Splitting HR? No, It’s About Infusing It With an Operational Mindset

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Jul 30, 2014

Here we go again.

In the July-August 2014 Harvard Business Review, author Ram Charan writes that It’s Time to Split HR. He proposes two totally different units – one that handles “administration” which he says would be primarily compensation and  benefits. It would consist of “HR practitioners” and would report to the CFO.

The other would handle leadership and organization, report to the CEO, and be staffed by rotating high potential operational leaders.

Sound familiar?

Yes, we did something like this once before

Boomers probably remember the days when this was a matter of routine — not the split and different reporting relationships, but the integration of operational leaders into HR.

In some instances, this rotation was through a management training program designed to expose future leaders to the whole organization. In other cases, it was a staffing philosophy.

And most retail organizations (at least in the 1980s) required anyone going into HR to start on the sales floor. For those of us that managed to push our way in without that experience, we spent from the Friday after Thanksgiving until Dec. 24 in the stores supplementing the sales force. Oh yes, and learning too.

Our retail parent company, again in the 1980s, had the foresight to assign high potentials to teach in the Leadership Academy. It was a prestigious one-year assignment with a guaranteed spot back in operations after the year concluded. Those instructors brought an amazingly different perspective to their operational role, having learned and taught all aspects of the leadership role.

HR was strong then, even though we had an “administrative” name – Personnel.

Infusing HR with an operational mindset

But folks, we’ve been playing around with this dialogue about HR not being valued by operational leaders for decades. At what point do we see the urgency to change?

Charan expected opposition to his article, and got it in the form of an HBR blog post titled What Will It Take to Fix HR?, written by a Deloitte consultant (Dave Ulrich also weighed in with Do Not Split HR – At Least Not In Ram Charan’s Way.) The Deloitte consultant argues for the cohesion of all people decisions within one business focus, but agrees that infusing HR with an operational mindset makes sense. I think it is a valid point.

But, we certainly can accomplish this without splitting or otherwise tearing up a professional discipline (HR) that has an important role in any organization. We need to think differently, however, to do this.

Granted, HR has become highly complex in almost every HR sub-discipline, but here is a path we could take to quickly broaden our view of the organization and our opportunity to influence. Some suggestions:

1. Be clear about HR competencies

SHRM has an excellent competency model in place, but like everything else, it is important to prioritize because the “perfect HR practitioner” doesn’t exist.

What are the qualities HR needs to be effective in the business that you can’t easily teach? Find those, and teach that bright person the foundations of HR. Resources are everywhere, including partnering with peers who have different skills.

I have always looked for one thing when filling HR positions – intellectual curiosity. Armed with intellectual curiosity, a competent learner can grow and become proficient very quickly.

2. Fill the next HR spot with a high talent operational leader

This one is going to take some selling, particularly if HR is not well valued, but identify two or three roles that interact closely with the business (Compensation, Learning, and Talent management come to mind), and then find a high talent operational star and get them into HR, if only for a short term.

They will add value while in HR, and tremendous value after they leave HR.

3. Listen to Operations

Bringing in a high talent operational leader into HR is worthless if all they hear is, “But we have to do this.”

Diversity of perspective is a crucial element to designing programs that truly add value and are seen as relevant to the business. Listen to those who can help you.

4. Encourage high talent HR pros to take a job outside HR

If that isn’t feasible, have the HR professional volunteer for a Board position in a not-for-profit. This is a great way to see the real world of operations – juggling budgets, customer demands, organizational strategy, business planning, employee and volunteer performance.

Every HR practitioner needs to clearly understand the burden that is on operational leaders in this day and age. While HR demands performance management, talent management, merit reviews, employee relations compliance, every other “overhead” department like Finance, Legal, and Marketing have similar demands on operational leaders.

HR needs to understand what it is like to be asked to do work that doesn’t relate to their real job, and try to juggle their customers and employees at the same time.

5. Get HR out of the office

This is a Catch-22 because HR has tremendous demands on their time, too. But talking with leaders and employees provides insight that is critical to adding value back to the organization.

And, don’t just float the conversation on the surface. Ask hard questions of the employees, listen carefully to their responses, and follow-up.

Being in the proverbial ivory tower is bad enough for leaders, but when HR sits in isolation behind a desk, that is a serious problem.

A fix is needed – but not wholesale disruption

Yes, we do need a change. We do need an HR “fix.” But, we can do this without disrupting the entire profession.

Start here: Ask your leadership team if they see the work of HR as adding value. If they do, great. If not, you have just opened the door to an amazing conversation leading to a new journey.

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

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