We need to redraw the boundaries of where HR fits into business


HR is not a supplement to a business. It’s at the beating heart of every organisation. An organisational strategy expert shares her thoughts.

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 fifty executives, we were sharing insights and learnings from the day. The head of a retail division (a non-HR Exec) of a company 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 was so struck by this comment. I don’t remember what he said after. I thought, aren’t HR professionals part of running the business? In that moment I realised this was the real problem HR faces.

This executive saw HR 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 their heads in agreement. No one challenged his theory. Was no one else surprised by this statement? Or were they just as nervous as I was to call him out?

I agonised for a few minutes wondering if I should say something. I didn’t want to challenge him in the group, but I knew what he had said was a ‘gift’ that shouldn’t be passed up. I realised it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t just his assumption. It was a deeply embedded collective systemic hypothesis.

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. Until that moment this had not been visible to me. I believe that HR is a vital part of the business and has a critical role to play in ensuring business success. The business was not a separate entity that HR served.

I found my voice, and the courage to speak:

“That’s the real problem. You don’t get out of HR to run the business, in my mind HR is a vital part of running the business and of it being successful.”

He blushed and acknowledged his error.  There was a collective disquiet and murmuring around the circle, as the implicit assumptions we were all holding were revealed. The veil was lifted, it was an uncomfortable but important discovery.

Not just a technical change

I left the workshop with a new understanding that the real challenge that HR and 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 this narrative is not history, it’s still very current. It’s my understanding that this collective systemic hypothesis is still running us.

There are a few organisations where the green shoots of a new system are emerging, but it’s 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” or “the business doesn’t want that”. It’s also reflected in HR job titles and roles, the predominant one being the HR business partner.

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.

We shouldn’t confuse the job of HR business partner, with the role of the HR subsystem in the business. Paradoxically, we could keep the title of HR business partner but reframe its meaning.

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.

Resetting roles

The real work we need to do is to 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 away from HR being a “service provider” and “order taker”, to HR being real partners in the business, with mutual accountability for commercial business outcomes.

At the same time, we need to give the 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 be both people, culture and business leaders simultaneously.

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.

Joan Lurie is the CEO of Orgonomix.


Use AHRI’s online HR Certification Pathfinder to find the pathway that best suits your skill level and HR experience.

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Isaac
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Isaac

Can a business run without HR? YES. That’s the problem. Because the business does not see much value in their existence. Other departments can do everything that HR does. One of the principal function of HR is ” Employee competence development” . This function is outsourced by HR to an external organization. When I was in HR I made sure that I and my team run world class workshops on soft skills ourselves, in-house. We did not farm it out. The respect we gained by doing that was massively significant. We instantly became an integral part of the business.

Sherie
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Sherie

Can a business run without HR? It depends on what business we are talking about? which class of business? what is the ranking of that organization?
Generally speaking , it is sad but that’s the way it is. I my self as HR manager has always been faced with this problem. HR attitude is very important to improve this view.

Michael
Guest
Michael

This is a very generalist view of HR as administration function. Human Resource management can be change agents, organisational development experts, L & D influencers or many many more functions. The two key determiners for Human resource having wider stakeholder influence in the business is the CEO and executive team rating the need for the specialisation and the Human Resource manager understanding their role as a change agent

CJT
Guest
CJT

The situation may well be that HR needs to first identify where HR fits within the organisation and the role/s of HR within the organisation. The first step to this approach could be that HR should eat, drink and sleep the organisation’s strategic business objectives and plans and obtain as much knowledge of the business and especially the individual departments. But hang on; doesn’t HR do this already? Unfortunately and ever since Noah played full-back for Jerusalem, HR has mostly been identified as an administrative function that exists to support, manage and monitor the ‘human’ side of the organisation and… Read more »

More on HRM

We need to redraw the boundaries of where HR fits into business


HR is not a supplement to a business. It’s at the beating heart of every organisation. An organisational strategy expert shares her thoughts.

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 fifty executives, we were sharing insights and learnings from the day. The head of a retail division (a non-HR Exec) of a company 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 was so struck by this comment. I don’t remember what he said after. I thought, aren’t HR professionals part of running the business? In that moment I realised this was the real problem HR faces.

This executive saw HR 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 their heads in agreement. No one challenged his theory. Was no one else surprised by this statement? Or were they just as nervous as I was to call him out?

I agonised for a few minutes wondering if I should say something. I didn’t want to challenge him in the group, but I knew what he had said was a ‘gift’ that shouldn’t be passed up. I realised it wasn’t personal, it wasn’t just his assumption. It was a deeply embedded collective systemic hypothesis.

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. Until that moment this had not been visible to me. I believe that HR is a vital part of the business and has a critical role to play in ensuring business success. The business was not a separate entity that HR served.

I found my voice, and the courage to speak:

“That’s the real problem. You don’t get out of HR to run the business, in my mind HR is a vital part of running the business and of it being successful.”

He blushed and acknowledged his error.  There was a collective disquiet and murmuring around the circle, as the implicit assumptions we were all holding were revealed. The veil was lifted, it was an uncomfortable but important discovery.

Not just a technical change

I left the workshop with a new understanding that the real challenge that HR and 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 this narrative is not history, it’s still very current. It’s my understanding that this collective systemic hypothesis is still running us.

There are a few organisations where the green shoots of a new system are emerging, but it’s 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” or “the business doesn’t want that”. It’s also reflected in HR job titles and roles, the predominant one being the HR business partner.

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.

We shouldn’t confuse the job of HR business partner, with the role of the HR subsystem in the business. Paradoxically, we could keep the title of HR business partner but reframe its meaning.

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.

Resetting roles

The real work we need to do is to 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 away from HR being a “service provider” and “order taker”, to HR being real partners in the business, with mutual accountability for commercial business outcomes.

At the same time, we need to give the 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 be both people, culture and business leaders simultaneously.

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.

Joan Lurie is the CEO of Orgonomix.


Use AHRI’s online HR Certification Pathfinder to find the pathway that best suits your skill level and HR experience.

5
Leave a reply

avatar
100000
  Subscribe to receive comments  
Notify me of
Isaac
Guest
Isaac

Can a business run without HR? YES. That’s the problem. Because the business does not see much value in their existence. Other departments can do everything that HR does. One of the principal function of HR is ” Employee competence development” . This function is outsourced by HR to an external organization. When I was in HR I made sure that I and my team run world class workshops on soft skills ourselves, in-house. We did not farm it out. The respect we gained by doing that was massively significant. We instantly became an integral part of the business.

Sherie
Guest
Sherie

Can a business run without HR? It depends on what business we are talking about? which class of business? what is the ranking of that organization?
Generally speaking , it is sad but that’s the way it is. I my self as HR manager has always been faced with this problem. HR attitude is very important to improve this view.

Michael
Guest
Michael

This is a very generalist view of HR as administration function. Human Resource management can be change agents, organisational development experts, L & D influencers or many many more functions. The two key determiners for Human resource having wider stakeholder influence in the business is the CEO and executive team rating the need for the specialisation and the Human Resource manager understanding their role as a change agent

CJT
Guest
CJT

The situation may well be that HR needs to first identify where HR fits within the organisation and the role/s of HR within the organisation. The first step to this approach could be that HR should eat, drink and sleep the organisation’s strategic business objectives and plans and obtain as much knowledge of the business and especially the individual departments. But hang on; doesn’t HR do this already? Unfortunately and ever since Noah played full-back for Jerusalem, HR has mostly been identified as an administrative function that exists to support, manage and monitor the ‘human’ side of the organisation and… Read more »

More on HRM