MHR Blog

Restarting The HR Heartbeat


In some cases, HR is still viewed as a functional, primarily administrative area of the business.

How to position HR as the Heartbeat of your organisation

Increased competition for both business and talent have put people firmly at the top of the list of CEO concerns. However, in some cases HR is still viewed as a functional, primarily administrative area of the business. When people and talent are so critical to an organisation’s effective operation and continued success, how is this possible?

I would like to suggest 10 stages for how HR can positively shock the rest of the organisation; how it can support an organisation’s growth; how it can produce a value delivery roadmap to ensure that HR sheds the functional, primarily administrative label and gains acknowledgement for the critical and valuable work that it performs on a daily basis.

Define what the organisation actually values

To do understand how to deliver maximum value to the organisation, HR must first understand the wider business plan and objectives; the context in which they are operating.

The easiest way to do this is to get involved in defining the business plan and objectives. If this just is not possible, grabbing any documentation that comes out of business planning sessions and using it to draft an HR strategy is the next best thing.

Demonstrating an awareness of market context at the planning stage is also critical – how technological, social and cultural forces are moving and influencing the organisation’s own micro-climate and, above all else, what the resulting effect of a strong HR heartbeat will be at the end of the delivery chain – for the customer.

Never underestimate the power of pro-activity. A clear strategy demonstrating an awareness of market forces and business objectives is an important first step.

Start modelling

When HR understand technological, social and cultural forces, as well as customer needs, it can start modelling the impact that these will have on requirements for bringing people in to the business and managing them to best effect - for predicting and maximising workforce performance to contribute to the business plan and objectives.

In some cases, the talent pool available within the workforce will heavily influence the business plan itself. If the CEO chooses a strategy that will optimise use of the best talent available within the organisation to deliver a strong competitive edge in certain business areas, expectations within the business plan will hang off this. If there are gaps in resource that will contribute to delivery of business objectives, it is up to HR to drive these data-driven decisions.

The top-level welcomes scenario planning, and this kind of activity makes a strong statement – HR is willing to help drive the business forward in very practical ways. It is ready to adapt to what the future holds and it is prepared.

Come up with globally competitive talent attraction strategies

Available technologies, social networking and a more digitally-minded, transient workforce are forcing organisations to consider the available talent pool as a global entity. This is both good and bad news – on the one hand, we have increased access to a wider variety of talent, but on the other hand, that talent is more obvious to others operating within our markets. The best talent is in high demand! However, there is a wider selection pool.

Your talent attraction strategy must include a strong element of digital. The more global, digitally perceptive talent pool available to draw from today has high expectations; therefore part of a strategically rooted HR plan should include the delivery of a slick digital experience. This includes everything from mapping the user journey and developing messaging that will resonate, to streamlining on boarding processes. In a fast-paced world, we do not expect to wait around for responses to applications, emails etc. In delivering a record-breaking application process, with regular and personalised communications delivered to the candidate throughout a short process, we allow the candidate to celebrate with us quickly, or move on if they are not the right match.

HR can also take responsibility for mapping strategic resource requirements to certain types of talent attraction. For example, when looking for ambitious graduates with IT skills, recruitment processes can be creative with programming competitions. For creative types, more ‘off-the-wall’ campaigns will grab attention and communicate in a way that resonates.

When scenario planning for workforce requirements, imaginative strategies for talent attraction give HR the opportunity to lead the business in terms of recruitment strategies, and the potential to lead the market too – recruitment can and should be an exercise for gaining competitive advantage.

Establish clear initiatives

Setting out a series of clear initiatives that are aligned with the business plan and objectives, with assigned responsibilities for each programme, is essential. These programmes of work can cover anything from increased digitisation, to re-organising workforce balance from one prominent discipline / skill-set to another, to finding new ways to attract and reward key talent – whatever the business objectives require.

With the increasing importance placed on employee engagement, exploring reward mechanisms is currently an ‘in vogue’ stream of work. It is also likely to fit with any business plan or objectives – I am not aware of many organisations that do not encourage employees to become more engaged and maximise output! It seems self-explanatory that in order to develop reward mechanisms, behaviours should be encouraged and rewarded, and will contribute to the eventual realisation of the business plan and objectives. Many organisations overlook this process, but HR can prove influential in identifying the ways in which employee behaviours can be encouraged to help meet objectives.

Control risk and data

It may not be the highest profile of tasks, but the effective management of compliance and risk is critical. From pensions to succession planning, if HR is handling things in an efficient and proactive way, it alleviates worry.

These ‘transactional’ areas of risk are part of the fabric of HR. However, there is a more strategically driven opportunity for HR to identify, assess and plan to reduce the risks posed by skills supply / shortages, employee behaviour, and other forces like mergers and acquisitions.

  • Skills supply – Not having the right people in the right place at the right time can seriously affect an organisation’s current and future potential. With the right tools, data and analysis, and understanding of market forces, HR can put a case together to help the organisation recognise and start planning for these risks
  • Employee behaviour – Employee behaviour not only affects the work environment, but also can affect the corporate brand. Particularly in the wake of contentious cultural events and political announcements, HR should ensure that a healthy and productive working culture is protected is absolutely vital in the management of risk surrounding mergers and acquisitions, including TUPE, redundancy pay-outs, staff engagement and training, and mediation. However, there is a tendency to discount HR’s input. In this case, HR should take the opportunity to build a case for involvement and a people strategy that covers all of the identified risks

Establish strong performance metrics

HR leaders should not wait for performance measures to be imposed by others within their organisation. Taking a proactive approach to defining performance metrics that align with business goals will drive performance improvement and board sponsorship. Implementing strong analytics is a natural part of this process – you must have reporting and analytics capabilities that can draw out the right information to demonstrate success against business objectives and HR’s value to the organisation.

As for what these performance measures should be, anything relating to cost reduction, efficiency improvements, total payroll and compensation are useful, but they are not the ‘money shot’ when it comes to positively shocking your organisation with metrics that cannot be ignored.

Feedback in performance areas such as time to efficiency for any new managers and employees, time spent on employee engagement with documented results, retention rates and workforce productivity (cost per employee divided by profit per employee) are where ‘beyond the norm’ business impact from HR can be fully appreciated. Some of these measures will need help from other areas of the business to establish, but this in itself is a strong opportunity for HR to make others sit up and take notice of HR as a driving force for business-wide positive change.

Define HR’s services

Part internal communications and self-promotion, part strategic alignment, undertaking an exercise to define the services that HR will deliver to each business area is important when it comes to redefining HR’s stronger position within the business. Prioritisation should come in to HR’s strategy here – how will it support the other areas of the business that are most critical to delivering the business plan?

Once key business areas have been prioritised, they should be communicated and expectations set for the services that will be delivered. This represents a commercial approach of supporting the business that is not always associated with HR, but is part of breaking free from the functional, primarily administrative HR mould and should deliver tangible and impressive results.

Marketing logic can apply to great effect at this stage. HR has a captive market within the organisation, and this market can segment in to different groups of stakeholders with different requirements and different levels of critical impact on the business plan – business areas will benefit from a bespoke configuration of HR support with reward mechanisms, succession planning, management of training programmes, etc.

One of the key considerations in planning for a segmented approach is prioritisation of HR efforts and investments based on the support offered to those business areas most critical to business plan delivery. HR should not be strangers to a good old-fashioned cost/benefit analysis, and will end up with a more streamlined and productive portfolio of services.

A good process to follow when planning a strategy for satisfying the requirements of different business areas includes:

  • Identify groups with similar needs, and identify their members (e.g. Board / Exec Team, Managers, Contractors, etc.)
  • Formalise stakeholder requirements (Consistent data, statistics and forecasting, easy to use people management tools, mobile workforce, etc.)
  • Establish service delivery and communications channels (Personal briefings, mass internal communication of new processes and policies, new technologies, etc.)
  • Assign budget to each group, and measure and report on the output in terms of value delivered.

Depending on the size of your organisation, it may even be worth taking the time to deliver a brochure portfolio of services and strategic direction that is consumable for the rest of the business – HR’s own marketing material. Why not? It is a confident, committed step to defining a strong set of services and expectations from the business.

Define the personnel and technology systems required for a high-performing culture

With talent management and succession planning, HR effectively holds the future of a company in the palm of its hand. If the business wants to be at a certain point in 5 years, it is HR’s role to develop the people strategy behind this, and recruit and engage the right people to prepare for the future.

There are many ways in which to foster a high-performance culture – a recent Forbes article covers it well, but concisely there are three key stages and HR can prove instrumental at each stage.

  • Stop and assess – when an organisation stops and reflects on the reasoning behind existing goals, processes and ambitions, HR can feed in to the process of critiquing and repositioning, providing information and direction around people and performance, and can help fashion what good results will look like.
  • Communicate - one of HR’s key superpowers should be engagement. Transitioning or enhancing a high performing culture is a business-wide initiative, which HR should support, if not lead. When discussions around the structure of the business itself arise, such as initiatives to ‘flatten’ the hierarchy (a growing trend), HR should scenario plan and manage this change.
  • Change behaviours – When it comes to pushing cultural change or improvements through to adoption stage, HR should proactively implementing change management practices, consider incentivising the right behaviours to support the changes, identify ambassadors at all levels to help drive the change through, and should plan to deliver ongoing training where needed so that employees feel supported.

It is important to remember that, amidst change initiatives and requirements to support or lead them, it is still vital to maintain control over the business mechanics at which HR excels – development and maintenance of policies and procedures, governance, and even pushes for integrated technologies and reporting tools that have clear road maps for use and results within the business.

Critique your own function

Many of the stages above require HR to take a business-wide view of people, the future and change. However, it would be crazy to push ahead with a strategic approach from HR without assessing the health of HR’s own heartbeat.

Because the HR function plays such a central role in delivering people solutions to the company, the capabilities of the HR function and its staff are critical to achieving goals and objectives. A new style, more proactive approach from HR may require further training for existing personnel, and may require existing additional resources to support strategic initiatives in particular.

Just as you will do with the business as a whole, identify the skills and competencies required within HR itself to deliver on HR’s strategy, and develop training and recruiting plans to fill any critical gaps. Then link staff development and performance evaluation to the overall strategy.

Perhaps most importantly, make sure that HR’s hearts and minds are ready for change. Shedding the functional, primarily administrative label associated with HR will be scary for some – it involves greater visibility and accountability, and potentially more challenges. It is critical that the same business engagement techniques applied to the rest of the business are applied to HR first – for want of a better analogy, HR cannot drive a company if the driver is only half in the driver’s seat.

Take accountability

Greater influence on the business as a whole will inevitably pull attention on to the HR function. It is therefore important to make sure you are ready to deal with that attention and exemplify value. How?

  • Engage all parties – communication is key. HR should communicate with and understand the needs of all leaders, key stakeholders and employees from the outset, and keep them involved to ensure they come along for the ride with HR initiatives
  • Establish an ‘HR excellence’ team – embrace marketing communications, promote HR like a brand and make it easy for everyone within the business to understand and connect with what you’re offering and what you’re doing
  • Proactively report on HR’s performance against your own established service level agreements, and against industry benchmarks – relevance in a broader context as well as within the organisation is key to demonstrate the competitive advantage that HR delivers
  • Be specific to stakeholder groups when you report on success – what does Finance want to know from HR? What does your CEO want to know? What do employees want to know? Each group should have a specific set of HR value metrics for HR to resonate to best effect.

To conclude, ‘restarting the HR heartbeat’ (or positioning HR as the heartbeat of an organisation) is not for the faint-hearted! However, it is important to understand the potential that initiatives like these offer to HR professionals. People are an organisation’s most critical asset and, if it has not been already, HR will certainly be asked to step up in the coming years to help generate competitive advantage in an increasingly competitive global marketplace.

Now is the perfect time to get ahead of the game – to lead and to set the new standard for HR activity and its results. HR has always delivered strong value to its organisation, but it has not always been the most visible value. It is time for this to change.

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