Thursday, July 17, 2008

Changing Role of HR: Change Agent, Innovator & Strategic Partner

Having practiced the HR function for over two decades myself, I have naturally developed some soft spots but more significantly, I must confess, I have some blind spots as well. It is, therefore, going to be my endeavour to rip-through these blind spots and make a critical and dispassionate assessment of how HRM has transformed through the years and the decades and what needs to change further.

It is relatively easy for us, the HR professionals to sense and feel that our roles are in the state of continuous transformation. Perhaps it is this intrinsic awareness of change that has helped us to remain afloat and not get washed out by the humongous waves of change that would have otherwise made us irrelevant by now! Having thus acknowledged our resilience, I must hasten to add that it has been at best the passive resilience, arising out of our need to keep up with the pace of changes happening around us. These changes are so engrossing that often times we get completely immersed into the change process itself, leaving ourselves very little scope & time to contribute our bit to shape the future course of this necessary transformation.

Let’s, therefore, step back and quickly analyze what is causing the change in the role of HR. Changing society, changing economic scenarios, globalization, evolving business organizations etc are all influencing our role. A move from hierarchical & paternalistic society towards more of an equality driven order has had its impact on the way HR role has changed. Professionals of my generation entered the Industry that had elite Management Lunch rooms and worked through the transformation where the Managing Director and the Machine Operator both started wearing the same overalls! I do not want to trivialize the issue by quoting such seemingly smaller examples, but I have used those to make a point. There are, of course, more powerful and broad-based examples available for all of us to reflect on how changing societal norms have influenced our role. ‘Employee Communication’ is that big example.
Employee Communication which was once synonymous with communication of management decisions to employees and that too was employed in circumstances where there was no other alternative to but to communicate. And look where have we reached already!Open houses,town halls,news groups,bulletin boards….open offices,at the minimum direct e-mail access to the CEO. Wow!!What an empowering change for the employees.And we, the HR professionals, have rightly taken lead in making many of these happen successfully. We can trace many more examples in areas of managing human resources in the face of intensely competitive business environment. But I think I have made a point and that is factors like socio-economic transformation around us have influenced change in the role of HR so far.

HR professionals have been donning different hats in different contexts. Historically, HR drew all its existential powers by placing itself at the centre of administrative activities within the business organization they supported. The cap it wore then was that of a powerful BABU. But that’s a very old story now. He later graduated to become an IR specialist and slowly transformed into an Employee Champion building a fine bridge between the enterprise and its employee community. The winds of changes on the world economic front intensified as we reached the turn of the millennium & the system demanded yet one more transformation in HR functionaries. HR professionals then became Human Capital Developers entirely focusing on continually augmenting human capital of the organization by trying to attract & retain talent.
And now is the time to wear the hat of a Strategic Partner. It’s a fairly broad based role & daunting at the same time. Broad based because being a strategic partner has multiple dimensions such as business expert, change agent, knowledge manager & a consultant. And daunting because the HR professional community may or may not be fully equipped to digest & keep up with the scope of challenges arising from this role.
Traditionally, many HR professionals have derived power out of their power to say no. And the time has now come to realize that they no longer can cling on to that power. At the same time its heartening that they are doubly empowered to shape tomorrow’s business. This power to shape tomorrow’s business can only happen in a leading fashion & not a lagging fashion. And let me give an example over here. Fiercely competing organizations in the New Economy have applied tremendous pressure on the available talent leading to War for Talent. Attractive employee referral schemes, tapping talent from small towns or brand promotion via newer media such as Radio Mirchi are all good & effective ways of trying to boost the talent search in a lagging way. These efforts lag the demand for talent. However, catching the young talent upstream right at the school, working on it in a organized way in anticipation of the future talent needs, is a leading
way of managing the same talent issue. HR will have to take every opportunity to sit at the front-end of the business & partner with the business owners to shape tomorrow’s organizations. And for being successful there are certain paradigms that need to be challenged & changed. Talent acquirers have to become talent builders; performance appraisal administrators have to become career experts; HR administrators have to become functional experts; compensation & benefit managers have to become value providers; trainers have to become OD professionals.
And why did I have a little bit of worry on our state of preparedness? It’s just because we need to consciously internalize what’s happening around us and what changes are expected out of us as tomorrow’s HR professionals. Our dedication, commitment & will to win will always remain central to our future success but our ability to understand the businesses we support, the industry we operate in, the socio-economic context around us is extremely fundamental. And as an optimist I would like to see there an opportunity for us to take our profession to the next higher level in the face of many steep challenges.


Unknown said...

This article traces the historical transition of HRM outstandingly well as well as gives a future perspective of whats needed --strategic partnership of HR with business.I have seen HR Managers with little or no idea of how the business operates, influencing increments in a robotic manner by "ticking" Act vs Objectives on a format, without having any idea of WHY and HOW a particular business objective was achieved or not achieved. I have equally seen progressive HR Managers going to the field and understanding ops so that their contribution in assessing people and guiding their careers is practical. Perhaps the trend of cross fertilisation where HR Managers do stints in business roles and vice versa would go a long way to transform the HR role into a robust partnering role.

Sudhanshu Pandit said...

Hello Abhay:
I particularly like the clear direction provided by you for future HR professionals.
Anyone choosing HR as a career will know that their roles and careers undergo significant change and they should be prepared to adapt to the change. Thanks for sharing your experience.

Abhay Valsangkar said...

Hi Ranjit and Sudhanshu…Thanks for your valuable comments…your feedback always propels me to continue to share my thoughts.

Suresh Anubolu,Director, HR Operations of CA,APJ wrote to me directly as follows:

I have gone through your latest article and it is good. The following liner is really inspiring and I think this expectation should become reality in the near future.

“Talent acquirers have to become talent builders; performance appraisal administrators have to become career experts; HR administrators have to become functional experts; compensation & benefit managers have to become value providers; trainers have to become OD professionals”

Roopali Sundar also wrote directly as follows:

“Great article. What I noticed was your style of writing was different in this article….till the point of time that HR professionals have been donning different hats… Looks like you are on the path of an recognized orator already.”

I would like to thank Suresh and Roopali for their timely and ongoing feed-back as well.


Amit Malik said...


As an HR professional myself, I can see the vision you have painted. It is true what you say about how the roles played by HR will change. The question then comes is how many HR leaders today are 1) willing to accept the same and work towards it 2) those who acknowldege are they walking the talk?
I say this because there will be challenge in change and this change has to begin within us first.

Thanks. As always it is a lot to think about

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