HR professionals in Sri Lanka: On the top or at the tap?

Monday, 31 January 2011 00:01 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

We looked at the fundamentals of Strategic Human Resource Management (SHRM) in the past few columns. We also assessed the relevance of SHRM to the Sri Lankan context.

In moving one step ahead, today’s discussion is all about the designers and deliverers of SHRM, namely HR professionals. To be precise, it is a sharing of a recent research done by me on how the organisations perceive the strategic orientation of HR professionals in Sri Lanka.

HR professionals and strategic orientation

Let’s be clear about the key terms. An HR professional can be viewed as a senior person engaged in Human Resources activities as an occupation. In other words, a manager with experience and qualifications, handling the responsibilities associated with the human resources function of an organisation.

Strategic orientation refers to thinking and action of a person, reflecting the long term plans of the organisation he/she works for. Also it includes the involvement in the strategy formulation, implementation and evaluation steps of the strategic decision making process.

The global status of HR

A global survey on emerging trends in HR revealed that there is much concern about HR’s absence in the “boardroom” and in organisational leadership positions (Ruona and others, 2003).

The survey further illustrated the problem of inadequate resources, inability to influence strategy, and decisions in organisations, and HR professional’s continued “separateness” in the organisation. Also, the question of value addition and particularly “impact on the bottom line” has been raised (Ulrich, 1998).

The issue here is that the function of HR is perceived as too inward looking. The challenge in front of the HR practitioners is to move beyond a silo mentality in which solutions can only be found within HRD and to embrace a perspective that organisational problems are systemic and require systemic solutions.

Perceptions of strategic orientation

Perceptions of senior managers on HR professionals’ strategic orientation are vital in this respect. A research done by Wright and others (2001), compared line and HR executives’ perception of HR effectiveness and found out that there is a “perception gap” between the higher self ratings given by HR executives compared to the ratings given by line executives. They further stated that this gap is highest in the strategic aspects of HR.

As the focus was on the HR function in general and not on the HR professional in specific, there lies a knowledge gap where senior managers’ perceptions regarding the strategic orientation of HR professionals have not been explored.

Increasing emphasis of team synergy needed at strategic level stresses the need for HR to be viewed as a value creator in the eyes of key decision makers (Ulrich & Brockbank, 2005). Hence, the strategic orientation of HR professionals should be well perceived not only by themselves, but also their senior colleagues.

In essence, the key message is that HR is being transformed from a specialised, standalone function to a broad corporate competency in which HR and line managers build partnerships to gain competitive advantage and achieve overall business goals.

The approach for investigation

My research was carried out on a sample of 46 senior managers who were following MBA degree programme at the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM). They represented functions other than HR.

Though I am not intending to discuss the intricate details of the research, I should mention that a structured questionnaire consisting of two parts, one to be filled by the senior managers and the other to be filled by their respective Head of HR was administered.

According to the analysis, only two out of 10 HR professionals are perceived both by themselves as well as their colleagues as having a high strategic orientation. This is in line with previous research findings where low strategic orientation of HR professionals, particularly a perception of such nature in the minds of other senior managers is an acute issue (Wright and others, 2001).

The data analysis also indicates that four out of 10 HR professionals are perceived as operational players, lacking in their strategic orientation. This is also in line with previous research findings, where a heavy burden of administration with short term focus is on the HR professionals was identified as a regular occurrence (Ulrich, 1988).

It was also interesting to note that among the 20% category of business partners, there were few multinationals and a locally owned conglomerate. In the category of 40% where HR professionals were operational players, most of the respective organisations were family owned, with local origin.

The details are captured as shown in Figure 1.

Recommendations for organisations

Three key aspects can be considered in order to improve the strategic orientation of HR professionals.

1.    Strategic involvement of HR: Ensure that HR professional is involved in the strategic decision making process of the organisation.

2.    Strategic alignment of HR: Ensure that HR policies and practices are aligned to the organisational strategic direction, and are reflective of organisation’s long term goals.

3.    Strategic contribution of HR: Ensure that HR function, and particularly the head of HR is accountable for people-related strategic matters and thus should achieved agreed targets. Quantification of targets with appropriate matrices should be a perquisite for this.

Way forward

Despite the limitations of the study with a small sample, it is expected that the findings will be of assistance for both HR professionals as well as senior managers of any organisation, in achieving greater results with synergy. Then there will be an era where the HR should be “on the top” and not only “at the tap”.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a Senior Faculty Member and a Management Consultant attached to the Postgraduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura. He also serves as an adjunct faculty in International Human Resource Management at the Price College of Business, University of Oklahoma, USA. He has over two decades of both private and public sector working experience in diverse environments including Unilever and Nestlé. He has engaged in consultancies in more than 10 countries. He is a Commonwealth AMDISA Doctoral Fellow and Fulbright Postdoctoral Fellow. He holds a Ph.D. and an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management, University of Sri Jayewardenepura and a B.Sc. in Electrical Engineering from the University of Moratuwa. He is also a member of the Chartered Management Institute, UK.)

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