Redrawing the boundaries of where HR fits in the business
A few years ago, I attended a workshop exploring how HR could become more relevant and ‘get a seat at the table’. Typically, we explored what the problem was with HR and how we could ‘fix’ it. In the final plenary session, sitting in a wide circle of 50 executives, we were sharing insights and learnings from the day. The head of a retail division of a company (a non-HR Exec) said “I get this, because I used to work in HR, then a few years ago, I got out of HR and went into running the business….” I don’t remember what he said after this. I was so struck by this comment! Huh? Weren’t HR part of running the business? I realised in that moment, after all the brainstorming we had done in the morning that this was the real problem that HR as a profession faced, that the whole system faced really.
HR was seen by this executive as separate from the business, so much so that in his mind – if you wanted to run, or be in, the business you had to get out of HR! What struck me even more, was that most people sitting in our circle were Senior HR executives, and they all nodded and bobbed their heads in complicit agreement with what he was saying. No one challenged his theory. Did no one else hear what I heard? Was no one surprised at this? Or were they just as nervous as me to call this out in this context?
I agonised for a few minutes, my heart racing, thinking should I say something? I didn’t want to challenge him personally in the group, but I knew what he had said was a ‘gift’, that couldn’t go unnoticed. I quickly realised it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t just his assumption, it was a deeply embedded collective systemic hypothesis.
He was just verbalising it. It seemed to me the whole system in the room was holding this tacit assumption, and that even the wider system ‘out there’ was in the main captive to this BIG Assumption too.
Reframing the collective assumptions and map of HR
HR professionals would never have a ‘seat at the table’ if this was the collective assumption held both by HR and other business executives. We were all ‘subject’ to it! Until that moment this had not been visible to me, but now it was, and I realised that I held a different assumption: I believed that HR was a vital part of the business ecosystem and had a critical role to play in ensuring business success. The business was not a separate entity that HR served.
I found my voice, and courage to speak – ‘that’s the real problem’ I said…You don’t get out of HR to run the business, in my mind HR are a vital part of running the business and of it being successful…’ He blushed, stammered, and acknowledged his ‘error’ of perception…’you’re right he said’. There was a collective disquiet and murmuring around the circle, as the implicit assumptions we were all holding and ‘subject’ to, were revealed. The veil was lifted, it was an uncomfortable but an important discovery! Sadly, as this was made in the last 10 minutes of the workshop, there was not a lot we could do with it there. The facilitator closed the session, acknowledging it as good ‘food for thought’…
Then the executive came up to me, shook my hand and thanked me – ‘’you made me see something I hadn’t seen before. It was really helpful to have my eyes opened to this.” I apologised, explaining I wasn’t challenging him ‘personally’. “Of course,” he said. All was good between us.
A complex adaptive change not just a technical’ fix’
I left the workshop with this new understanding that the real challenge HR as a profession, actually organisations, faced was an adaptive one. It wasn’t a technical ‘fix’, but a complete reset of the role of HR and where it was positioned in the business ‘ecosystem’, that was required.
This event happened a few years ago now, but really this narrative is not history, it’s still very current. It is my understanding that this collective systemic hypothesis, in the main, is still running us. There are a few organisations where the green shoots of a new system are emergent, but it is still the dominant systemic contract embedded implicitly in our HR operating models and in the language, which I hear consistently in HR teams – ‘we had a meeting with the business’; ‘the business doesn’t want that’; ‘the business won’t go for that.’ It’s also reflected in HR job titles and roles, the predominant one, of course being, the HR Business Partner.
There appears to be some strongly contested views developing, for and against, about whether the traditional job title and role of ‘Business Partner’ is still relevant or should stop being used. This, may be a binary and unhelpful debate? You could technically ‘ban’ the Business Partner title, change the job and call it HR Consultant or HR Manager, which I agree would be good, but it could also change nothing in terms of how HR is seen or positioned in the system – as we know happens with many other job changes or restructures.
Changing the title, or even the job, without doing the adaptive change work could just be a technical ‘first-order’ change fix, which wouldn’t change the role of HR as an entity or subsystem, or where’s it’s positioned in the organisation.
We shouldn’t confuse the job of ‘HR Business Partner’, with the role of the HR subsystem in the business. In fact, paradoxically, we could keep the title of ‘HR Business Partner’ but reframe its meaning and reset how HR Business Partners take up their role. HR Business Partners could become ‘true partners IN the business’, having a symmetrical place in the business leadership team with commercial accountability, rather than being ‘partners TO the business.’ Taking up their commerical business role not only providing a people and culture service, nor as the custodians of, and accountable for the people & culture agenda alone.
Largely, letting the ‘business’ leaders off the hook for this.
The real work we need to do is completely reset both the roles of HR and non-HR executives, and how they relate and connect to each other, with regard to the people, organisational and business imperatives. We need a new ‘systemic contract’ – a shift in pattern away from HR being a ‘service provider’ and ‘order taker’ and ‘the business’ taking up the role of ‘customer’, to HR being real partners in the business, with mutual accountability for commercial business outcomes; at the same time though, giving non-HR executives
co-accountability for the people and culture agenda in their teams and the wider organisation. Perhaps, the time has come to stop letting non-HR executives off the hook for this too. Undoubtedly, we need to move out of the binary pattern, getting all leaders to “live in the AND”, to be both people, culture & business leaders simultaneously. More demanding and complex for sure!
Like most forms of organisation right now the traditional HR Operating Model needs to be disrupted, but equally that implies that the way the whole people, culture and organisation agenda is managed and lead will need to shift too. There is as much work to do with non-HR executives as there is with HR.
Don’t you think?