It was Aristotle who came up with the hypothesis "Nature abhors vacuum". While this hypothesis might not be strictly true in the original sense meant by Aristotle (that nature is full), it seems to work in many situations. For example, if we create a vacuum, air rushes in to fill it.
Now, why am I taking about all this here ? The reason is that this 'hypothesis' seems to inspire a key underlying assumption in many HR reengineering efforts. I have seen this happen in many organizations. The plots are quite similar. HR function decides to reengineer/transform itself. Transactional HR activities are automated or outsourced so that HR generalists are free to focus on strategic HR work. The objective is to become a 'strategic business partner' and add more value to the business. The objective is certainly a worthwhile one. The automation/outsourcing of transactional HR activities also takes place and they are removed from the job description of HR generalists. Now the problem starts. Transformation to the strategic business partner role does not really happen. Some of the transactional activities creep back (often in a slightly modified form) into the de facto job responsibilities of HR generalists . There is confusion and frustration all around.
As you might have suspected, the key issue here is with the assumption that we were taking about. The assumption was that by removing transactional responsibilities and thereby creating 'space' (or shall we say vacuum!!!) for HR generalists, strategic HR work would automatically rush in to fill the space(vacuum) and hence HR would move into the strategic business partner role. However, there are at least two main difficulties here. The capabilities required to perform the strategic business partner role are very different from those required for performing the administrative role.
In addition to this, there is a problem with client expectation mismatch. If the HR generalists have been providing mainly transactional support to the internal customers, it shapes what the internal customers (especially managers) expect from the HR partner in terms of both capability and deliverables. So if on one fine day HR declares itself to be a strategic business partner it might lack credibility. Again it might not be aligned to what internal customers(managers and the employees) expect/want from HR.
The solution lies in handling HR reengineering as an integrated change management initiative(and not mainly as a technology-driven change in the way HR processes work). This should devote adequate attention and time for
(a)discussing the business case for HR reengineeting(with business leadership)
(b)renegotiating the HR deliverables/HR engagement model (with the business leadership)
(c)HR capability building/getting the correct people on the job (to ensure capability to perform the strategic business partner role)and
(d)communicating the business case & new HR deliverables/engagement model (to managers/employees) and repositioning the HR roles/role-holders (to gain credibility and acceptance)
Of course, this would call for a lot of effort over an extended period of time. Some amount of fine-tuning of the new HR model (without compromising the basic nature of the model) would also be required to address new/context specific issues that were not anticipated initially. Difficult? - Yes; Messy? - Yes; Time consuming -Yes ! Any major change like HR reengineering is unlikely to be easy/simple. But it can be made to work.
Now let us come back to Aristotle and his hypothesis. In our context the problem was not with the hypothesis per se. The fact that the transactional activities often creep back back to fill the void created in the job responsibilities of HR generalists is in line with the hypothesis. The problem is actually with the assumption on what exactly would move in to fill the void. The mistake was to assume that strategic activities would move in to fill the void, where as it was more natural/likely for transactional activities to move in (keeping in mind the skill sets of the HR jobholders at that time and the internal customer expectations at that time). So our challenge is not to exorcise the ghost of Aristotle's hypothesis ! Our real challenge is to manage HR reengineering as an integrated change management effort !!