HR yesterday, today and tomorrow

Personnel Today has a feature in which students studying for a Master’s Degree in HR management speculate about what the profession will be like in twenty years time. The article begins:

HR has changed enormously in the past two decades.

As someone who got his first HR job twenty years ago, I feel well qualified to comment on this. Yes, HR has changed but not as much as you might think. If you had recorded a conversation between a group of HR managers in 1988, you would be surprised at how much of it would sound familiar now. The moan about HR not being strategic and not having a seat on the board or the management team was something I heard in my first few weeks as a trainee. Even then, people were talking about how line managers needed to take more responsibility for managing their people, rather than getting HR to pick up the mess.

The paperless office was just around the corner, or so we were told. In fact, many organisations have only recently automated paper-based processes like their recruitment documentation and job offers. HR officers still go scurrying off to flick through paper personnel files in response to requests from line mangers, only to find that the dopey temp they got to deal with the backlog has filed things in the wrong place. Don’t tell me this doesn’t happen any more because I have seen two examples of it recently, one in the public sector and one in the private sector.

In 1988, HR systems were soon going to take away most of our administrative tasks, leaving us free to become more strategic. Line managers would use the tools that the system provided to do run their own reports and generate their own documentation. Alas, Manager-Self-Service, although promoted energetically by the HR software suppliers, has still only been implemented in a handful of organisations. It would be over-stating the case to say that technology has not changed HR – it has, just as it has changed every other management function. The change has just not been as sweeping as we thought it would be

We talked about HR transactional shared service centres too, ten years before Dave Ulrich. I managed a prototype of one in the mid 1990s. Organisations are still going through the process of setting up such facilities now. Then, as now, the transactional side was more straightforward than getting the HR managers to develop the skills necessary to be true business partners. Without their traditional operational duties, a lot of them found themselves at sea. Many organisations did not think through that side of the equation and failed to provide adequate development and support. That is still true today.

As I sat in my first HR management lectures at the tail end of the 1980s, we discussed the impending doom of the demographic time-bomb. The shortage of young people would, we were told, leave organisations desperately short of talent. The tight labour market would achieve what legislation had failed to do. Companies would have to overcome their prejudices and recruit older workers, people from ethnic minorities and women with children, providing the flexible hours contracts that would attract them back to work. Then the post Lawson-boom recession hit and suddenly there was a surplus of labour again. The demographic time-bomb was tidied away into a small box, only to reappear in a different form as the War-for-Talent, once the economy had picked up again.

I’m aware that I sound like an old git, saying, “I’ve seen it all before,” but I am struck by how little has changed in the HR profession. Perhaps the biggest change during the late 1980s was the almost complete disappearance of Industrial Relations from the HR skill-set. As union power collapsed, along with the industries in which it was strongest, those who had built up an expertise in managing union negotiations, at national, regional and local level, found their skills no longer in demand. As a result, such people are now scarce and, when organisations are faced with industrial unrest, they often struggle to find people with the right skills to deal with it. Interestingly,Thomas Hoskins, one of the students interviewed for the article, wants to go into employee relations – the new term for IR, but without the smokestack connotations. He also reckons he will work full-time in an office and I think he’s probably right.

The other great potential change for HR is the interest that CEOs are now taking in the management of people. Yes, twenty years ago they said, “Our people are our greatest asset,” and they still do, only now I get the feeling that a lot more of them mean it. Have a look at the business books on sale next time you go to the airport or railway station. The majority of them are about managing people. Senior executives understand that, in a knowledge based economy, a lot of the value of the company sits in the heads of its people. Behaviours, skills and relationships can be the key to competitive advantage.

Did you notice that I wrote potential change? A recent survey that noted the increasing interest in people management among CEOs also found that relatively few of them saw their HR functions as playing a key role. Just because executives are getting more interested in people management, it doesn’t mean that HR will automatically get a seat on the board.

I hope that HR in twenty years time will be a more strategic function and will be more valued in most organisations than it is now. I fear that it will miss the boat and that consultants, motivational gurus, life coaches, astrologers and faith-healers will fill the gap. It’s up to those in the HR profession now to make sure that doesn’t happen and to leave a strong legacy for the students interviewed in Personel Today and their peers.

MA student Dimitrios Tsoumpos says:

I don’t think the HR situation will change that much in 20 years. HR professionals won’t change that much, either.

I think you may well be right, Dimitrios. The future is rarely as futuristic as we think it will be.

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4 Responses to HR yesterday, today and tomorrow

  1. HR Wench says:

    You don’t sound like an old git at all. You sound like you know what you’re talking about.

    The thing I can’t stand about HR is that we have to prove ourselves over and over again and anytime an executive doesn’t value us it’s OUR fault. There has got to be a better way.

  2. Rick says:

    Thanks, Wench. You’ve made an old git very happy! 😉

  3. Ditto to HR Wench!

    You are not an old git at all. Age in HR is relative.

    In many instances, HR is not invited to the table because the person sitting at the head of the table doesn’t want HR as a guest. They don’t want to share their bountiful feast!!

    In some instances HR is not invited because, lets’ face it, the head of HR doesn’t have a clue (but that tends to be rare). Those individuals typically do not last long, unless the person at the head of the table prefers a weak, less than adequate HR head. Someone who is not going to ask for seconds, or tell the person at the head of the table that they need to change their diet.

    Self confident HR folks who are not being invited should, in most instances, find a more progressive organization…..period!

    robert edward cenek
    Cenek Report
    Uncommon Commentary on the World of Work

  4. Ms. Hopeful says:

    I can certainly say that in my organization we have worked tirelessly to change the image of HR. Initially, when I joined the organization, HR management was seen as rubber stamping operational actions. Now through years of hard work HR is seen in the organization as adding value and my last two CEOs’ valued the contributions that I together with my department brought. Now I have just been appointed a director on our company board. So it is not as hopeless in all organizations. I thing that I have learnt in the process is that I had to modify how I saw my role, and how I approached things, which included not limiting myself to just HR but to the business. This helped me.

    Hope it helps others as well

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