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Our CEO Jonathan Knight recently appeared as a guest speaker at Humanify HR's HR Leadership in Practice programme, discussing the changing role of HR leaders.

Here are his thoughts on how the role of HR has developed over the last 15 years and how this vital function can lead cultural change and become a critical enabler of organisational success.

“For more than fifteen years, I have worked with the great HR guru, Lynda Gratton, directing London Business School’s flagship HR programme, HR Strategy in Transforming Organisations (HRST), for senior HR executives. During this time, some things have remained constant, and others have changed. What hasn’t changed in many cases is that HR continues to lack confidence in its relationship with the business and its leadership team. This is not always true for individual HR leaders but is often true for the function as a whole. 

There are three other constants:

First, it remains critical, as a first step, for HR and HR leaders to understand the major trends that are changing the world and how these will affect their businesses and their people strategies. The trends remain the same: technology, demography, globalisation (and reactions against it), climate change, inequalities and societal change. Which trend seems most important fluctuates, but the underlying trends remain the same.

Secondly, and linked to this, is the imperative that HR leaders truly understand their organisation’s business strategy and how their people strategy underpins this. Part of this is the need for HR leaders to be thoroughly conversant with the financials and business model of their organisation.

Finally, HR needs to deliver on the core HR processes: recruitment, learning & development, payroll & benefits, performance management, employee relations, succession planning etc. 

As my friend and colleague on HRST, Hugh Mitchell, former HR Director of Shell, says, you must first deliver the basics before you can hope to have any influence in an organisation.  

Fifteen years ago, much of our focus was on outstanding or cutting-edge examples of these practices, but steadily the conversation has changed. We spend more time on the increasing ways the role of HR is changing – ways that make HR a more critical enabler of organisational success.  

In a world in which change is constant, the first major role of HR is to be a facilitator of change. Whilst change should often be led from the top by the CEO, it needs to be supported by the rest of the organisation. It should be the job of HR to facilitate this bottom-up as well as top-down through outstanding stakeholder management, engagement and influencing skills. 

Linked to this is the role of HR in driving the purpose and culture of the organisation. Focus on purpose has become much stronger over the last five years. Again this should probably be led by the CEO, but HR has a role in getting the organisation bought into the purpose and shaping the culture that supports it. This is an easy thing to say and extremely difficult to do. 

Cultural change is one of the toughest things to achieve in any company.

It only happens when senior management, especially the CEO and CHRO, are fully aligned and the rest of the organisation is fully engaged.

Another growing theme on the HRST programme has been the need for HR leaders to develop strong marketing skills. In the same way that successful companies understand their customers, understanding different employee segments has become critical, especially during frequent periods of talent scarcity. The ability to collect and analyse huge amounts of employee data creates an enormous opportunity to provide a differentiated and customised employee offering. But it also requires better data analytical capability.  

Employee insight creates the potential for HR leaders to become, in many cases, talent agents, comparable to the world of show business. HR could become the brokers between talent and the organisation, as well as the guardians of employees’ physical and mental wellbeing. HR will finally no longer be about putting practices and processes in place but will become a creator of options for employees and the company. In a world where machines can do so much, companies derive value from their employees when they do work that machines can’t do. This means treating employees as humans and no longer as machines, requiring flexible HR policies that meet employees’ needs first rather than the organisation’s. Depending upon local regulations, this is not always easy. But it should be the goal of HR to navigate around legal constraints (and indeed help lobby for more flexibility).  

COVID has made organisations rethink the workplace and how people work. 

Lynda Gratton’s latest book, Redesigning Work, explores this in more detail. But whilst some companies are trying to force employees back to the office 100% of the time, this is not likely to succeed and possibly shouldn’t. Instead, HR leaders must explore where and when work happens and how that varies between different work groups. HR needs to create the right environment for productive and innovative work and the events that will bring people together to foster the casual or chance conversations that generate fresh ideas and new ties within companies – those ‘meaningful moments’. It is now the role of HR to create a physical and virtual environment that facilitates cooperation and innovation across the organisation.

All this means that the role of HR has expanded dramatically over the last fifteen years. In addition, to ensure that the basics are done well and aligned to company strategy, HR leaders must be change leaders and able to shape the culture and purpose of the organisation. They must be marketeers and comfortable with data analytics. They must be talent agents, nurturing their ‘clients’ and finding the best opportunities for their skills and experience. They must understand the networks within and beyond the organisation and help colleagues build new and diverse ties, driving innovation and collaboration. They must be event managers and office architects to enable this innovation and productivity.

This list may seem daunting, but many roles are enabled by technology (which HR must also be comfortable with). More HR leaders will likely come from other parts of the business, bringing fresh skills, perhaps from marketing or strategy. This enlarged role is exciting. It is the change from being a support function to being an enabling function, allowing HR leaders to shape their organisations.  Then at long last companies will appreciate the crucial impact HR has.”


At Ososim, we work with HR teams in major global companies, as well as government institutions, leading business schools and non-profit organisations, to deliver digital learning experiences that enable individuals, teams and companies to perform at their best.

To find out more about our innovative business simulations, please contact us on +44 (0)1223 421 034 or email info@ososim.com.

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