Strategic Orientation of HR Professionals: Competencies and Opportunities

Monday, 7 February 2011 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Managers are supposed to contribute to their organisation, towards achieving its short term and long term goals. This is true for HR managers as well. Last week, we looked at the perceptions of strategic orientation of goals in the short term as well.

HR Professionals and Strategic Orientation

We identified an HR professional as a senior person engaged in Human Resources activities as an occupation. We also described strategic orientation as the thinking and action of a person, reflecting the long term plans of the organisation he/she works for.

Let’s move one step forward today, in discussing the how element of it. What are the factors contributing to strategic orientation of HR professionals? A recent research done by me can shed light on this.

Twin Contributors

There are two types of factors contributing to the strategic orientation of HR professionals. I would call them personal factors and organisational factors. Personal factors are related to the individual in focus and are within his/her influence and control. On the other hand, organisational factors relate to the decisions, styles and approaches prevailing in the institution the respective individual is working for.

My research involving HR professionals, CEOs and other senior managers of organisations in Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka highlighted several key personal and organisational factors contributing to the strategic orientation of HR professionals in South Asia. Let’s discuss them in detail.

Personal factors

Based on the qualitative data collected by me, four key personal factors emerged. They are tacit knowledge, conceptual skills, business awareness and societal responsiveness.

Tacit Knowledge is the knowledge gathered through experience in, and exposure to, the strategic decision making process. According to Nonaka and Takeuchi, who did extensive research on this area, it is developed over time, and can be regarded as the “black box” of an individual. With regard to HR professionals, the wealth of experience and exposure they gathered, are of immense help for them to contribute to long term decision making.

Conceptual Skills are the envisioning and analytical skills needed for strategic decision making. Based on original research work by Katz (1974), they are required for developing long term plans. HR professionals equipped with conceptual skills are at an advantage, in contributing to the long term well being of their organisation.

Business Awareness is basically the understanding of the nature of business one’s organisation is engaged in. As Ulrich and Brockbank (2005), repeatedly advocated, it is a must for HR professionals in becoming strategically oriented.  

Societal Responsiveness can be viewed as the engagement in improving the quality of life of the employees and their families as well as local community and society at large. Based on a definition by McGregor (2006), it covers a wide area for HR professionals to contribute to the community in the long run.

Organisational factors

Among the organisational factors emerged as contributors to the strategic orientation of HR professionals in South Asia, there were three main ones. They can be stated as, the leader’s recognition of HR, conducive organisational environment, and performance orientation.

Leader’s recognition of HR highlights the level of emphasis paid on people development. As advocated by Avolio & others (1991) and Pareek (1997), it is basically referred to as the understanding of the CEO on the importance of HR. When such a scenario prevails, it is a ready invitation for the HR professionals to be strategically oriented.

Conducive Organisational Environment is all about the organisational climate which is influential for HR manager to be strategically oriented, with openness in sharing information and encouragement for innovation. Based on research by Rao (1990) and Pareek (1997) mostly in the Indian context, it refers to the values, rituals, practices that support people development.

Performance Orientation refers to the amount of thrust and emphasis from the organisation towards the achievement of set objectives. Kaplan and Norton (2001) did extensive research on this, based on their Balanced Scorecard framework. When the entire organisation is on a measurement mindset, it encourages the HR professional to be more strategically oriented.

The level of presence personal and organisational factors discussed above can be visually depicted as shown in figure 1. Though it looks complicated, the message is simple. Only a high level of presence of both personal and organisational factors ensures strategic orientation of HR professionals.

Figure 1. Factors contributing to Strategic Orientation of HR professionals

Source: Dharmasiri (2007)

Based on the model depicted in figure 1, three undesirable scenarios can be seen. Operational involvement is the result when the presence of both personal as well as organisational factors is at a low level. The other two scenarios refer to two acute deficiencies, which I would like to call as competency and opportunity deficit.

Competency Deficit

This represents a scenario where the organisation provides an opportunity for the HR professional to get involved in the strategic decision making process, but he /she does not capitalise by moving ahead appropriately, as there are serious competency gaps in him/her.

It is a classic case of wrong person handling the job, and obviously, not achieving right results. I would suggest such individuals to have a through soul search, and identify one’s gaps in knowledge and skills, with right attitude. If the situation prevails with no improvement, the frustration of the organisation may result in seeking a better fit.  

Opportunity deficit

This can be the other side of the coin. It is a scenario where the HR professional is willing and able to become a strategic partner, but the organisation does not provide the needed opportunity. It can be caused by not having an enabling leadership, non availability of a supportive climate, and non existence of a performance orientation in the organisation.

I have seen many such cases in the Sri Lankan scenario, where HR role is perceived more as a ceremonial and administrative one, and not as a strategic one. The obvious end result will be a high level of frustration among competent HR professionals paving the way towards greener pastures.

Upgrading Competencies of HR Professionals

 HR professionals cannot survive in an increasingly changing business environment without regularly enhancing his/her knowledge and skills with desired attitude.

Some possible initiatives are:

i.Be in touch with current research done on HR, with understanding and applications where relevant and possible

ii.Embark on development programmes such as short courses on diverse aspects, not only in HR but also in relation to business as a whole.

iii.Think and act with more business sense, with greater understanding on business, by way of being in touch with the rest of the organisation as well as the outside world

Exploring opportunities for HR professionals

Professional networking by means of active membership in organisations related to HR is becoming increasingly important.

Some possible practical actions in this direction are:

i.Becoming a member of already existing HR body, such as Institute of Personnel Management (IPM), Association of HR Professionals (HRP) or Sri Lanka Institute of Training and Development (SLITAD)

ii.Form new bodies to establish greater cooperation related to common issues, despite organisations competing with each other. All HR Managers in banks getting together in one forum to discuss common people issues related to banking can be one such example.

iii.Facilitating activities involving more than one organisation in line with sustainability initiatives, with a clear understanding of the community needs.

Way forward

HR professional tomorrow should be designers of strategy and deliverers of results. Overcoming competency and opportunity deficits is a must in this endeavour. This will happen when commitment of both individual and their institutions towards people development converges to produce great results.

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