It is likely that HR leadership roles in the future will look markedly different from those of today. Craig Donaldson speaks with Roger Collins and other HR experts from around the world about this future and how HR can best evolve to the next level
As the economic downturn continues to impact on
organisations and their bottom lines, HR lead
ers are under increasing pressure to deliver value
and help improve performance and productiv
ity. The current global recession is akin to being
in a pressure cooker for many organisations, and it also
presents an opportunity to revisit the current model of HR
and how it can best add real value to organisations.
Roger Collins, Professor Emeritus at the University of
NSW and Chairman of Grant Thornton Australia, says
that most schools of thought about HR leadership in the
future tend to be somewhat linear, however, this approach
could limit opportunities for developing the profession.
“If we rise to this challenge, we may be able to not only
deal with the current criticisms and limitations of the HR
leader role and contribution, but also to create new occu
pational categories and roles which offer breakthroughs
that parallel the benefits of new organisational forms.”
On one level, Collins says HR leaders are threatened by
marginalisation or lack of relevance and impact. Either
their reporting relationships are to a CFO or corporate
services manager, or there can be a failure by the whole
executive team to accept collective accountability for the
people space, he says.
Furthermore, search consultants complain about the
lack of an adequate pool of credible and high potential
HR leaders. “In the absence of supply, organisations will
move and are moving to other solutions – to people
thought and practice leadership,” Collins says.
This presents an opportunity to redefine HR as a pro
fession, he says, as old occupational categories can often
reflect the needs, knowledge and skill base of the past,
rather than either the needs of the present or the future. He
gives the example of how the titles of doctor and nurse
fail to capture developments in medical knowledge and
practice, and so result in silos that continue to plague hos
pital effectiveness and good patient care.
A look at the future of HR
Collins says that education is already witnessing the
development of many hybrid university degrees: law and
commerce; biology and engineering; and philosophy and
IT. By combining theories and perspectives, he says,
graduates can add value in ways that go beyond unitary
The same principle can benefit HR. For example,
Collins says that at one level, the integration of finance
and accounting with HR opens opportunities to do more
effective cost benefit analyses of organisational initiatives
and net present values for HR capital investments.
Another example is integrating HR with IT, which could
produce more effective modelling, problem-solving heuris
tics and artificial intelligence in the people space. And
combining marketing with HR could produce the
integration of corporate and employment brands that pro
vide seamlessness between employee behaviour and the
experiences promised to clients or customers.
“Hybrid vigour at this level is not difficult to conceive,”
Collins says. “So why would we defend a historical and
pure HR occupational category, when a hybrid might pro
vide more relevance to emergent organisational issues, bet
ter integrative thinking, more holistic solutions and fewer
cross silo turf wars? All of this is not to preclude the con
tinuation of HR specialists. It just means that we will need
some new job titles to reflect new roles and contributions.”
The role of the HR leader
By applying this principle to the role of the HR leader,
Collins says it is possible to conceive of an executive role
that integrates marketing, people and external stakehold
ers/corporate relations, in addition to spanning both organ
isational performance and adaption.
“If we can identify or develop leaders who are multi
disciplinary in their skills and holistic in their thinking,
they would have the potential to act on organisational
problems and decisions in ways that create integrative
solutions and more effective outcomes through the align
ment of action,” he says.
“In turn, this reduces the span of control of CEOs and
enables smaller executive teams – outcomes that have been
shown to lead to better organisational performance.”
These “role breakers” might be found in fringe or emer
gent industries. Taking a lesson from history, Collins says
that in the industrial revolution, breakthroughs in iron
and steel, confectionery, banking and cleaning products
often came from Quakers: “fringe dwellers who were not
subject to the pressures for conformity that characterised
mainstream society and religious denominations”.
Furthermore, cross-functional leaders could be prepared
through education in different disciplines and cross-silo career
development. “In turn, we should encourage cross-functional
conferences, where bodies such as AHRI join with other
groups to foster knowledge transfer and multiple perspectives
on common problems and decisions,” he says.
The need to experiment
CEOs, boards and organisations must be prepared to
experiment, and be prepared to accept that early attempts
may be less than satisfactory, Collins says. “After all, Edi
son made more than 4000 attempts before he produced a
satisfactory light bulb. In these experiments we should
take courage in the knowledge that such transformations
have characterised the history of HR,” he says.
“What began as welfare, evolved into personnel
administration and then personnel management, human
resources, human capital and beyond. However, this
time we will have to be prepared to both accept and
apply qualitatively different knowledge and patterns of
thinking and give up some of our turf to achieve genuine
Instead of adding more competencies to the HR leader
role or extending its reach, the current environment pro
vides an opportunity for a change in HR value creation,
“Courage, imagination, patience and persuasion are
needed for pathfinders to build a better future,” Collins
says. “Are you up to this challenge? Or, to paraphrase
Ashley Brilliant: will you find it easier to continue to be a
result of the past or a cause of the future?”
A more prominent role
HR leaders in the future need to play a more prominent role in interacting with the board and influencing the quality of corporate governance, according to Andrew Lambert, co-founder of the Corporate Research Forum.
"This incorporates a more forceful role in ensuring that pay and performance arrangements at the top add to, rather than undermine, the organisational reputation," he says. "However, this also involves addressing with the board other critical elements that ultimately determine profitability, performance and organisational resilience - such as leadership bench-strength, talent pools and key competencies, levels and drivers of engagement, innovativeness and ethics."
Lambert, who recently conducted 40 interviews with top HR directors and thought leaders for the Corporate Research Forum report, Configuring HR for tomorrow's challenges, also says that HR leaders should be playing a pivotal role in ensuring top team effectiveness. While leaders are called upon to be role models, in reality top teams usually struggle with collective and personal issues that have significant knock-on effects.
"HR directors need to be using their design skills to ensure team health through the way they use selection, development and team process levers. The best are also already being called upon to achieve a delicate balancing act of being the confidante and coach, directly or indirectly, to both the CEO and his/her key reports. They must be able to challenge and hold up the mirror without fear. This may not be in the job description now, but should be the norm in under 10 years' time," he says.
The critical shift that HR in general needs to make over this time, according to Lambert, is to achieve a higher level of business/commercial understanding, "technical" human resources and organisational development skills, numeracy and influencing skills.
HR directors will have little credibility with colleagues unless they ensure they have a function that talented people really want to join, because it is a place to get ahead and make a significant impact. HR directors need to do three things as a consequence, he says.
"First, create a rigorous and ongoing talent program for HR, eminently justifiable financially and operationally because the organisation cannot afford weakness here," he says.
"Second, provide a personal example in terms of breadth of understanding of business issues, organisational development and other critical knowledge areas, but also as a role model in terms of influencing skills.
"Third," says Lambert, "build an HR leadership team that reflects the two previous points - thus providing strength in depth, reliable succession and continuity."
A collaborative approach
Wayne Cascio, global leadership chair at the University of Colorado's School of Business, says the HR leader of the future will use a collaborative leadership model, in which he or she is comfortable dealing with people from different functional areas as a result of working in functional areas outside of HR.
"They will be multidisciplinary in orientation, and not be an artesian well-driller (very narrow and very deep)," he says. "They will also be educated broadly, not only in business disciplines, but also in history, the arts, philosophy and psychology, and they will also be an intelligent consumer of research, and able to describe the implications of relevant research for their organisation."
HR leaders will also be skilled in managing globally dispersed workforces, and to do this effectively, Cascio says, they will have to be cosmopolitan in orientation, and able to interact smoothly with people from very different backgrounds, cultures and even languages from their own. "To develop that kind of international 'savvy,' HR leaders will have to live and work overseas to develop cross-cultural experience," Cascio says.
Additionally, HR leaders will need to understand their business from the bottom up and how it competes in the marketplace in order to add value for their CEO. "CEOs need HR leaders who can add value to strategic decisions," Cascio said. "They want HR leaders who are comfortable with numbers and are able to discern their implications, and they want HR leaders who can convey important intelligence about the workforce - likes, dislikes, preferences, and aspirations."
CEOs want to have confidence that their HR leaders are true partners when it comes to managing talent and competing on "smarts", according to Cascio.
HR leaders who are not able to meet the rapidly changing needs of business will not be able to find jobs, however, the demand for top HR talent shows no sign of abating. "If anything, it will intensify," he says. "CEOs want HR leaders who can hit the ground running to solve pressing business problems.
"Those who cannot do that will not be able to compete for the very best, most challenging, high-paying jobs. They will be relegated to second-tier status, or lower."