Greg Kesler
Human Resource Management Journal, 1995

The Case for Repositioning the HR Function

For more than a decade human resources management has aspired to be a business-partner to general management. Fulmer (1990) characterized the new role as the “right hand to strategy implementation.” Galbraith (1992) has argued for the need to “reposition” the function, much as one would reposition a company to make it more competitive. In Galbraith’s view, a collection of businesses are more valuable together as business group because of the integrating capability the human resources organization provides (in leveraging key talent, for example). The HRM literature and corporate rhetoric alike, make the business-focused HR contribution a strategic imperative. But strategy and practice remain miles apart (Ulrich, 1992).

Today, reengineering has made its way to the top of the agenda, and many, if not most, corporate HR departments have begun to apply reengineering to their own processes. But reengineering today’s delivery systems to radically improve the manner in which benefits are administered, employees are recruited and other services are delivered, will not, in itself, generate greater strategic value to a company. It will reduce waste, and it may result in more satisfied internal clients; but it will not change the fundamental role that HR professionals play in the business, or the value they add to shareholders.

While processes should be redesigned, effectiveness for a given company must be determined by the business strategy. The recent experiences of several Fortune 100 companies demonstrate the importance of a working with top management to contract for a new or realigned role before getting on with the task of reengineering.

The literature and practical experience of scores of companies makes it clear: Strategy does not translate to a value-adding role when there is weak consensus on the nature of the role and inadequate competencies to carry it out.

Several recent efforts to redesign the function have received some attention (See Table I). Viewed together as a whole, three redesign tactics provide opportunities for breakthrough:

  • contracting with line management for a new role for HR,
  • identifying and developing new HR competencies,
  • redesigning HR work, systems and organization.

While each of these design tactics has proven valuable, none is adequate, in itself, to create the level of change necessary to reposition the function as a strategic contributor. Contracting for new roles without the competencies to deliver is pointless; redesigning or eliminating work without a consensus from the client organization leads to confusion and dissatisfied clients; building competencies based on historic assumptions about the role risks obsolescence and disappointment.

Contracting New Roles. One of the single most challenging experiences for many HR executives and their staffs is the multiple sets of expectations that define their role. Throughout business there is great emphasis placed on re-engineering work to assure that each function is “doing the right things” (vs. merely doing things well). Implementing a significantly different role for the function requires buy-in from a broad constituent base; consensus must be built across several sets of stake holders (Olian, 1991):

  • top line management,
  • functional top execs (HR),
  • middle management,
  • employees.

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