HR is in danger of extinction, says Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith, senior vice president of research at talent management software company PageUp and speaker at the upcoming AHRI Adelaide State Conference.
Um, that’s sounds dire. Couldn’t you have waited until I’d finished my cereal before you told me that?
Well yes, agrees Vorhauser-Smith, but it’s a reality being faced by workers across the pay scale – from lawyers to truck drivers – as the workplace faces its biggest transformative change since the Industrial Revolution.
And while HR is uniquely-placed to transform itself, she says, the profession must act now.
In her newly released book Cliffhanger: HR on the Precipice in the Future of Work, Vorhauser-Smith draws on extensive research by PageUp to argue that HR “has reached a nexus point – it’s kind of a “do or die” scenario now for HR and a real wake up call.”
The book’s title may be dramatic – Vorhauser-Smith agrees it’s heavy on the ‘shock factor’ – but the fact of the matter is this conclusion simply reflects the data.
“HR has been grappling with these issues of transformation for the past decade now. And the talk just hasn’t materialised into action for HR to be a true business partner.”
Survival comes down to two things, she says. One is a shift in mindset and another is a shift in the pathways and skills we implement to make change happen.
A mindset shift: from “people person”, to people expert
HR managers need skills in finance, marketing and technology to move the levers that make an impact on business, says Vorhauser-Smith.
“It’s not good enough anymore to go into HR to say ‘I’m a people person, I really love people that’s why I joined HR.’ That’s not what business wants, that’s not what the workforce needs.”
It’s a statement reflective of PageUp’s findings when looking at how many organisations view HR.
“We still constantly hear ‘HR is not aligned with the business’; HR doesn’t add the business value that business managers expect’, ‘they’re not forward-thinking in terms of predictive workforce planning’,” she says.
“We’re still hearing that business just can’t rely on them to be able to match the human capital needs of the future with the business needs of the future.”
Best practice: a rule of thumb or an empty epithet?
Further to the need for HR to evolve beyond outdated perspectives, says Vorhauser-Smith, the “blind reliance” that we place on best practice processes is no longer supported in the digital age.
One chapter in Cliffhanger gives the example of performance management; an HR responsibility that has had its flaws exposed in the digital age. There’s still the expectation that the old best practice processes will solve the problem, she says, but to rely on them is “a nail in the coffin for HR”.
“When business people see HR rolling out the same formula: ‘here’s the best practice model for performance management that we’re going to use, or here’s the change management model’ their eyes just glaze over – they know it doesn’t work and they know it doesn’t have an organisational impact.”
Educational and learning need to equip HR to succeed in the digital age
Vorhauser-Smith suggests AHRI are well-placed to be leading this charge with their drive towards certification of the profession through the AHRI Practising Certification Program. This needs to be driven home in the education and government sectors, where the feedback she gets from HR practitioners is that “the education opportunities available to facilitate HR stepping up to that next level still aren’t there.”
“HR education has been built on an industrial model of HR that is essential so that “professionals know how to play the game,” but in her opinion should simply constitute “HR 101 – and it should be covered in the first semester.”
“The rest of it should be about what it takes to actually support organisations build their businesses through human capital in the future. The pace of change just doesn’t give us the luxury of doing things the way we’ve done them before.”
Cause for optimism
“I’m an optimist, I don’t think HR will disappear but it has to change,” says Transdev people and culture director Paul Birch, whose industry is facing imminent change with the rise of driverless cars in the public sector.
He believes HR’s role in business in the digital age is actually becoming more critical but “if we fail to deliver in the business, the simple fact is the business will find an alternative.”
Hear Sylvia Vorhauser-Smith and other AHRI experts speak at the upcoming AHRI Adelaide State Conference.
Registration closes on Thursday 27 May, CLICK HERE to book your spot.