Avoiding the “Profession” Trap: Reaching Out and Retooling HR

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May 7, 2015

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth of 12 essays from the new book, The Rise of HR; Wisdom From 73 Thoughts Leaders. It’s compiled by Dave Ulrich, Bill Schiemann and Libby Sartain, and sponsored by the HR Certification Institute.

By John W. Boudreau

HR’s capability can meet its opportunity only through retooling and reaching out to other disciplines, and not being too rigid about its professional boundary.

Can any human do human resource management? That’s what HR constituents and clients sometimes seem to believe — especially when leadership teams admonish their HR leaders to adopt practices such as “rank and yank” performance systems simply because they read about them in a book about Jack Welch and GE, or when they appoint leaders with little professional HR training to top HR roles.

Establishing valid professional standards

Although these practices do have value, they can also seem to dilute the profession’s stature by implying that professional HR qualifications are unnecessary.

HR professionals and professional associations work hard to banish the idea that HR is just common sense, and to establish valid professional standards for HR professional status and practice. As the historical development of the medical profession in the 19th century shows, emerging professions strive to establish common qualifications, adjudicate professional practice, establish a monopoly on professional practice among members, and carry out science to build knowledge and inform practice.

There are promising efforts to establish HR as a proper profession, including proposed standards for human capital reporting, several efforts to set HR standards with the ISO and others, renewed attention to certification by SHRM and HRCI, and an increasingly clear and independent role within organizational leadership teams and boards.

In an effort to protect the HR profession, it is tempting to draw a line and say, “You cannot practice unless you meet these standards.” Indeed, sociology research shows that placing such limits is one of several paths to transforming an occupation into a profession. Though tempting, it is important that HR not fall into the “profession trap” by using exclusion to define its professional boundary.

Evidence from our work on the future of HR at the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO) suggests a more inclusive approach — one that properly welcomes the contributions of disciplines beyond HR while advancing the profession’s stature and evidence-based platform.

HR is falling short of its aspirations

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?

The Robert Browning poem that contains those lines, “Andrea del Sarto,” makes me think of challenges facing many HR departments today. In the poem, del Sarto, a 16th-century painter, describes his love for his wife but laments that he is limited by the mundane duties of earning money and supporting her, while his more famous (and unmarried) contemporaries da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rafael live for their work with greater passion and spirit.

Similarly, the demands of day-to-day HR may crowd out the focus, passion, and spirit that are necessary if the function is to take a leading role.

Our research suggests that HR’s grasp falls well short of its reach, or its aspirations. The current roles that HR leaders play are far smaller than the roles they believe they should ideally play.

9 emerging business trends

CEO convened a consortium of 11 leading companies, each of which nominated about 20 HR leaders to respond to surveys on the following nine (9) emerging trends:

  1. Globalization – Integrating world economies through the exchange of goods, services, and capital;
  2. Generational diversity – The presence of many different age groups among workers, citizens, and consumers;
  3. Sustainability – Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs;
  4. Social media – Online networks and two-way communication channels that connect users in the virtual world, establishing new relationships that expand users’ networks and facilitate user participation in interactions and exchanges
  5. Personal technology – Mobile platforms such as smartphones, laptops, and tablets; future technology such as wrist devices and Google Glass; and the apps that support them, seamlessly and constantly connecting people and web-based content
  6. Mass customization – Combining mass production with customization for specific individual consumers or groups, in order to meet people’s needs with the effectiveness and efficiency of mass production;
  7. Open innovation – The inflow and outflow of knowledge to increase innovation, including user innovation, innovation ecosystems, co-development, innovation contests, and crowdsourcing;
  8. Big data – Data that is too big, too unstructured, or too diverse to be stored and analyzed by conventional means, processes, or tools;
  9. Gamification – Applying game mechanics to non-game situations to motivate or change behavior.

Extending HR’s competency

Our work uncovered isolated examples of groundbreaking HR innovations, but the responses from hundreds of HR leaders painted a picture of a profession with lofty ambitions but a less-elevated reality. For every trend, HR leaders believed they should be providing primary input or acting as a key leader.

Yet for none of the trends is that the case. Even for gamification, where HR is now playing at best an occasional role, our sample felt it should play a primary input role.

What’s the best way to close the gap?

Our data suggests an answer: HR leaders must avoid the temptation to be too territorial, particularly in the early stages of emerging trends, and extend their competency set to embrace frameworks from other established disciplines.

The evidence for this conclusion emerged when we created an index of forward-thinking HR. We had HR leaders rate how much their organization embraces advanced HR practices (such as customized employment value proposition, use of analytics, crowdsourcing, and social media) and nontraditional disciplines (such as consumer behavior, engineering, storytelling, finance, and marketing). We correlated that index with answers to the question, “To what extent do other functions take the lead in applying this trend inside of HR?

HR needs to be inclusive – and eventually take the lead

For more established trends, forward-thinking HR organizations are less likely to have other disciplines take the lead. For the emergent trends, forward-thinking HR organizations are more likely to have other disciplines take the lead. Forward-thinking HR organizations choose their leadership arenas carefully, letting others take the lead when trends are new to HR, and taking a leadership role as HR becomes more involved.

This has implications for how HR defines its profession. One approach would be for HR to avoid involving other disciplines, or restrict their HR role, as a way to preserve the purity of the function and reduce the impression that “just anyone” can do HR. Follow that path, and HR leaders must wait to address emerging trends until the profession develops the internal expertise.

In a world of rapid change, that will take too long. Our data suggest that a better approach is for HR to be inclusive, incorporating other disciplines and encouraging them to take leadership where they have expertise. As they educate HR leaders, HR will eventually be prepared to take the lead.

Ian Ziskin and I have suggested that the future of the HR profession must involve “reaching out” by infusing HR with talent from other disciplines such as marketing, finance, logistics, and engineering. It must involve bringing those disciplines to bear on HR issues such as the employment value proposition, leadership development, talent supply chains, and performance management.

The evidence suggests that this is just what future-focused HR organizations do.

Another approach: “Retooling HR”

This requires skills that are not always common among HR professionals. It means gaining credibility with functional partners from other disciplines so that they welcome the involvement of HR in their domain and are willing to help translate and apply their expertise to HR issues.

How can HR leaders accomplish this? Does it mean filling top HR positions with marketers, operations engineers, finance professionals, or lawyers? Does it mean splitting up HR functions and tucking the parts within more strategically powerful functions such as operations and finance?

There is a more nuanced approach that I call “retooling HR” — adapting financial and other management frameworks to HR and talent decisions. Examples include:

New, powerful professional models

Retooling HR invites an organization’s leaders to be smarter about HR by applying frameworks where they are already sophisticated — such as finance, engineering, operations, and marketing — to HR and talent decisions. The resulting retooled frameworks and tools do not abdicate HR’s professional stature.

Indeed, the hybrid combinations of management frameworks and HR principles create new and more powerful professional models.

Reaching out and retooling HR is the way to build a profession that is flexible, permeable, and able to grow quickly by applying the best ideas from other disciplines.

Compiled by Dave Ulrich, Bill Schiemann and Libby Sartain, and sponsored by the HR Certification Institute, The Rise of HR: Wisdom from 73 Thought Leaders is an anthology of essays addressing the critical issues facing business and talent professionals today. The full eBook can be downloaded @ Reprinted with permission of HRCI.