“All too often, I fear, our focus as a profession is to either do (or improve upon) what’s always been done or to proffer up new programs or practices because other “successful” companies are doing the same.” – Mark Berry


Taking Stock of the Situation

In every organization I’ve worked, I inherited a challenge left by my predecessor – getting the organization to think and interact differently with human resources.

Most typically, business leaders have been accustomed to a more transactional type of human resource function, focused primarily on the standard fare of “hire to retire” – staffing, compensation and benefits administration, rudimentary talent processes, and reactive employee relations. In these situations, their expectation was for HR to continue to do much of what it had always done – hire, pay, administer, fire, or retire. In a few cases, senior executives were looking for something different – integrated talent management, employee engagement, or the like. In those cases, leaders’ expectations were for progressive programs – often described in hushed tones not intended for the ears of HR personnel as HR’s flavor of the month. Unfortunately, many of these were little more than populist programs, geared to make people feel good with little evidence of improved business outcomes.

So what is the “challenge?” Are these the types of things HR professional do? Simple answer, yes. With respect to the more transactional processes, HR is responsible to support recruiting, rewarding, recognizing, and retiring employees. There’s also a reasoned expectation – at least in some organizations – that HR will bring innovative programs and practices to the organization. The challenge – for me – has been to shift the discussion from traditional (or contemporary HR programs) and instead on questions more specific to the business, such as:

  • What are the key drivers of success for our business? Which are most critical to our shareholders and customers?
  • Of those drivers of business success, which ones are most influenced by our people & how?
  • Given how people influence the outcomes of the business, what could we – human resources do (in collaboration with business leaders) that would have the most significant impact on the success of the business?
  • Of these opportunities, on which would you place the highest priority (and why)?
  • In terms of viability, to what degree do we have – or can we secure – the time, resources, and organizational support required to be able to exploit these opportunities?

photo of Mark Berry, on HRExaminer.com where he is an Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Mark Berry, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

What did I hear? Crickets…

In too many cases, business leaders are surprised by these questions. It’s not that they didn’t make sense. The business leaders with whom I’ve worked seemed to welcome the discussion. Their surprise and – on occasion – silence was a function of the fact that all too often, HR had failed to engage in any such dialogue. All too often, I fear, our focus as a profession is to either do (or improve upon) what’s always been done or to proffer up new programs or practices because other successful companies are doing the same (hoping that if they were successful for Company A, B, and C, they will also help our company to succeed). Because of how we – as a discipline – have operated, our leaders expect little or nothing in the way of truly innovative programs focused on affecting the key drivers of business outcomes and providing sustainable competitive advantage for our customers and stakeholders.

A Recipe for Increased Relevance and Improved Results

How do we – as a profession – re-frame the discussion? How do we get our business leaders to raise their expectations of human resources and partner with us in the work that will drive the most significant, sustainable outcomes for our business?

The recipe is very simple. It requires several ingredients, including:

  • Time: a limited period or interval, as between two successive events. In this case, it is the time of business leaders & HR team members to engage in the process.
  • Inquisitiveness: given to inquiry, research, or asking questions; eager for knowledge; intellectually curious. This is an extremely important attribute of an effective HR leader. There are few things of greater value than natural curiosity – especially about ones’ customers or clients.
  • Resourcefulness: an ability to deal skillfully and promptly with new situations, difficulties, etc. Every great HR leader is able to channel an inner “MacGyver” – an ability to take the resources at one’s disposal for use in creative ways.
  • Quantitative capabilities: to determine the quantify of, especially with precision. Too often, human resource professional give attention to the first three ingredients – time, inquisitiveness, and resourcefulness – and fail completely on the fourth and final – the ability to measure and substantiate the impact of the work HR does.

Once the ingredients are secured, the next steps are very simple. First, we – HR – engages business leaders in a dialogue (or series of dialogues), seeking to understand the answers to the questions posed above. When we’ve finished, it looks much like the illustration in Figure 1:

business prioritization step 1 544x408px.png

Figure 1 – Discussion & Definition


Figure 1 – Discussion & Definition

The next step in the process is to validate the discussions with business leaders, focusing specifically on confirming: a) relative priority of each initiative to the business and 2) viability of the initiative (given current business conditions, resources, etc.). We start with a diagram that looks like this (Figure 2):

business prioritization step 2 544x408px.png

Figure 2 – Priority & Viability


Figure 2 – Priority & Viability

As we begin to discuss the priorities, viability, and potential impact, we begin to map the information captured in Figure 1 of the process on the Priority/Viability matrix (Figure 2). As we undertake this work, we are doing so with leadership present and engaged, helping us to sight – on the page – where each initiative falls relative to its priority and viability. In addition, we’re also seeking to understand the potential impact of the initiative if successful (as illustrated by the relative size of the sphere) as shown in Figure 3 below:

business prioritization step 3 544x408px.png

Figure 3 – Positioning & Prioritization


Figure 3 – Positioning & Prioritization

Through this mapping process, we continuously seek to confirm – with key business leaders – that the relative priority, viability, and impact (as indicated by the size of each sphere) is right relative to each other. If we view any of these differently, this is the time to share our perspective and seek consensus.

Our last step in the prioritization process is to supplement business leaders’ priorities with additional HR initiatives that will support & sustain what leaders are seeking to realize. This step is critical. As human resource professionals, we are not strictly order takers. We are innovative customer service experts, able to listen to what our leaders want and deliver what our leaders need. These business priorities are – often – the best pathway to introducing enterprise initiatives (but scaled to a much smaller business need for the pilot or introductory phase). The final step in this optimized planning process involves proposing initiatives that will support and help sustain the initiatives business leaders have identified and – if successful – provider broader value to the organization as a whole. Figure 4 below is intended to illustrate this:

business prioritization step 4 544x408px.png

Figure 4 – Adding Supporting Initiatives


Figure 4 – Adding Supporting Initiatives

Once we’ve slotted the business’ priorities and supplemented these will additional initiatives, we can begin the actual tactical project planning processes. This is where the last two ingredients – resourcefulness and quantitative capabilities – are key, ensuring that we craft strategically significant, sustainable interventions with demonstrable outcomes.

The Proof is in the Pudding

Human resources – as a function – becomes relevant to the business only to the degree that the work it undertakes drives improved outcomes for the business. We facilitate this process by taking our key “ingredients” – time, inquisitiveness, resourcefulness, and quantitative capabilities – and applying them to create business-aligned, impactful people programs in collaboration with our leaders. Sure, we still have to provide the “hire to retire” support expected of most HR organizations. Of course, there will be occasions when leaders demand or legacy dictates initiatives that don’t fit handily into this planning model. But human resources’ opportunity – for both relevance and results – is clearly tied to delivering significant, sustainable interventions that demonstrably affect business outcomes.

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