Bringing HR up to speed

by 20 Feb 2007

There are a number of steps HR professionals can take to bring their business skills up to speed. Craig Donaldson speaks with Andy Berry, general manager of Fuji Xerox Global Services, about improving the effectiveness of HR

What are your impressions about the business effectiveness of HR in general?

I think I’ve seen HR change quite significantly over the past 10 to 12 years, from being quite a back office traditional personnel type function, to becoming predominantly more business focused and taking a more business partnering approach.

The good managers in HR tend to be the strong young ones coming through, who have a really good understanding of the business and the role of people within the business. They take a proactive view of supporting business divisions, rather than just focusing on functional things like payroll, leave, sickness and legal advice around personnel management issues.

What distinguishes these good young HR managers from others?

There seems to be a trend, if you look at the mid-20sthrough to mid-30s, with a very dynamic group of young HR managers who are moving jobs quite regularly. They’re prepared to move roles to gain experience. They’re also prepared to move to roles outside of their traditional comfort zone.

For example, I’ve had a couple over the past few years who have consciously moved for a two to three year stint into a client facing role, be it sales or operational contract management, so that they’ve got some kind of real coalface experience, rather than just being in the head office environment.

They also seem to be fairly well read in business trends. Because they’re working quite closely with the business division, they’re gaining and desiring a kind of innate understanding of what issues the business is facing and how it’s tackling those, rather than just having a theoretical or paper thin understanding.

Sometimes your older style HR managers with a strong personnel type mindset talk a bit like they understand the business, but you know that they really don’t. I would say these HR managers are in the minority though – maybe a third or less of HR managers tend to be very risk adverse and play very much by the letter of the law, rather than having a real understanding of business and being able to deal effectively with real world situations.

How can you tell if they have a real understanding of the business?

As soon as you expect them to take a proactive role, as part of the management team, in addressing a business issue, it becomes immediately apparent that they might understand some of the corporate rhetoric, may have read and digested some of the internal communications, but haven’t really understood what it means. They can’t empathise and put themselves in the position of the line managers they are supporting enough to be really adding value. They perform supporting tasks but don’t really get that involved.

For example, let’s take a business process like an employee satisfaction survey. For older style HR managers, it might be about deploying the survey and the mechanics of this. For a newer style of HR manager, it might be about maximising the impact of the survey process within the business and consequently generating employee loyalty, proactively tackling issues that are raised, working across functions and bringing parts of the organisation together to do this. A proactive HR manager is more innovative in these areas and has a good understanding of how important these things are as well as the relationship between culture and the strength of the business. It’s a very different approach to addressing the issue, rather than just collecting the results and then dressing them up to reduce perhaps the area of work that needs to be done.

What areas does HR help you most in business?

There are probably two key areas. One is the general area of talent management within the business – getting the organisation to really address how we manage our people by looking at things like succession planning, management development, especially for middle management, graduate recruitment and development programs and nurturing high flyers.

We’ve always been a business that’s been prepared to take a degree of risk with bright young people who are future potential leaders and managers. We allow them to cut their teeth in the real world, rather than being an organisation that bureaucratically develops people in the classroom for a role. So HR is formalising some of these processes and getting the business to address this more aggressively as an organisation.

The other area where HR is helping is in really getting embedded inside the business divisions. So rather than being a complete cross-organisational task-focused personnel management function, certain individuals and managers within the HR division are now embedded within the different operating divisions within the company, so they really are living the daily management of the business.

So my HR manager reports hard line into the HR director, but she has a very firm dotted line into me, and sits on my core leadership team in all my monthly management meetings. She is also engaged with some of the strategic development initiatives around various aspects of HR strategy, recruitment, communication as well as training and development, along with my line managers, who are actually working on developing solutions in the business. That kind of change can be led by a good HR director.

Would you agree that in order for a good HR director to be effective, they need a CEO who understands the value of HR?

I completely agree. The trick is in getting HR recognised by the business as adding value, rather than being a blocker or inhibiter or a process constraint. The only way to do that is to get them working alongside the business in solving the business’ problems, and then they can bring their expertise to bear on those problems.

Key to this is leadership that can bring the two together as collaborative partners, rather than seeing them as functions who work separately. Once you’ve done that, it’s down to the calibre of the HR management team or their willingness to learn and grow that determines whether it can be a success or not.

What steps could HR professionals take in order to improve their business skill set?

For the junior ranks of HR – maybe those in their first 10 years of the profession – their career path can sometimes be constrained by the nature of HR itself. They need to gather real world business experience, and it’s only when they break through the mould of having got into a middle management role that they start to have the freedom to deploy some of their personality or individual leadership styles. I do think the junior ranks of the HR profession does tend to bring through people who fit a perceived mould of how HR should be.

So I think HR can lose out on some of the dynamism or energy that I’ve seen in some of the smaller companies that we’ve worked with – maybe that’s a reflection on corporates. Some of these smaller companies tend to have a much smaller HR function, and if they’ve got a good bright young HR manager in there, then they’ve got a whole gambit of things on their plate. That’s where you see some really good HR people coming from. They just develop extremely fast, because they’re very capable and they’re not constrained by the processes and thinking that the corporates tend to have embedded in their HR groups.