Want to become more strategic? HR leaders should heed this advice

SAP’s chief learning officer has some choice words for ambitious HR practitioners

Want to become more strategic? HR leaders should heed this advice

The role of a CEO is becoming increasingly difficult as we move forward into the future of work. Digital disruption and the raging talent war are just two examples of issues faced by businesses globally. The digital era is filled with uncertainty but despite brimming with challenges, it’s also rife with opportunities for HR.

As one CEO stated bluntly: “When s*** hits the fan, the first thing that management will say is ‘we didn’t have the right person for the job’. The root cause of anything good or bad that happens with a company is its people.”

And “people” are right up HR’s alley, so, as leaders in the field this turbulent time is exactly the chance for HR to reclaim their role and help the organization navigate the uncertain business landscape.

But where should HR begin?

“It’s really about starting with the big picture,” SAP’s chief learning officer Jenny Dearborn told HRD at their recent SuccessConnect event in Las Vegas. The event was their biggest yet with a turnout of over 2,500 attending to discuss the future of HR.

“Start by asking: ‘What are we here to accomplish?’ ‘What are our goals?’ In a perfect world, what would good look like?”

She added that the best way to digitally transform and effect change in an organization is to question what you know and put yourself in the shoes of the business leaders.

“Think more like a business person and question all the traditional goals and metrics that HR has had to manage itself against in the past. It’s surprising to me when I go around the world and talk to my peers and they’re very stuck in a traditional way of thinking,” she said.

What she means by “traditional thinking” is the belief that HR remains in a transactional role, processing “tickets” for those who are non-compliant with the rules of the organization and merely serving an operational function with functions such as payroll.

“How about preventing the problem that causes the ‘ticket’ in the first place?” she said.

“HR professionals need to question their work and ask themselves what is the ultimate business objective? What would the CEO and shareholders want to achieve?

“HR needs to think about things differently. It’s not just about the transactional role anymore. It’s about the business outcome.”

Partner your way to success

Asking the right questions is the first practical step HR can take to transform itself. What’s next? Dearborn echoed SAP’s CHRO Stefan Ries who said that: “HR needs to be data savvy. We're not just the 'soft side' of the house."

After figuring out the goals you want to achieve for the organization, she said that it’s pertinent you find out what data you have access to that tells you “whether you’ve been good or bad at achieving those goals”.

It’s only through this that HR can understand the data better and figure out how you can efficiently and effectively attain those goals. As always, data is only valuable when it is applied to a practical solution and outcome.

If you’re not data-savvy, fret not — Dearborn suggested partnering with individuals who are, whether internally or externally.

“In Stefan’s team, we have several statisticians, so I have more than one peer with a PhD in statistics,” she said. “SAP has a whole team within HR that focuses on analytics and machine learning.

“If you don’t have [the knowledge] yourself, you need to go out and get it. You need to bring somebody into your team who has the knowledge.”

What if the business leaders don’t see the value in hiring data scientists or in-house IT professionals for HR? Dearborn believes that’s still no excuse for a lack of savviness — you can always rely on existing “experts” in the company.

“A lot of corporations already have people who are comfortable with data — those in the marketing department, for instance. If you can’t hire someone into HR then you need to partner someone in other functions because there’s bound to be people who are comfortable with data analytics,” she said.

If all else fails, she suggests embarking on a personal quest to upskill yourself.

“If you don’t find [technical experts] in marketing, there are lots of courses you can take that are free online,” she said.

“There’s a lot of reading you can do and white papers available. With 15 minutes of rigorous Google research, you can find multiple sources to educate yourself.”

Get comfortable

Collaboration is thus the best way for HR to progress. Coping with digital transformation is not about becoming an IT expert, Dearborn explained it's about being comfortable with things like data, machine learning and algorithms, as well as understanding how the new rules of working apply to HR.

Having a technical background is undeniably a plus, but not having one shouldn’t hinder HR from transforming and transcending HR’s reputation as an operational role, into a more strategic one.

It’s about breaking out of the old silo-ed ways of working and collaborating across functions to optimize your output and contribute to the ultimate business outcomes.

“You have the HR part: the emotional empathy, the emotional intelligence, the instincts around people — that’s great,” she said. “You’ve got to partner with a technical expert so that you can learn from them and they can learn from you.

“In today’s world, it is absolutely essential for HR to be extremely comfortable with technology,” Dearborn said. This is especially due to how tech is infiltrating HR and pushing it to automate so much of its role.

“You need to be very curious about how you bring innovation and tech into traditional processes. Someone who is scared of technology is really in the wrong profession if they’re thinking of HR.”

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