Hybrid theory: the future of HR?

by 27 May 2009

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 disciplines.

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 breakthroughs.”

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, he says.

“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."

Most Read