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

Mark Berry, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

HR’s Uncharted Waters

At a recent conference, I was privileged to be part of a panel of HR leaders, discussing current & future challenges they are seeking to address. Topics like employee experience, productivity measurement, evaluating enterprise capabilities, organizational network analysis, and talent market analysis & workforce planning were paramount in these organizations. These topics are very different from more traditional HR focus areas – recruiting, developing, managing, and compensating talent – and require significantly different skill sets within HR organizations. Clearly, within many HR organizations, real value – based on the comments of these presenters – is found in initiatives outside of the more traditional HR processes, practices, and programs.

These opportunities are not unique to Fortune 100 companies. I’ve worked for large organizations, with – literally – hundreds of HR staff members. I’ve worked for much smaller organizations with – literally – a few dozen HR team members. In both settings, I’ve been tasked to provide innovative, impactful solutions to people problems. Some of these were truly uncharted waters for that organization at the time, whether it was employee engagement, workforce analytics, employee value analysis, or other types of initiatives. For many HR leaders today, these opportunities are truly uncharted waters.

One Way to Crew for HR’s Journey

In my journey to transcend the more traditional deliverables of HR & realized significantly improved operating results & business relevance, I’ve become convinced that a great solution – regardless of company size, resources, or complexity – is by engaging third parties as “partners” in the journey. Most typically, these are in the form of external consultants or contract personnel, possessing subject matter expertise in the areas of opportunity. In my experience, the right partners can get me further, faster, and more affordably than I could get by “building” an internal team on my own.

Given the demand from business leaders for innovation in HR, the relative wealth of talent in the marketplace, the growth of the “contractor/client” marketplace, and relative ease of access to talent through networks such as, leveraging of consultants is an area HR leaders should more readily explore. This is particularly true with time-bound projects (as in the case of annual surveys), those with a very short ramp-up time (such as quantifying the impact of a soon-to-launch initiative), or those where business leaders are not convinced of the value of the initiative (this could be anything where there is not clear consensus regarding the enterprise or long-term value).

As I consider the relative value of this strategy, there are several that are worthy of consideration. You may identify others (in that case, post your comments below), but you’re not writing this! To me, the value is realized in contracting because of the right partners:

1. Provide ready access to dangerously smart people.

I’m forever amazed at the capabilities of HR practitioners, data scientists, I/O psychologists and the like. On several occasions, I’ve crowdsourced names of prospective vendors (on LinkedIn, specifically) and have – each time – been rewarded with referrals of consulting organizations and individuals who were well-equipped for the work I was seeking to get done. In almost every case, the capabilities available on the market were far greater than I could have built internally. This is especially true when the talent simply isn’t available in your market.

Granted, you can – using traditional recruiting processes – identify, screen, select, and hire individuals with comparable capabilities. However, I’ve not been able to do this with the speed with which I can engage consultants.

2. Accelerate your days to delivery of insights into warp drive.

With outside consultants, the ramp-up time to insights & improved outcomes can be far shorter. When they have already done – with other companies – the work I’m seeking to do, it’s simply a matter of personalizing it for our use; they have already established & validated their operating model.

Do I need a data scientist who can use structural equation modeling to determine the drivers of turnover? I can secure that. Do I need an I/O psychologist who can design an innovative approach to evaluating the impact of our leadership program? I can find that. Do I need a compensation subject matter expert to help design & implement infrastructure? I can buy that.

3. Establish better control over your project portfolio. Focus should be on fewer, bigger, and better.

I built an HR analytics organization at a Fortune 200 company. One of the issues I didn’t anticipate was the need to “feed the beast” – continually surface projects to keep them productive. The battle became one of balance – at times, we didn’t have enough in terms of resources. At other times, we had more resources than what were required to deliver on our fewer/bigger/better aspirations. It was counter to what I really hoped would happen – having a few (fewer) major initiatives that are sizable in scope (bigger), realizing best possible outcomes (better).

With consultants, you can resource to the immediate needs of your organization. When a project is initiated or expands in scope, the consultants increase in number. When a project ends, the consultants leave. Paying as I play provides me with a better sense of control over my portfolio and my costs. Empirically, I may not be able to prove it, but it sure feels that way.

4. Provide a means to evaluate – on a contract basis – what resources will provide the most significant value to your organization.

I’m a fan of the theory of “try before you buy.” It isn’t that I don’t have confidence in my capabilities as a hiring manager. It is a matter that I can never really know what initiatives will have the most significant impact (or not) and which ones business leaders will want to sustain (or not). When I buy capabilities through a consulting firm, I have the chance to pilot programs, evaluate the impact of these initiatives (both in terms of actual & perceived value), and determine what we need to sustain & what we need to stop. If the plan is to sustain the work and we are better served to “insource” the project, we can do so. If we plan to stop the work, we can curtail or terminate the contract with the consultant as well.

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