Bringing more value to Human Resources: Process improvement

In this article, I pen my reflections on ‘Focus HR on Process Improvement‘. It will be a short one that follows from the previous reflection on building a value-added HR function.

Key Ideas

The article elaborates on the idea of how HR can be a strategic tool over and above its traditional operational functions. The focus here is on process improvement, which I personally would link back to Ulrich’s idea of HR’s role in strategy execution (i.e. that HR should be involved in how the organisation is structured for success).

Brad Powers, the author of the article in question, argues that the HR function needs to spend more time accelerating operational improvement and less time on its traditional functions (e.g. administrative, compliance activities).

Powers elaborates on three ways HR can be better placed to bring about operational improvement:

1. Bring people into HR with extensive operational improvement experience: Powers advises organisations to bring in people who can discuss operational changes with line managers. HR professionals “need credibility to challenge line managers on whether they are improving the attitudes and skills of their people at the same time they’re redesigning their jobs”. Powers cites examples of how companies hired senior executives with experience in organisational development, learning, performance and process improvement to helm new teams that performed similar functions. These were often integrated with HR departments.

2. Streamline and offload HR’s lower-value administrative services: Again, more similarities with Ulrich’s idea that the HR function should adopt processes and/or technologies that enable the most efficient means of administering its services. The HR function should aim to automate and/or outsource as far as possible to free up bandwidth for strategic work.

3. Build and organisational development group in HR that includes operational improvement. Whereas #1 talks about hiring the right people, #3 talks about the organisational structure needed to achieve process improvement. Powers agrees with the notion that HR should be divided into two broad categories: Compliance, transactions and administrative functions of HR should be parked under a Personnel group, while strategic improvement responsibilities should be parked under a Talent Development and Performance/Innovation/Productivity Improvement group. This latter department should be filled with “change agents with a bias for operational innovation”, who not only focus on leadership development and training, but also have operational improvement skills.

Just like Ulrich, Powers emphasises that HR needs to continue delivering its core administrative functions, as line managers won’t accept offers of value added services if these basics aren’t covered.

Reflections

I think that for the key premise to work, there needs to be some deliberation on whether staff in corporate functions need operational experience to be effective at their jobs. If the answer is no, we need to consider how they will have the credibility to discuss operational changes with line managers, especially those who have amassed years of experience in their current roles. If the answer is yes, we need to consider the best way for corporate officers to gain that operational experience. The assumption here is that they would need the knowledge of the business they are seeking to make process improvements on, and not just carry over their experience from a completely different sector.

Having been in a corporate function for a while, I think the best way forward would be to build an organisational development team from a mix of “pure” corporate specialists (hired from outside or developed internally) and executives who have performed the core business functions for a while. Mixed teams often have the diverse perspectives needed to stretch the organisation, and also avoid having to pander to one or two communities within the organisation that have been delivering business services.

That aside, corporate executives really do have their work cut out for them, and as Powers and Ulrich have pointed out, they need to work very hard to gain credibility. For corporate executives to garner respect within their business, they need to go above just administration. They have to be well-versed in their respective industries and sectors, “in the know” of global and business trends, and be in top form in both soft and hard skills (e.g. people skills and communication, or critical thinking and data analysis).

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