The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world of work, perhaps irrevocably. Working patterns have changed, organizations have embraced technological solutions such as e-commerce, collaborative, communications and education i.t. platforms. The journey towards online solutions and swifter e-enabled ways of doing things has accelerated over the last 12 months. People are working from home or back in a socially distanced office or in a local, shared space and for some, the need to travel to and from work and brave the commuter traffic has diminished. Organizations have entered markets, exited markets, flourished, suffered, expanded, contracted and changed operating models and product lines. To use a rather overused acronym we are living in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex and Ambiguous).
Whilst organizations and the world of work is changing all around them has HR kept up with the pace of change, have they kept their proverbial finger on the pulse of the organization?
It is often easy for HR to reside in a world of transactions where things have been done before, where there are well-established processes and procedures. It is a safe world. Even when some of the situations which require those processes and procedures to be invoked may be challenging, HR can always draw upon its professionalism and past experiences as it is HR by rote.
It is also true to say that the transactional work is unlikely to go away. However, if it is about following process and procedure, can the transactional stuff be done elsewhere in a different way allowing HR to move more into the transformational space? Self-service e-HR platforms are becoming more widely used. Indeed cloud-based systems allow maximum flexibility in design and also create opportunities for data creation and collection on people-based metrics.
There is misquoted line spoken by Ray Kinsella, played by Kevin Costner, in the film Field of Dreams (1989). While wandering in a cornfield, Ray Kinsella hears a strange whisper: “If you build it, he will come”. This is often rewritten as “if you build it, they will come”. We could apply this quote to e-HR systems, but re-write it as “if you design it, they will use it”. How many e-HR systems are used to their full capacity and how many self-service systems are actually used as self-service systems?
The rationale for many e-HR systems is to push some of the transactional stuff down to managers. The e-system is the tool that the managers will use to take some of the transactional activities off HR. If this placement shift is to work, perhaps organizations need to consider the 5 Cs – capacity, courage, confidence, commitment and competence when it comes to their line managers. And, HR practitioners may be best placed to work with leaders and managers to determine the impact of the 5 Cs, before the new e-HR system is switched on.
Capacity – the manager’s workload may already be heavy and adding a transactional piece of HR work that used to be the “bread and butter” of the HR practitioner to the manager’s current list of duties may be seen as a step too far; something else to do which takes the manager away from what they see as their core role. (Even though managing their team is a key component of their core role).
Courage – some of the transactional stuff that is comfortable for HR may take the manager well outside their comfort zone. Will the manager have the courage to take the step into what could be for them unfamiliar territory?
Confidence – how confident are managers in talking about HR issues with their staff. There is this feeling that we are living in a more litigious society. If a manager says the wrong thing or things become misinterpreted will the manager be wary of ending up in a grievance hearing or even in an employment tribunal?
Commitment – do managers see the need for the moving of transformational tasks from HR to line managers? If it has traditionally been seen as “something done by personnel” has the rationale for this being moved been communicated and understood. Will the manager see it as HR just offloading tasks somewhere else? Wavering commitment can cause the downfall of many new initiatives.
Competence – How knowledgeable are managers about HR policies and protocols, how i.t. savvy are they? How many e-HR systems are introduced without adequate training and development for the end-user? How many modules of e-HR systems are not used to their full capacity?
If HR does move or reduce the amount of transactional work or move it elsewhere, what then?
You can’t just move from transactional work to transformational work without taking a critical look at internal competencies and capabilities. My local garage is very good at maintaining my 10-year-old car, I trust them, and they do an excellent job. However, I’m not sure how good they would be working alongside engineers designing the next breed of electric motors. I am sure that there are some transformational skills that will be extremely valuable, but I think the motor mechanics may need considerable training and development. So, is HR looking at how it does business and what capabilities are required? If HR is going lead and drive cultural change, embed new ways of working, drive engagement with new business strategies, what will the HR team need to look like?
In chapter 9 of our book, Reshaping HR – The Role of HR in Organizational Change, 2021, Routledge, Professor Julie Hodges and I explore how to grow and leverage the capabilities of HR. Our research that underpins the book includes interviews with HR professionals from across the globe about what capabilities they think are required to enable HR to move into the transformational space. From our conversations, it became clear that HR needs to increase its business acumen to enable it to understand the whole business cycle and business landscape. HR doesn’t need to be an expert on all aspects of the business but need to understand where it can add value across the whole enterprise. Automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cloud computing all provide data and HR needs to be able to understand and interpret this data and use it to drive decisions. HR also needs to understand how to use data platforms to work smarter and to communicate more effectively. There is also the need to explore external as well as internal data sources. External data will help to identify opportunities and threats, consider strategies for capitalising on new and existing markets and to create scenarios and new business models to explore. Internal data sets help the organization to monitor and manage performance and align systems and structures towards strategic imperatives. As organizations become ever more global in their reach there is also a requirement to understand cultural differences, social customs and cultural rituals. As well as culture from an equality and inclusion perspective there is also a need to understand organisational cultures and ways of working. What is the cultural temperature of the organisation and how can staff engagement be built and maintained?
As the world of work is changing and there is a need and desire for HR to take more of a transformational role in change leadership and management. This requires HR practitioners to understand and apply change theories, models and practices to help in identifying the need for change, planning the change, implementing and embedding and sustaining change. This not only applies to changing policies, procedures and processes but to changing behaviours too.
HR needs to act as internal consultants, sometimes taking the expert or specialist consultant role other times facilitating conversations with the right people at the right time and creating opportunities to listen to the voices of all stakeholders.
So, to move from the transactional space to the transformational space HR needs to consider how to move or reduce the transactional workload considering carefully the ability and competence of those who may be absorbing some of the transactional stuff. But making space isn’t enough, HR also needs to look at the internal capacity and capability of both HR practitioners and line managers across the organization to enable HR to make the step into the transformational space with confidence.
Mark Crabtree established his own consultancy business in 2019 after working in senior HR and HRD roles at Durham University between 2002 and 2018.
After studying Social Psychology and Social Science at Newcastle University in the early to mid-1980s and completing his Institute of Personnel qualification at the University of Northumbria, Mark moved into the field of leadership and organisation development. As a qualified coach, mediator and award-winning facilitator; Mark has over 30 years’ experience of leading the development, management, implementation and delivery/facilitation of engaging learning and organisation development strategies and initiatives in the public, private and H.E. sectors.
Julie Hodges is a Professor of Organizational Change and Associate Dean at Durham University Business School. Julie has published in several international journals on change in organisations. She is the author of several books including ‘Consultancy, Organizational Development and Change’, ‘ Managing and Leading People through Change’ (Kogan Page); Sustaining Change in Organizations(Sage) and ‘Employee Engagement for Organizational Change’ (Routledge) and ‘Organization Development: how organizations change and develop effectively’ (Palgrave McMillan). Her latest book is ‘Reshaping the HR: the role of HR in organizational change’.