Seven ups for HR professionals

Monday, 26 August 2013 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

HR professionals play a vital role in driving the ‘people factor’ for organisational results. Are they on the top or still at the tap? This has been an ongoing debate. In the context that every manager has a people role to play, the contribution from HR professionals has become increasingly important. Today’s column will shed light on this aspect with emphasis on the Sri Lankan scenario. Let’s discuss seven ups for HR professionals. Overview 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. We often hear the rhetoric that every manager is an HR manager. There is a truth in it, in the sense that every manager has a people management role to play. Yet, the reality is that a manager coming from a specific functional background might not have the required capability to handle all the specific people management aspects. Moreover, there has to be a consistent approach with a clear policy framework. The point here is that when every manager plays a ‘people role’, the HR professional’s role is becoming increasingly strategic. He/she has to act like an internal coach, guide, policy setter and an architect of strategy. It in no way makes their role redundant, contrary to naïve thinking of getting rid of them. Research insights I recall that one of my published researches was carried out on a sample of 46 senior managers who were following the MBA degree program at the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM). They represented functions other than HR. Though I don’t intend on discussing 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 high strategic orientation. This is in line with previous research findings where the 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 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 on HR professionals was identified as a regular occurrence (Ulrich, 1988). In essence, what could be seen is not a not so healthy scenario, a clear pointer for the need to improve the strategic orientation of HR professionals. Actions required Three key aspects can be considered in order to improve the strategic orientation of HR professionals. Strategic involvement of HR: Ensure that HR professionals are involved in the strategic decision making process of the organisation. In some cases, the opportunity is not available. In other cases, the respective person is not ready to rise up to the occasion due to competency issues. Strategic alignment of HR: Ensure that HR policies and practices are aligned to organisational strategic direction, and are reflective of organisation’s long term goals. For this to happen, the HR professional has to work closely with other functional colleagues with proper awareness on current issues and future challenges. Strategic contribution of HR: Ensure that HR function, and particularly the head of HR, is accountable for people-related strategic matters and thus, should achieve agreed targets. Quantification of targets with appropriate matrices should be a perquisite for this. It highlights the leadership dimension of a HR professional where ownership of results has to be a must. Seven ups for enhancement The time has come for Sri Lankan HR professionals to move beyond an operational and administrative mindset, by making a significant strategic contribution towards their organisations. Unlike their financial counterparts, it is not easy to quantify the contribution they make. Matters become worse where they have to work with an organisational head who is number driven and bottom line oriented. It is a clarion call for HR professionals to rethink how they act. I call the bundling of the sure-fire path ‘seven ups’. It essentially refers to seven action dimensions. In a nutshell, they are: Waking up, shaking up, brushing up, linking up, looking up, growing up and cheering up. Let’s go into details. Wake up It simply invites the HR professionals to be aware of what’s going on. Slowly but surely, modern managers are realising that the complex situations they face cannot be approached in a routine manner. Indeed, the quest for creative solutions has become pervasive. Knowing business realities with an ‘outside-in approach’ is what is required. It is all about awakening to new possibilities, new associations and new connections. A forward-looking HR professional has to be aware of the future challenges facing the organisation in proactively preparing for them. Shake up This is all about challenging assumptions. HR professionals need to avoid the ‘quick-fix’ trap. The simple argument here is that conventional thinking will take you only to a certain point. If you truly want your organisation to make a difference in this world and in the marketplace, then be vigilant in scanning the horizon for new and creative models for doing business. When more attention is given to the untested and untried, and less attention spent on the routine and status quo, this can happen. Brush up HR professionals need to shape ideas, moving them from a raw to ripe state. Brainstorming is one powerful tool for this purpose. They should start by suspending their judgment and self-criticism, and then write down related ideas and possible solutions. The goal is to generate as many ideas as possible in a relatively short span of time. Next, focus on clarifying and refining the ideas in order to arrive at the best possible choice. It reminds me how gems are found and further shined. Ideas also need to be treated with respect and attention. That is the only way to move forward with innovation and implementation. Link up HR professionals should see connections clearly. They should be creative in connecting what is seemingly unconnected. Another aspect of linking up is social networking. It should be with other HR professionals as well as other functional managers. A two-way exchanging process of knowledge and experience should take place. It is also a case of sharing best practices in moving towards next set of excellent practices. Look up This is the need for advice and guidance in a corporate setting. If an employee is not given time or encouragement to be creative and innovative, it can almost certainly be guaranteed that new projects and new mechanisms for their delivery will not be born. Nothing new will happen. The key word here is encouragement. It depends and hinges on how senior leadership demonstrates its commitment towards people management. Too often, the atmosphere becomes poisoned by criticism that fosters insecurity, anger and personal agendas with very little consensus building, collaboration or fun. Senior leadership sometimes fails to realise that what it says and does in this context is more powerful than any speech or policy made. It takes two hands to clap. HR professionals should look up to the corporate leaders, convincing them for possible investments in people development. Visionary leaders will always realise and act promptly. A challenge occurs is when it does not happen so smoothly. That is when the HR professional should demonstrate interpersonal skills coupled with business awareness in quantifying the expected results in a comprehensive manner. Backing up at this juncture is not the solution. Grow up It refers to maturity and expertise. HR professionals must be aware of the latest insights into key HR practice areas related to talent sourcing, talent development, performance accountability, organisation design and communication. Let me quote Dave Ulrich here: “Effective HR professionals help the collective HR practices to reach the tipping point of high impact on business results by ensuring that HR  practices are focused with discipline and consistency on a few but centrally important business issues”. I think we have a dire need to improve this aspect in Sri Lanka. As some of the CEOs lament, “my head of HR knows HR, but not the business”. There is a key requirement for innovating HR practices directed at business improvements. Cheer up HR professionals have to be radiators and reflectors of positive energy. I was often told by my ‘learning partners’ (mostly MBA students), that their respective HR professionals do not even smile. The apparent gap and distance both in friendly approach as well as collaborative decision-making may lead to dire consequences. Human energy management is a growing area of research where unleashing of potential comes to the forefront. HR professionals should be the forerunners in this endeavour and cheering up the rest of the team is an absolute must for this. Way forward Time has come for Sri Lankan HR professionals to change for the better in becoming more strategic oriented with multiple value additions in focus. The seven ups discussed above with be a significant start for such a move. What is more needed is to ‘do and deliver’ results than to ‘tell and yell’. (Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri works at the Postgraduate Institute of Management. He can be reached on or