The Future of HR? It’s Getting Back Into the People Business

I often get asked what are the big trends I see today in HR, and I found myself getting asked that question a lot at the 65th SHRM Annual Conference & Exhibition in Chicago.

So, I’ll tell you what I told all of them.

Here are three big trends I’m seeing right now:

Back to the past for HR

It’s this last point that I’m the most interested in, because the future of HR may actually be found in its past, as former HR executive Liz Ryan points out.

I’ve written here before about how much I appreciate the incredibly smart advice that Liz regularly dispenses in her management column at Bloomberg Businessweek, but it is when she focuses on HR that she is at her very best.

So, it was appropriate that just last week, as we were getting ready for SHRM 2013 in Chicago, that Liz addressed the future of HR in an article titled Getting HR Back Into the People Business. Here’s how she spun it, and it certainly grabbed my attention:

When I started in HR, it was understood that you were going to work with people. You expected to get good at calming angry people down, listening to them share their problems, and untangling thorny interpersonal issues. That sort of thing went with the territory in the quaint 1980s. After all, the HR department has “human” in its name. How could anyone be an HR person without wading right into the deepest part of the people-at-work mosh pit?”

THAT’S the HR I know, love, and fondly remember — the HR focused on people, who were there to help you solve your problems, who helped walk you through whatever it was you were dealing with, and, who acted as a great sounding board you could bounce talent management issues off at any time.

Whatever happened to those kinds of HR people?

Where HR has gone wrong

Yes, those HR pros played such a huge role in my career that I still remember the best of them by name today even though I can’t hardly remember most of my former bosses I actually reported to. I’m thinking of people like Bev Johnk, the HR director at The Orange County Register, or Keith Bulling, my compadre and HR leader at the Great Falls Tribune in Montana, and the late Carole Medeiros, the Vice President for Human Resources at the Hawaii Newspaper Agency.

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Of the three, I think Keith is the only one still working — he’s currently the VP of Human Resources at the Cincinnati Enquirer — but all three still percolate in my memory when I think of how HR used to be and how we desperately need to get back to that now.

That’s what Liz Ryan’s column really focused on, and she’s on the right track when she writes:

Nowadays, HR people tell me that the process parts of their jobs are the only kind of work they’re allowed time for and the only kind their leadership values. What we are left with is amassive engine that’s called HR, with parts and pieces to process job seekers, new employees, benefit plan members, compensation plan subjects, and other categories and file folders of people. That’s people processing. That’s not HR, not in my book.

We’re taking the HR function, particularly in large organizations, down a deadly spiral that can only lead to one outcome: the commoditization and outsourcing of HR, a sure sign that the era of people-focused HR is dead.”

Wanted: a greater focus on people and business

That’s the big gripe about HR today — it’s too much about process and paperwork, and not nearly enough about people and business development. This is the primary focus when so many talk about “the future of HR.”

But, Liz has an answer (as you knew she would), and it is one we all should be thinking about:

It’s time to bring the people function back into HR and let the benefits administrators and on-call sales compensation specialists oversee the bits and bytes and processes. HR people are needed desperately on the front lines, where customer relationships are made or broken, new products get launched or get waylaid, and trust grows on a team (or doesn’t). HR people are needed on the scene, where managers struggle with their own tug-of-wars between duty to the organization and duty to themselves and their colleagues. This is where HR people can add value.”

After the better part of a week in Chicago at SHRM 2013, I can’t help but think that the future of HR is in going back to the future, to recapture that essential role as trusted adviser, counselor, and consigliori about all things talent.

Yes, THAT’S the real future of HR, and it’s the only way to get the mojo back.

John Hollon is managing editor of Fuel50, an AI Opportunity Marketplace solution that delivers internal talent mobility and workforce reskilling. He's also the former founding editor of TLNT and a frequent contributor to ERE and the Fistful of Talent blog.