It wasn’t until the 1950s or so that human resources became a formal business function. At that time, there may have been one or two people assigned to manage workforce matters, stuffed away in a dusty old ofﬁce, all but forgotten until someone needed something. While HR may have played an important role, it certainly was not viewed as a strategic player in a company’s success.
Decades later, with globalization on the rise, technological advances changing the way business worked, and burgeoning economies expanding the marketplace, labor demands grew exponentially and soon HR began to carve out its niche as a critical partner in achieving business results. Where HR primarily looked after hiring, ﬁring and general employee management, there was now a demand for specialized labor, global team-building and the complexities that come with it — for helping to build a company where people wanted to work in the midst of intense competition.
While HR has long served as a backbone supporting business execution, there never has been a greater time for HR to play an instrumental role in a company’s success. Today, HR can add value to any mission-critical activity in the enterprise, as change-makers, problem-solvers, strategists and conduits for the customer’s voice.
Early Warning System
Just like a chef uses speciﬁc ingredients in certain measurements to achieve the perfect balance of ﬂavors, HR needs to understand exactly what components a company requires to produce the best results. By developing a clear knowledge of how the business works, HR has the potential to alert the business to potential issues ahead. But to create this “early warning system,” HR must have insights to business indicators that predict how a business will perform. For example:
- Accurate insight into sales team performance, at every stage of the sales cycle, is an important indicator of how the company can execute on larger plans. Does the team struggle with lead generation, for instance? Are they bogged down in chasing renewals rather than building out a relationship?
- Product launches. Cross-functional teams must collaborate to ensure an effective launch; clear and tight alignment across an organization is critical to maximize impact. Is the company consistently launching on schedule or chronically pushing out dates?
- Customer support. Customer feedback today can make or break a business. Input must be interpreted, measured, and fed back to managers and executives in a way that results in actionable improvements.
One of the most effective methods of developing deep operational knowledge is leveraging the insights and relationship the HR business partners (HRBPs) have to the business. Whether HRBPs are embedded within a business unit or work in a matrixed structure, their ability to connect the dots between the strategic and operational levers of the business can help leaders address threats to productivity or growth on the horizon.
Data and analytics team members also serve to inform the road ahead. Through annual companywide surveys and regular “pulse” surveys, data collected anonymously can provide candid and sometimes unexpected light on issues facing the business. While free-form questions will elicit many personal opinions and highly subjective perspectives, employee perception is a major inﬂuencer across the company and, as a result, this data must be part of every top-level conversation to:
- Ensure the right problems are being solved.
- Measure employee engagement.
- Gauge sentiment.
Whether the solution demands better management capability, more frequent and transparent communications or changes to talent and structure, HR has the tools to address or mitigate in each of these areas — but not without understanding the root causes impacting performance.
While HR can manage change during internal business challenges, external inﬂuences, which are at constant play, must be an equal part of the conversation.
- Economic landscape. Macroeconomic conditions around the world are beyond the control of any enterprise, but HR has an obligation to understand the landscape and how it may inﬂuence the business to anticipate and address the impact on your workforce and the company’s operations. One example may be an economic downturn in a region where the company is likely to see a major and protracted decline in sales. HR’s workforce planning team should take the opportunity to proactively manage the local landscape to minimize the impact on the business and the valued employees who work there.
- Regulatory and compliance issues. When the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) came into effect in early 2018, all companies who do business within the European Union were legislated to adhere to a certain set of standards to ensure all personal data was secure and kept private. The added layer of complexity was that the GDPR included more than customer data under its protection — it was for employees’ protection, too. That meant the GDPR was more than a technology problem to solve — it required a mindset change within the workforce, one that required employees to hold themselves and each other to a higher level of accountability when it comes to information that provides personal identiﬁcation. HR facilitated this major overhaul of processes and policies in many companies, work that required major cross-functional effort over the two years given for compliance. Penalties from regulators can vary from ﬁnes to business closure for noncompliance, but the GDPR is a strong reminder that employee trust also can be at risk.
- Competitive landscape. Regardless of where a company ranks in its industry, it’s critical to know where the competition sits, too, so you can identify workforce adjustments needed to grow or maintain one’s position. Your product may sit at the top of the market, but how far behind is the next competitor? What gaps exist between sitting at No. 1 and being the runner-up? Building a strong connection with product marketing to understand the competition, coupled with customer feedback and sales cycle knowledge, creates a comprehensive picture of a product’s true posture and the opportunities to maintain or grow that position. A smaller HR team may not have the resources to build its own expertise in these areas, but building a network of experts across business units can be just as effective in creating deeper understanding.
Connecting Culture to Business Results
“If you build it, they will come.” If only that were true when it comes to business execution. The fact is, no matter how clearly a company deﬁnes its targets, if the culture doesn’t support that direction, those goals are not worth the PowerPoint slide they’re written on.
There’s good reason so many companies hire outside ﬁrms to assist with culture-building — it’s an enormous task. Deﬁning the culture needed to deliver on your company goals is just one piece of the puzzle; getting clear on the culture that already exists is equally daunting. With mergers and acquisitions happening more and more, and team members spread across the globe, it’s not unusual to discover a company’s culture isn’t one thing — it’s actually a collection of cultures. With a working knowledge of the business and the external factors inﬂuencing operations, developing the vision for how a team works together every day and how to manage the change to get there may be one of the most important tasks HR has today.
Today, more than before, culture must balance business results with employee success, celebrating the unique and individual perspectives each team member brings. Diversity and inclusion are a hot topic today, not because it’s “politically correct” but because it drives business success. For a company like Symantec with a legacy founded on innovation, success demands being intentional when it comes to hiring, and seeking diverse experiences and perspectives in order to envision tomorrow’s ideas and bring them to life.
Deﬁning a culture is no easy task; building a culture cannot happen overnight. But by connecting culture to the business and ensuring a company’s practices and policies align at every point, an organic change truly can take hold.
HR has come a long way from the early days of being summoned from that cubicle in the basement to getting a seat at the C-level table. In some companies, HR still faces the challenge of being recognized as a strategic partner. Any HR organization ready to unlock its value needs to draw upon a number of tools to ensure success. Strive to:
- Act with resilience and grit. Demonstrating HR’s value as a strategic partner is a marathon, not a sprint. Start with focused goals and build upon your successes.
- Build strong relationships with key stakeholders. Understanding the business is critical to problem-solving so having a solid network of subject matter experts is a must, particularly with smaller HR organizations.
- Fearlessly ask questions. HR practitioners must be like investigators solving a mystery or journalists getting to the bottom of a story. Modeling transparency and authenticity in conversations will help to build a reputation based on trust.
Data is your friend: Use it to drive insights and decision-making. Many leaders are inﬂuenced purely by data and therefore facts and research must support HR-led conversations.
Unlocking HR’s value is an investment. Ensuring HR plays an active — not passive — role in a company’s operations requires time, focus and a clear plan. HR can play a central role in assessing an enterprise’s condition, devising the response it needs, being a critical connection between the customer and the company, and keeping operations on the path that delivers on an organization’s mission. Getting this right requires going deep to understand the issues, investing time in thoughtful solutions, and building strong relationships to implement change — a truly holistic approach.
It is only then that HR’s hidden value can be unlocked, creating a direct and unyielding bond between human resources and business results.