Neil McCormick Founding Member HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Neil McCormick Founding Member HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board

Neil McCormick returns this week to the HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board from Australia. Neil has worked in human resources and consulting services for the past 16 years building a repertoire covering human resource management, recruitment consulting, management consulting, talent management, general management and learning and development. He currently serves as General Manager for Talent2, Asia-Pac’s largest HR consultancy. Full Bio »

What’s critical?

by Neil McCormick

In my previous articles (see links below), we discussed Workforce Strategy and the importance of rigor in assessment of human resource activity and the framework of Input, Process, Output and Outcome.  In this article we will discuss the importance of understanding what is critical in terms of delivering these nominated Outcomes.

In discussing criticality let me start with a story from a consulting assignment I undertook several years ago. I was asked to review a particular organization’s HR structure and focus. As background, things weren’t going too well for the HR Department. The team was under pressure to deliver many critical activities for a burgeoning company. The busier they got, the more they fell behind, even though they were constantly adding resources.

We realized they did not have a consistent, agreed understanding of what was critical. In one department there were almost as many interpretations of critical as there were managers. In attraction and recruitment requirements, one manager thought it was critical to fill any open position. Another thought that it meant any senior position left unfilled for more than 6 weeks. Another manager thought whatever he urgently needed from HR was critical, and used the term to get their attention. Inconsistency priorities meant there was lots of activity that didn’t necessarily impact the Outcome the organization needed to achieve.

All of these supposedly “critical” requirements simply reduced the ability of the HR department to focus on the more significant issues. It is very easy, in situations like this, to fall into reactionary mode and become the best crisis manager you can, for as long as you can.

I’m sure some of you are saying this is just common sense. There’s nothing new here! And, you are correct! The problem is that common sense isn’t necessarily that common. It is very easy to fall into the activity trap of reactively managing situations.

Here’s a little task for those of you who are interested. Why not conduct a brief review within your own organization? Ask your managers how they determine what, from a HR perspective, is critical. Also, take note of how many of these answers focused on the targeted organizational Outcome in the first instance.  You may be surprised at the results.

Most organizations I deal with are under budget pressure. Competition is increasing, revenue and margins are under pressure, and expenditures are shrinking. Both Government and commercial departments are under pressure to continually do more with less.

To figure out what is critical, focus on the key elements that will drive success, manage costs more effectively, and achieve Outcomes. Criticality means the importance that work, function, role and capability will have on the on-going delivery of the organizational Outcomes.

A brief description of each is as follows:


  • What work is required to deliver the Outcome the organization seeks?
  • Of this work, what is critical to achieving the result?


  • What functions (e.g. Sales, marketing, distribution, manufacturing, research and development, Information Technology etc.) are required to deliver the work?
  • From these functions, what is critical to deliver the required critical work?


  • What positions are required to support the functions?
  • Of these positions, which are critical to supporting the critical functions?


  • What capabilities are required to allow the individuals to perform optimally in these critical roles?
  • Which of these capabilities are critical to do so?

As you work through these questions you should also ask how the activity should be undertaken and who should undertake it. Consider the three “e’s” of economy, efficiency and effectiveness.

For instance:

Once we have determined what work is required to be done to achieve the desired Outcome we should then ask: Is it economic, efficient and effective for us to undertake this work ourselves or, should we look at other methods of delivery?

Another example may be the review of our strategy to deliver Capability. Is it economic efficient and effective for us to develop capability internally or, potentially source it externally via recruitment or contracting activities?

By understanding and focusing on what is critical to deliver Outcome, the broader organization becomes far more focused with a clear framework for successfully delivering those targeted Outcomes. While this has the immediate advantage of focusing limited budgets on what is truly critical, it also allows HR departments in particular, to get “ahead of the game” and begin to move from reactive management to strategic development.

If you wish to delve further into this topic see my prior articles in the HR Examiner:

Workforce Strategy 101

What’s the Objective?

The Output’s Connected to the Outcome

Criticality and Workforce Strategy

Also read my latest book Lean but Agile, Rethink Workforce Planning and Gain a True Competitive Edge

Take care all!

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