HR Insights, HR Management

What Do We Mean When We Say We Want to Be More Strategic?

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And so we cry, “We want to be strategic.”

That’s the aspiration of Human Resources professionals, collectively and as individuals, right? I’ve said it myself, as we probably all have.

Recently I was in a prospect meeting with a colleague and a potential client, and my colleague summarized the discussion we were having by saying, “So you need to get the infrastructure built, so that you can move on to the strategic work, right?

Hmmmm. My initial thought, which I blurted out, was that building the infrastructure IS strategic. But I’ve been thinking more about that since the meeting, and one question keeps bugging me.

What does being “strategic” mean, anyway?

So here’s the question: When we say we want to be strategic, what does that really mean?

There are a few threads on LinkedIn discussing that very question. The common theme: Align HR to the business, measure the impact, understand the business and customer, build relationships, be proactive, not reactive. One piece of advice was to write and become published, and the leaders will look at you as a subject matter expert.

All of this is good advice, but as an HR practitioner, I still don’t know what to DO.

In addition, the things I MUST do are not viewed as strategic, like investigate employee relations issues, administer benefit plans, maintain an HRIS/LMS/ATS system, create job descriptions, develop merit increase programs, train new managers, on so on.

Well, you get the picture.

The 5 tasks HR must excel in

And then there is the amount of time in a day. When there are so many things that MUST be done, how does one ever get to the strategic work that will add value?

After thinking about this for a few days, I have come to the conclusion that there really is nothing HR must do or wants to do that is not strategic. Yes, there are priorities and foundations that must be built in order to gain the credibility to influence, but those foundations have to be built strategically.

If they are not built strategically, HR will forever be playing catch up. Thinking about it in these terms, I suggest that there are five foundational tasks (dare I say strategies?) in which Human Resources must excel.

1. Clean, accurate and timely information

If HR is to act like a business, and speak the language of business, we must have credible and timely business intelligence to serve as good decision-making data.

If we are forever defending the data, the level of trust in our data (and in us) plummets.

2. Simple, user-friendly processes

I heard a dinner guest this weekend describe his company’s performance management system as convoluted, and something HR came up with just to add work. How many of our customers would rave about our systems and processes?

We may be implementing leading edge systems, but if the very, very busy managers and employees have to fight the system to get “HR’s work done,” we’ve lost the battle for adding value.

3. Effective delegation

We have delegated many tasks that used to belong to HR directly to managers and employees. Sometimes, we have delegated the tasks without communicating the “why,” so it feels like “we’re doing HR’s work for them.”

We have also delegated without consequences for doing the work poorly, so we end up with inaccurate employee data, and get caught in the loop of defending the data, rather than advising and consulting.

Manager and employee self-service are here to stay, but we can help our customers clearly understand the importance of good data, and help them do the job well.

4. Help and education

I have heard HR professionals say “it’s not HR’s job, it’s the manager’s job.” And true, managing the people is most appropriately done by the direct manager.

How hard is it for a manager to find the information that they need at the time they need it? Is the intranet user-friendly?

When a manager asks HR to handle something more appropriately hers, do we hand it back or do we probe to figure out where the reluctance is coming from, and then help them overcome the obstacle. Do we follow-up to see how it went?

5. Have our act together

When a hiring manager complains about the salary level for a job, do the recruiter and compensation analyst work together to help the hiring manager, or do they point fingers at each other?

Are employees managed to the same competencies, goals and skills in hiring and performance? Do learning plans map back to performance goals? If not, the messages are mixed, and probably getting lost.

Having this infrastructure in place IS strategic, and doing the work of building the foundation is what will add value to HR’s customers. Sometimes, it’s important to earn the right to play in the big leagues by showing that you can do the basics very well.

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

Carol Anderson is a Principal with Anderson Performance Partners a boutique consulting firm with the mission of helping the HR profession be as valuable to their clients as possible, intersecting performance and learning to actually drive organizational results. She has held HR leadership roles in health care, financial services, retail and the military. Most recently she served as Chief Learning Officer for a large health care system in Central Florida, with responsibility for talent development, leadership, professional and clinical education and team member engagement. Contact her at carol@andersonperformancepartners.com.
  • Philip Uglow

    Great post Carol. It “bugs” me to when people say we have to be “more strategic”. What the heck does that mean. Not only in HR but all facets of business. In my world the strategy is usually the easy part. Its the implementation that is difficult.

    I wish that people would say, “we need to figure out how to implement this”. That would make sense to me.

    Thanks for your post!

    Phil

  • Carol MacDonald Anderson

    Thanks for your comment, Philip. I think you’re absolutely right – anyone can come up with the strategy. But we seem to struggle with making it work

  • Tarik Taman

    Carol, as always a great, thoughtful post, To my thinking there is one additional point to add to this list: get out of the office. The best way HR can be aligned to the business is by talking to the business itself. Only by having multiple conversations each day with managers in the businesses we serve can we truly get a sense of the issues we collectively face and the potential solutions.