Should human resources be waiting for a seat at the table or setting the table?
Ever since I entered the Human Resources (HR) profession, even in graduate school, there has been dialogue around what HR needs to do in order to get a seat at the table. This dialogue seems to have picked up even more steam in recent years and much of the growth in HR research has been focused on finding a way for HR to get that seat at the table through proving its legitimacy and its value.
According to Jack Welch, former CEO of GE, HR is the second most important job in an organisation, as it is the only role next to the CEO that affects everyone. But as the only role impacting every individual in an organisation next to the CEO, should HR be seeking a seat at an already set table or should we be setting the table ourselves. In this article I want to explore the possible agenda setting role that HR practitioners ought to have in the organisation and why they are best equipped to set the organisational agenda.
Agenda setting is the ability to influence the salience of topics. In the business context I would like to view this as the ability to distill business strategy and influence the identification of the key drivers for success as well as influencing the way these drivers are perceived, their importance and the level of attention that is focused on them. It is important to recognise that business success is largely dependent on competitive advantage and effective business strategy. According to Jack Welch, “An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly is the ultimate competitive advantage.” On the other hand business strategy is the unique manner in which an organisation arranges its processes to build such a high moat that competitors cannot cross and overtake them. Therefore, business success is effectively learning and developing winning process configuration.
My view is that HR should, instead of trying to fit in or get a seat at an existing table, focus on agenda setting. We should focus on becoming the repository of organisational wisdom and learning as well as the master chess player configuring and reconfiguring processes to determine what wins. But how do we do this?
- Stop trying to convince the CFO that HR spend is important. If this conversation is necessary in the first place its likely that you wont get what you really need anyway.
- Stop trying to browbeat managers into engaging in performance management activities. The fact that this is necessary means the process that exists doesn’t work because if it did there would be no need to force anyone to do it.
- Stop trying to get your organisation to meet legal requirements. If they need to be hit over the head with the MOL codes they need full time legal counsel and not an HR practitioner.
- Assess whether your organisation has what it takes to win in the first place and if it doesn’t, decide on whether it is possible for you to change that and if not, find another organisation—never stay on a sinking ship.
Instead we should:
- Engage in organisational research. Treat the organisation as a case study. Focus on developing a deep understanding of the business, its challenges, risks, strengths and weaknesses. Become a subject matter expert on the business. Like any research, the information or knowledge set must be supported by data and some element of experimentation (or as close to it as socially acceptable). By being the subject matter expert on the business you have the right as well as the basis to set the agenda. Organisational learning now becomes your table that others are invited to in order to gather insight to be translated into action.
- Become a process analyst. Winning, even in sport is about process. The best athlete has the best training method; the best cook has the best process even when the recipe is the same. To be able to set the table within the organisation, the HR practitioner must not only know what the existing processes within the business are, but also:
- What processes work and those that do not work as well as why
- What processes can be simplified to reduce complexity
- How to measure process effectiveness and transform ineffective processes
- Know the broad objective that every single process is intended to deliver and how to make them deliver on these objectives
- Know industry best practices
- Know how to benchmark processes
As we add value to our organisations, we must never allow ourselves to be convinced that our profession needs to be defended because it does not. There is no war in history that has ever been won without a good battle plan, good soldiers or superior weapons. Battle plans do not create themselves, people do; soldiers do not become great at birth, they have to be trained; weapons don’t create themselves, people do. Identification of talent, development of talent, training and honing skills are the prerogative of the HR discipline. Not even wars can be won without someone to select a good general who creates a good battle plan, someone to train soldiers, and someone to create the environment for productivity to lead to the invention of the best weapons.
Business can be similar to a war and all businesses seek to win. Therefore, any profession that is focused on identifying talent, developing talent and getting people to perform does not need validation. We are fundamental to the very existence of business. We own the table!