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The Work Foundation

Time for HR to pull up its socks

Authors: The Work Foundation Jane Sullivan

21 October 2010


The BBC’s decision to remove human resources (HR) chief Lucy Adams from the board has rekindled the debate over whether HR deserves a place at the top table. It also sends out the wrong signals that the role of senior HR is being downgraded.

The Daily Telegraph article cites many recruitment and HR experts who say that despite Ms Adams’ public show of support for the BBC’s decision, she will walk within months and that accepting the decision will in fact seriously undermine her career. There is subtext in there too – that for Ms Adams to accept this decision will not only be detrimental to her career, but will strike fear in the hearts of senior HR professionals up and down the country.

Yet, according to an interview in People Management Magazine, Ms Adams appears to be quite chipper about the decision. She said she is ‘positively excited’ about taking on an expanded remit, and that it is a mistake to think that HR will lose status or influence as a result of the changes. The CIPD, usually a proponent of the ‘HR deserves a place at the top table’ line, also argues that the decision should not be interpreted as a demotion of the HR function.

Of course, mere mortals on the fringe will never truly know how Ms Adams feels about the decisions, nor can we reliably predict whether she will stay or go in the coming months. But this decision and the ripple it has created highlights the very issue that preoccupies many senior HR professionals in the UK - is the HR function at risk of disappearing?

This issue repeatedly spills over into a debate about the impact and future of HR. As a profession, HR appears to be conflicted. On the one hand it spends an inordinate amount of time navel gazing about the relevance and impact of its function, arguing that HR is terribly important and why can’t others see that; on the other hand it engages in vicious bouts of self flagellation seldom seen in other established professions.   

HR recognises that it is stuck between a rock and a hard place. When The Work Foundation embarked on our Future of HR journey two years ago, both our consortium of senior HR professionals, and those we consulted as trusted advisers to the project, pleaded with us, ‘no more navel gazing’. In an ever expanding knowledge economy, the relevance and potential impact of a function that is directly focused on and responsible for the quality and effectiveness of people shouldn’t ever be questioned. But of course it is.

There is growing pressure for HR as a largely ‘support’ function to demonstrate its return on investment and its cost effectiveness; the latter in particular has contributed to a heavy focus within the HR community on structure in recent years – Ulrich’s three legged stool anyone? – and away from impact and capability.

HR’s challenge is partially rooted in the diversity of its remit.  From the purely transactional, but essential, functions that are increasingly standardised and reliant on effective technology to the operational elements that ensure the right people are in the right place at the right time, to the high level strategic functions of Organisational Development and Change Management that invariably fall within the HR function but which don’t necessarily require a grounding in HR theory and practice.

The focus within the profession is shifting back again. HR is starting to talk less about structure, and more about capability. It recognises that the major challenge to the status and impact of the profession is rooted in its ability to attract and develop high calibre candidates. It also recognises that few CEOs of major organisations in the UK have come via the HR route and it is therefore seeking to understand the talent gap.

Most importantly, for HR to be taken seriously as a ‘business partner’ its professionals need not only a thorough knowledge of HR theory and practice but to be truly business savvy as well. HR needs to be relevant, it needs to be impactful, and it needs to be highly skilled. Whether HR should be at the top table is, at least for now, a moot point.  

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