Transforming HR


I’ve been involved in some projects lately that promise to transform the way HR is delivered at the organizations where they’re being implemented. It’s an exciting time for these folks, and I know they will eventually be very successful if the will and resources continue to be there for them as they make this journey.

In the process, though, I’ve noticed (and shared) a few things that could make the job easier. I think these are typical missteps when it comes to proposing, and ultimately implementing, transformational HR initiatives. What’s the one common thread across all of them? Some HR executive leaders that may be removed from the front line either don’t fully understand or maybe even sufficiently value HR Operations. The transformations are commonly depicted as TACTICAL to STRATEGIC, and what’s lost in the process is that both are needed to deliver HR effectively.

The following failures can sink a big HR organizational change before it even begins to take place:

  1. HR leaders don’t always undertake to understand the current HR operational landscape. Benchmarking numbers of clients each front line HR professional should be able to support begins with an understanding of the service levels they are providing to their clients. Are there tech tools that are underutilized and creating inefficiencies, or are those tools incompletely implemented, with wires hanging out the back of them where another system should be seamlessly collecting information that is currently being entered manually (at great time and efficiency cost)? Is your staff supporting one on one because there is no centralized support currently being offered? Are multiple locations using different processes, or providing varying levels of service? Fully understanding the critical services and making small changes to standardize how they are being delivered today can help us begin the transition process among management to help them adjust to a new way of thinking about HR.
  2. HR leaders don’t fully plan for the nuts and bolts needed on the ground to keep the current organizational expectations of HR fulfilled. Failure to consider how to continue providing services during a seismic shift in HR delivery can deliver a fatal blow to any big HR change initiative. It’s not optional to keep things going on the front line-this is a core expectation of the business. Throwing the baby out with the bathwater on day one will just frustrate management clients and create an intolerable level of disarray in front line HR.
  3. HR leaders don’t think about how to clearly describe and communicate the changes to the business, so that expectations can be adjusted and satisfaction levels maintained. This is really change management at its core. If we don’t communicate what is changing and how we expect it to impact the business, they will make up their own version of what results of the change will look like (and it usually doesn’t look good). The quickest way to get the organization’s leaders to disengage and fail to support the changes proposed by HR is to let them be disappointed by unrealistic expectations, or, worse, come up with fatalistic versions of reality on their own that allow them to envision failure before an initiative even begins.
  4. HR leaders expect current staff to handle things like critical project work and technology implementation in addition to their front-line HR delivery responsibilities, for a long period of time before efficiencies from those HR technology changes are captured. Don’t burn out the people who actually can help you implement. Think about whether you can afford the high cost of turnover, and then take a lesser amount of that cost and allocate it to temporary resources, either to offload some of the everyday work of your current frontline HR employees, or to hire consultants to lead or supplement the project work needed to transform your organization.
  5. HR leaders tend to discount the value of the tactical, and even transactional work that is expected of HR. HR is absolutely capable of delivering on the promise of a strategic partnership with the business. We can increase the bottom line, and develop the organization’s people to be more engaged, productive, and successful. We can hire the right new resources and ensure they want to stay, and we can figure out how to reward them in ways that make them feel appreciated without compromising profits. We can deal with seismic shifts in the workforce, like the incoming Millennials and GenXers becoming the successors of quickly retiring boomers, and we can develop talent to be ready for the challenges of tomorrow. We can ensure our workplaces are compliant and protect the reputation of the company. We can do all this and more, but if we don’t make sure people get paid, understand their benefits and ensure that required paperwork gets filed, we will be considered a failure. Yes, HR should be sure we are not exclusively focused on the tactical, but tactical is not a dirty word. It’s our job as HR to execute each and every day on behalf of the organization and its employees.
  6. HR leaders assume that Business Systems/IT is a ready partner in troubleshooting and implementing HR Tech solutions. Unless there is shared accountability for the outcomes of HR Tech initiatives, there will not be shared ownership. HR leaders would do well to not only understand the capabilities of Business Systems and IT in their organization prior to making them a critical partner, but also ensure that they are on the hook for the results as well. Otherwise, there are plenty of other partners (many of whom generate revenue for the organization) who will be pulling away those resources from HR. Midstream is not the time to lock down this partnership if it’s critical to success. If a mandatory part of the plan is to use technology to increase efficiency in HR operational transactions in order to free up time to be a strategic partner with the business, HR can’t go it alone without an IT resource, whether it’s internal or external.
  7. HR leaders fail to provide clarity of expectations and exercise quick resolve to decide which team members are in the right roles, which ones will go forward in the new world post-implementation, and what kinds of new talent is needed in HR to make the change happen. It will become clear immediately which organizational structures will not be useful (or are not even currently useful) in a transformed HR organization. It’s not practical or helpful to let go of current resources on day one, but in an environment of courageous change, there needs to be an immediate realignment of roles to ensure that team members whose skills and/or motivation are not in alignment with the new HR vision are doing work that doesn’t currently require this. At the same time, those team members can be offered the development opportunities needed to bring their skills in line with the future vision of HR. With very few exceptions, front line operational HR work can be done remotely, and those without the current capacity and ability to perform project work in support of the HR transformation can absolutely keep the lights on while changes go forward that will eventually result in the efficiencies that justify a smaller team. Use your resources wisely and stop wringing hands over who should be let go. And when it comes to new talent, don't just focus on the fun stuff-we need operational expertise to make this happen, not only more ephemeral "strategic" thought leaders. We need both. Let me say that again: we need both to bring the results.

Thinking about these seven concerns before we make promises to the business and begin implementing large-scale changes in HR will increase our chances of success. We need to begin with an understanding of HR operations first, in order to make BIG HR changes happen.

Photo credit: Julie Raccuglia via / CC BY-SA