Feb 6, 2007

Future skills for today’s HR professionals

(from an article I wrote for the Sapphire newsletter for the biennial Annual HR Conference)

Foretelling the future is always risky business, and in connection with HR doubly so. That is because HR’s field of expertise could be impacted by various things. Let’s take a look at what they are:

  1. Competition and Globalization : While these are two different words, the impact they have on an organization is similar. Productivity needs to be increased and costs need to be optimized. HR is both an initiator of these changes and also stands to be impacted by these changes, which we shall see in detail later.

  2. The “No Brands” movement: No Brand was the book written by Naomi Klein that focusses on how the big corporations’ “mass brands” concepts are being slowly rejected by the developed world. One way communication and branding is on the way out. Even in the developed world consumers are not seeing themselves as consumers but as co-producers of goods and services.

  3. The Long Tail of production and distribution: taking off from point 2, the Long Tail was coined by Chris Anderson to describe the phenomenon of relatively tiny firms producing niche goods and services that get aggregated and sold using technology like Google, Amazon and eBay. This is giving rise to the workforce of Free Agents (coined by Dan Pink) and Fleas (as described by Charles Handy)

  4. The Creative Age: As the knowledge age gives way to the age of right brain creativity, artistic, empathetic, a new class of professions will rise to prominence.

The skills that HR needs to have to meet the challenges:

  1. The skills to translate HR deliverables into business metrics.

    1. Too often HR people focus their deliverables in a way that does not make sense to line business. Let’s face it. The language of business is money, so if HR is only seen as a black hole for money, it will earn the sobriquet of a ‘cost centre’ and get delegated to the back benches. Hence the ability to talk in the language of finance is a critical skill for HR. Relevant people skills are the differentiating factor in most service companies. HR people must understand how to quantify those skills, how to keep track of them, how to measure them and how to upgrade them. Does a HR manager of a Consumer goods company understand what’s the difference between a great Brand Manager and an average Brand Manager? And how to measure them? Does he understand what the driving needs of the great Brand Manager are and how they are different from the average ones? And, does he understand if the policies of the organization support the needs of the average BM or the star BM?

    2. The HR professional must not just be concerned with her internal customers but also with the external customers. The focus must be on the way they can together add value to the customer who keeps the organization in business. Only when HR professionals understand and demonstrate how they can add value to end customers will they be considered strategic partners of the business.

  2. The Skills to facilitate change

    1. All said and done, HR professionals mostly lack the skills to be effective ‘facilitators’ of change. Their own inability to not get involved in the content and exercise control on the process ensures that they are not accepted by the various parties as facilitators.

    2. The focus is very rarely on the human effects of change. As we all know, any change causes heartburn and pain. Most often, either these are unacknowledged or brushed under the carpet by business leads and HR folks either collude with them. One of the foremost way to deal with change is to bring it out in the open – “the elephant in the room” way. Any attempt to wish it away or to deal with it in a secret/underhand way only makes us appear that way.

  3. The Skills to understand communication and the changes in the processes underway.

    1. HR needs to understand the processes of communication between organizations and how the era of one way communication is over. This has more implications than HR can realize. Newspapers in the west are seeing declining circulations and advertising. People are fed up being passive ‘consumers’ of news but are instead using free software and ubiquitous broadband connections to become ‘commentators’ on news. The culture of rip-burn-remix has spread from music to mainstream news, and organizations are struggling to grasp the reality. HR people have to understand how these generational shifts in how information is consumed impacts their business, both from the outside and from the inside.

    2. The new way of learning: In line with the earlier point, the way how people learn is also changing. Gone are the days of the “chalk and talk” method and even the “guide by the side” method. Learners these days and in the future are the people who learn by “immersive” technologies. That will also have an impact on how they learn and perform in the organizations. It also has an impact on how the organizations’ solutions and products are used and experienced by the customers.

  4. The age of the free agent and virtual teams

    1. With the rise of the creative age, people are looking more at vocations rather than careers, and it is passion that drives them. These creative people will become more and more entrepreneurial and give up the comfort and the anonymity of large organizations to chart out recognition as independent consultants. HR needs to understand how to manage these people to enhance creative input and also needs to guide line managers. It needs to remember that for these folks, independence and eminence is the motivating force, and money is just a by-product. HR also needs to identify who are potential free agents in the organization and what to do to optimize their contribution.

    2. As more and more work gets done in a globalized economy by groups of part-time, temp or independent consultants working along with full time employees in different cultures and time zones, creating a culture of inclusion and tolerance of diversity becomes an imperative for HR professionals. This would be a strategic differentiator for the business, because diversity if managed well, could give rise to ideas and innovation that the competition cannot come up with. HR needs to educate the business about the edge that diversity brings and that it’s not just a ‘nice to do’ kind of thing!

There are a lot of challenges facing us HR professionals, but nothing is unsurmountable if one maintains an open mind, surveys the business and technology landscape regularly and seeks a variety of mentors in various subject matter to build up expertise.