Nov 7, 2006

The future of HR, from the past

The article below is a Guest editorial that I wrote for in 2003, I don't think it exists on their site anymore, so this is just for the record.

Heh, I really used to revel in cliches. Of course, there are three years of learning that I would add to this article and also move from the "sage on the stage" tone of the article.

How would you improve this? What would you add in content ?


As the HR function evolves and complexity creeps in, HR professionals struggle to make sense of this new age, and though they welcome it , find themselves awfully short. The old assumptions hold true and yet, the contexts seem to have changed. The skills that they have built up over the last few decades as Personnel became HR , seem to have lost their potency.
The people who are their raison d'etre, the employees, are getting more demanding. They demand more in less time. They demand better service and without the frills. More importantly, they demand better work and find that there is nothing their HR department can do to influence it.

The people who employ HR departments, want them to contain costs, track metrics regarding employee productivity, morale and come to conclusions as to what they need to change/ do better so that they can control not just the bottom-line but also increase the top-line. They want better people to do the jobs recruited at less 'total cost of hiring', they want their best people to stay put and the bottom ones to leave with a minimum of fuss.

And increasingly, the organization's customers want to know about HR policies and how they impact quality of work, because it is becoming increasingly difficult to choose vendors.

What does HR in such a scenario [and these are getting more and more complex and demanding everyday!] do? What path must it tread, what roles must it play, what skills must it gather to excel all these demands and satisfy them?

In my view, HR needs to structure itself differently, to move from the current functional silos of recruitment, compensation and performance management, training, employee and industrial relations to a new paradigm of focusing on projects which are purposes. HR people no longer can make choices about whether they will be 'generalists' or 'specialists' in organizations. They have to be BOTH.

HR's learning curve has to take into account not just today but tomorrow while keeping an eye on what yesterday has left behind. It has to focus on processes, customers, employees and discontinuous change. The question they constantly need to ask themselves is "what if all the knowledge and skills I hold becomes redundant tomorrow? What then?" and build a mindset in their organization where everybody asks this question about themselves.

HR has already been an early adopter of technology but now it has to show how to leverage that technology, not just save time and money.

HR careers will soon become specialized and super specialized. HR vendors will need to offer services like "How to make an FMCG company which is focused on female products a learning organization" These super specialists will offer services that are both niche and yet best practices, what Percy Barvenik of ABB called "Think global, act local" or "How to recruit the best microbiologists who can use technology from across the world". Specialized HR people will work within organizations and yet will be part-free agents advising competition too, as companies lock into co-opetition against competing nations.

HR departments will lose many of the administrative work, as employees will take it into their hands and the corporate intranet rids them of standardized processes. They will soon be able to draft their own salary heads, leave structure and keep abreast of legal trends [all the work that HR does today!]

It's going to be an age of change and lots of HR professionals would themselves find the chasm a difficult one to cross.