is today. Let me pick two of them:
      1) Everybody's can do HR. An endless number of managers think that everyone can recruit and do that bit of performance management that is needed from an HR point of view, and this is especially common in early-stage organisations. There is a constant under-investment in this professional aspect, and this has been reflected for many years also on the educational side. which did not always provide the right skilled level individuals. In many traditional organisations, this is still the prevailing sentiment: rather than a strategic function, it is still seen as a merely problem-solving unit.
      2) HR is all about HR. If you look at the two other functions that support businesses through capability enabling processes and competencies (Finance and Technology), HR is the one function that is more looped in onto itself. As if the response to the one topic I mentioned before was creating a clan-like communication culture that is not easily understandable by the rest of the business world.

      There are many other motives, but these two are the ones that are still having, today, the biggest impacts.
      Sergio

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  • Hi Sergio,
    Please allow me to share some thoughts here after reading your article. I think what’s frustrated most is we are trying hard to meet demands and expectations which usually is not within our reach. You mentioned challenges ahead are not easy. Challenges are good pointers and keep us moving forward and not be complacent. Growth comes with overcoming what is not easy. I support your conviction that the future of HR is human, which is the most essential element pretty often not acknowledged and valued. Thank you for sharing your insights.

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Sergio Caredda

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