How can HR make a strategic difference within organizations?

Strategic HR Review

ISSN: 1475-4398

Article publication date: 13 April 2012



Harrison, L. (2012), "How can HR make a strategic difference within organizations?", Strategic HR Review, Vol. 11 No. 3.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2012, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

How can HR make a strategic difference within organizations?

Article Type: Strategic commentary From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 11, Issue 3

Thought leaders share their views on the HR profession and its direction for the future

Laura HarrisonHead of Strategic Development – HR Capability at the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

If you “google” strategic HR you’ll catch a glimpse of a seductive landscape, of visioning and adding value, of becoming an influential player in a dynamic world. This said, what’s the reality on the ground? If the destination’s worth it, what is going to equip HR for the journey?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) “Next Generation HR” program encourages us to think differently about the purpose and contribution of the HR function – to believe there’s a level of contribution above being strategically reactive – and to see its role in shaping the future (CIPD, n.d.). This idea seems to resonate with HR practitioners. A total 96 percent of senior HR respondents in the CIPD’s Spring 2011 “HR Outlook” survey (CIPD, 2011a) saw their role as being critical to supporting “organization agility,” that is, to the organization’s ability to anticipate, adapt to and react decisively to internal or external events – see Figure 1.

At times, practice and experience together suggest a more reactive path. Strategic Human Resource Management (SHRM) can be seen as “HR management that provides a strategic framework to support long-term business goals and outcomes,” according to the CIPD’s factsheet on the subject (CIPD, 2011b). Taking a business strategy, really grasping the financial and operational drivers, and working towards creating an aligned HR strategy sounds eminently sensible.

To be able to paint a compelling picture of the journey that will take an organization from A to B is a fantastic attribute that I’m sure most HR directors would be thrilled to hire for. But there’s often a reality that gets in the way. That reality is “change” – a new leader or executive team, a cost and efficiency drive, a merger, a new market or a new deal. During my 15 years’ experience as a practitioner, working in professional services, and in talking with a wide variety of organizations in my role at the CIPD, I have a growing sense of a common language of “change”. Expressions like “change is the new normal,” “shifting goalposts,” and “in today’s ever changing world” seem to be pervasive. Perhaps this language reflects an underlying frustration with reality’s unwillingness to comply with a tidy, manageable response to business strategies?

Aiming for a moving target

This is where the idea of aligning the HR strategy to the business strategy gets tricky. The process can be captured in a sentence, but the reality cannot. These aligned HR strategies are likely to respond to a huge number of challenges, for example, how will the new organization’s values be expressed, what behaviors should be encouraged, what are the talent challenges in the new world, how can we disempower the old organization and empower the new, and, of course, how should we structure ourselves as a function in readiness for this brave new, post-change world? And that’s probably only the beginning.

No power point plan, however beautifully constructed and however seductive to stakeholders, can truly capture the real implications of, for example, “new values” or “changing behaviors.” We know that time, unrelenting intent, leadership commitment and textbooks’ worth of behavioral science hold the keys. But “today’s world is ever changing” and time, in particular, is not on our side. Organizations and HR teams may not be far into the “strategically aligned plan that supports the long-term business goals and outcomes” before these outcomes have changed – the goalposts have moved.

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