Does HR Deserve a Place at the Table?

Businessman TextingAfter being in the HR profession for the last 25 years I am still amazed at a question that is still asked about the profession. Does HR deserve a place at the corporate decision- making table?

Sometimes to really comprehend the full magnitude of a question one must somehow decipher the real question that is behind the question that is before you. The question we are examining in our discussion is no different.  I believe that the real question is whether or not HR adds real value to the enterprise. Think about it, if something adds real and significant value to what is being done, it becomes moot (even nonsensical) to even discuss if it should be included.

I will resist the temptation at this time to take one side or the other in this discussion. Rather I would like to pose a few “pertinent” questions to the reader and allow him/her to draw his/her own conclusions.

Does HR understand the mission of their organization?

Put another way, does HR understand the “business” that their respective enterprises are pursuing. Notice that this is not a question of “what” you do, or even “how” you do it. It’s rather a question concerned with the “why” behind what you do.

A story I heard years ago (and one I have used quite a few times) will perhaps throw a bit more light on the point being made. I have been unable to independently verify the veracity of this story, but it still makes a powerful point. It goes like this…. A consultant meeting with a group of executives at a drill manufacturing company asked them what business were they in. They responded that they made drills. He asked them a second time and they responded with the same answer. He asked them a third time and they responded, this time with a noticeable frustration, with the same answer. We make drills (dummy!).  What happened next really seemed to confirm to them that they would have been better off keeping their dental appointment than coming to this seminar. The consultant went on to suggest to them that the real nature of their business was not the manufacturing of drills. I am sure that at this time some might have even had a good chuckle, perhaps reminding the consultant of the company he was visiting. The consultant continued and stated that their real business was the making of holes. The making of holes! In other words, the drills they manufactured, the “what”, was really to accomplish the “why” (the holes). As long as we remember the “why” of the business we will never veer away from our mission. The “what” can and will change with time and technological advancements (we can now make holes with laser) but focusing on the “why” will always keep us on track in accomplishing our true mission.

The question then is, does HR really understand the “business” that they are in. We may think that we do and the danger is for us to focus only on the “what” and the “how’’, but do we really understand the “why”, the reason we are in business. Neglecting the “why” can be a fatal error to any business and can even lead to its demise. An excellent example is Kodak, which at one point was the #1 film maker in its industry. Kodak might have retained that position if they had sufficiently differentiated the “what” from the “why” in their business. Kodak made a late entry into digital technology because it primarily saw itself as being in the “film making” business rather than in the “image capturing” business. It is very difficult for HR (or for that matter, any other corporate function) to adequately support an enterprise if they do not understand why they are there.

Does HR understand their role in the business?

If understanding the organization’s mission is the first step. Then considering the role that HR plays in accomplishing that mission should be the next step. HR has many roles to play in an enterprise. Some are legitimate and others, to be quite frank, are somewhat questionable. HR often finds itself in the position of having its various roles defined and shaped by others. HR is frequently what others say it is. This is often compounded by the fact that HR professionals themselves are often confused in their own minds as to the organizational roles they should adopt in order to be effective.

HR roles must go beyond that of being the employees’ ombudsman, the company’s cheerleaders, the morale builders, the conflict resolvers, and the party and picnic planners. These processes, though important, should not be the sole responsibility of HR. These processes should be embedded in the organization and shared equally by all departments. Becoming too closely identified with these areas can result in HR not being regarded as a serious player

HR has an important and strategic role to play within an organization. This role involves the proper management of the company’s talent in order to gain a competitive advantage.

Activities in this role will include the following:
•    Recruiting and selecting the right people.
•    Developing and implementing the necessary training processes to ensure that employees have the appropriate skills to be successful in a global economy.
•    Ensuring that the company has a competitive, cost effective benefits package.
•    Designing and implementing the necessary systems to accurately assess the performance of the employees.
•    Developing innovative compensation packages that will attract, retain, and motivate employees.
•    Creating and maintaining an organizational culture that encourages employees to maximize their potential.
•    Helping the organization and its employees adjust to changes taking place around them.

The above role is important and adds value to the organization. Pursuing such will give a great deal of credibility and respect to HR.

Does HR have the necessary skills to effectively do their jobs?

To adequately function in its strategic role, HR must have the necessary skills at its disposal. I hope that we are well beyond the days when it was incorrectly assumed that anyone, as long as they had a breath, was capable of functioning in the HR role. HR has evolved into a profession in its own right with its own set of skills. A review of some of these skills might prove helpful.

•    People skills – building trust, influencing others, sharing and communicating with others. High degree of emotional intelligence.

•    Organizational skills – information processing, delegating effectively, project management, decision-making.

•    Business skills – understanding and being comfortable with various business metrics. Business is about numbers and HR has to get use to this fact. HR has to be fluent in numbers and use them whenever necessary to support their various outcomes.

•    Political skills – appreciating the place and use of power in organizational settings. Leveraging what you have in order to get what you want.

•    Technological skills – being comfortable around and effectively utilizing the various technologies that are available.

•    Learning skills – being able to keep oneself and other abreast of what’s new and successfully integrating the information into the workplace.

•    Global skills – being aware of what’s taking place on a global basis and using the information to gain a competitive advantage.

•    Change Management skills – helping the organization and employees to embrace, adjust and become comfortable with the changes that are taking place.

•    Visioning skills – being able to anticipate future trends and challenges and preparing the organization to meet them.

These skills are very different and a far cry from those required of HR in the past. However, they are needed and very necessary for HR’s success in the present and in the future. Unless HR acquires these skills, HR will not be in a position to make any meaningful contribution at the corporate table, when present.

Nathan Charles

1 Comment

  1. FeliciaJune 1, 2010


    Thank you so much for ‘telling it like it is’. I totally agree about the need to identify the Mission (purpose for why the company exists). This is something that, as you state others, not only HR, struggle with – all too often I have seen Executive and Senior Management misunderstand the importance of Mission, seeing it as one of those ‘management tools’ that’s a fad and has no real bearing on ‘the business’ clearly your Kodak case study shows otherwise.

    As for HR understanding their role in the business – I agree HR needs to look beyond the defined roles in the various ‘business partner’ models, reality is Organizations are dynamic and needs change and HR must be skilled enough and, Visionary enough to deliver what is needed, whether it’s traditionally seen as their role or not. To do that as you point out we need as Hr practitioners to develop some key competencies, which apply not only to HR- but leaders generally; now there’s a thought…if we have the same skills sets as leaders shouldn’t it be a given that we ‘have a seat at the table’ to make use of those skills!!!!

    Once again great article.

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