Whenever I speak to a group of HR Professionals, I tend to start with the need for HR organisations to go through a process of change, and I call this transition “Polite to Police to Partner to Player”.

HR people have always tended to be the politest people in the company. You can go to them with any problem or issue, and they will always listen intently and politely. Most of the time they can’t actually help you solve the problem, but at least they won’t be checking their emails over their shoulder every time they get an alert of a new message in their inbox.

portrait of a panel of three interviewers smiling

Some years ago someone decided that HR could also become the protectors of company policies and procedures. Suddenly HR people had to contend with policing for strayers from things like the official paths that covered the travel policy or relocation allowances. Whilst I was running HR at SAP, I tried to give as much of this away to the Finance department as I could get away with. This was not as big an issue as it sounds as generally Finance people love a policing function … it is actually one of the things that makes them want to go in to work in the mornings. It was not that I wanted my HR team to have less to do, but I didn’t want HR to be seen as a “nay-sayer” and a barrier to the business, and this was just one step of many.

Today HR organisations have been positioning themselves as Business Partners. The trend has been to move the administrative roles over to shared-service centres meaning that this frees up the HR professionals to focus on helping the business lines solve their human issues.

Note that I said “human issues” rather than “business issues”, as I have found very few HR people that have a reasonable grasp of the difference. When I ran HR at SAP, I arranged for some bright young HR professionals to do an MBA, based on my belief that this would give them a better understanding of what business issues actually meant. Unfortunately it worked too well. As soon as they finished their MBA they immediately, and successfully, sought roles outside of HR. I am sure that they must exist out there somewhere, but I have still to meet working HR professionals with an MBA.

I have a belief that the role of “Partner” for HR is a reasonable step but it is not enough. I see an HR Partner as being someone who helps to implement a business strategy that has been developed by others. I believe that HR has to become a Player. To me a Player is someone who plays an integral part in developing the strategy, rather than just helping to implement it.

HR should be playing a critical role in helping to develop any business strategy, and I am constantly amazed at the number of companies who seem to not understand that there must be a logical link between any business strategy and the company culture (sum of the behaviours). For example, it makes no sense to develop a strategy based on building a capable partnering strategy, when in the DNA of the organisation is a belief that the only font of knowledge exists with them alone, and that all partners are just lowly versions of themselves, rather than professional, capable, value-add “side-kicks”.

I define culture as “the way we do things around here” and if there is any area of business reality where HR can play a pivotal role, it is in helping line managers to build the culture, to help build required behaviour. If this definition is valid, then it is not hard for HR to become an integral part of helping to set strategic direction, to help channel behaviour and to make a serious contribution to adding measurable value to the business.
Everyone is always telling HR people that they “have to get a seat at the table”, but very few people can actually describe what this actually means. I doubt that most HR people could actually find this mythic table let alone get a seat.

The sooner that HR people can understand that there are “no HR problems” and only “business problems that HR can help managers to resolve”, and the sooner that they can help managers to understand that no one can develop an executable business strategy without understanding whether their people can meet the strategic needs, the sooner HR can sit down with the grownups.



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