Let me begin by saying that I am a specialist - I am in a specialist role now (in Learning and OD) and I have spent most of my career so far in specialist roles in HR. But I have also handled HR generalist/HR business partner roles where I was the 'internal customer' for specialists roles in HR. Again, I have been fortunate to get opportunities to work in the HR domain in multiple contexts - HR consulting, Internal HR and HR Shared Services Centre. At this point, I am very happy to be back in a specialist role. But I have much higher appreciation/ respect for HR generalists now - as compared to what I used to have during the early years of my career.
Earlier (when I was looking at HR generalist roles as an outsider), I used to consider most of the HR generalist roles to be rather 'shallow' - in the sense that most of those roles (when it comes to the way they are actually executed) don't require any significant application of HR/behavioral science knowledge (please see HR Professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder). The main requirement for those roles seemed to be 'a bit of common sense coupled with knowledge of procedures/policies'.
Now that I have closely worked with some very effective HR generalists (and also seen generalist roles from an 'insider perspective'), I am convinced that what appears to be straight forward common sense decision making often involves fine judgement - the kind of judgement that requires knowledge and much more than knowledge - often requiring the kind of 'wisdom' that I spoke about in 'Wisdom-level consulting'. Since HR generalists need to interface with employees & managers, they need to ensure that what they do/the decisions they are communicating appear simple, clear and consistent. But these simple 'front-end/user interface' is often achieved by absorbing a lot of complexity at the 'back-end' of decision making - and you have to be an insider to see/appreciate this 'back-end' of decision making!
I have seen many senior HR generalists do the kind of great process facilitation/ process consulting work with business leadership teams that would make an Organization Development (OD) specialist proud. But usually these HR leaders don't call it OD and they don't talk too much about it - may be because they see it as a very natural part of their job and may be because they don't want to annoy the 'designated OD specialists' in the organization! I have also seen these leaders being able to synthesize the inputs from multiple specialists (staffing, compensation, resource management, workforce planning, employee relations, capability development etc.) and provide the the business leaders with an integrated HR response (diagnosis and solutions) to business challenges.
This ismuch more useful for the business leaders than receiving separate recommendations from various specialists. I feel that integrating multiple perspectives and answering the 'so what' question for the business is a much higher craft than coming up with isolated findings. Again, some of these HR leaders have a much higher understanding of the business as compared to that of the specialists and they are able to look at the organization from a 'total system perspective' - to identify and exploit 'leverage points' - those points/areas/factors in the system where a small change made can have a huge impact on the overall system/business.
Another reason for my increased respect for HR generalists is a gradual shift in my definition of 'what really makes a difference'. These days, I am more inclined to think that unless what an HR professional does makes a difference at the level of individuals, it is not making much of a difference. Of course, I agree that often a system level intervention is needed to impact a large number of individuals and that the definition of individuals is not limited to particular employees. But I have seen that technically perfect work (or 'high-end HR work') done at the system level does not always translate into making a difference at the individual level (to the individual stakeholders).
From a diagnosis and solution design point of view, it is required to go beyond the immediate appearance of people related problems/issues and look at the 'underlying form/patterns/principles'. But, we need to ensure that these solutions designed at the 'pattern/underlying form/principle/theory' level, need to be converted back to the level of individuals - solutions to the actual problems/issues that we had started our analysis with.
This is similar to the 'physical problem-mathematical model of the problem-mathematical solution-physical solution' process used in approaches like Six Sigma. Since specialists work mostly at the pattern/principles/system level (similar to the mathematical/'ethereal' part mentioned above), generalists are required to bring the solutions to the ground level - to make them 'real' - as solutions to the actual problems of particular individuals.
Specialists enjoy an advantage over the generalists - specialists usually support more than one client group, where as the generalists are often embedded in a particular client group. So it becomes relatively easy for a specialist to take a objective/neutral perspective as compared to a generalist. Thus balancing the interests of the particular client group that one is supporting with that of the larger organization becomes a more difficult task for the generalists.
There is another tricky balancing act that HR generalists (especially at senior levels) often have to do. Many of these generalists have a good amount of specialist functional expertise and there is one part in their personality that craves for technical perfection of the solutions. But their roles demand that the solutions should be pragmatic/workable/easy to communicate and implement - keeping in mind the organizational constraints. Also, because of their greater proximity to the particular businesses they are supporting, HR generalists are much more aware of the organizational constraints (especially the tacit ones) as compared to specialists.
This leads to an interesting situation when these generalists are the internal customers of specialists roles in HR. When the specialists push for technical perfection of a solution, the generalists often have to push back - to keep the solutions implementable. This would mean that in addition to arguing with the specialists, they also have to argue with themselves (i.e. the specialist part of their personality). Believe me, this is not a very enjoyable situation to be in! Of course, specialists also face these kind of issues as they grow in their careers. Please see 'Of specialists and business alignment'.
Overall, I feel that HR generalists roles are more 'messy' as compared to specialist roles. Often, HR generalists have to act as the 'face of the organization' when it comes to communicating unpleasant decisions (like disciplinary actions, layoffs, reduction in employee benefits etc.) to the employees. It becomes a challenge to maintain integrity (at the intrapersonal and at the interpersonal levels) when an HR generalist has to to stand in front of the same group employees -within the short span of time - first to announce employee engagement initiatives and then to announce a layoff.
As I have mentioned earlier (Please see 'At the receiving end of change management'), even in the case of major changes in the organization that have significant impact on the organization structure, jobs and on the employees, often the HR generalists are able to get involved only when it is too late. By that time 'emotional wounds' have already been created and what is left is more of communication and 'dressing of wounds'. This is definitely not the 'strategic change management' role that they were supposed to do. Now, I am not saying that these 'organizational scavenger' (or 'organizational earthworm') kind of roles played by HR generalists are not important. Actually they are very critical for maintaining the health and vitality of the organizations (just like earthworms increase the vitality of the soil/scavengers help to maintain the health of the ecosystem). My point is that these aspects of HR generalist roles are often very messy.
Again, since HR generalists often have to respond quickly there might not be enough time to come up with neat solutions. The specialists also have their own battles to fight in organizations and there is always the risk of 'injuries'(Since these are 'organization battles', these injuries are unlikely to be physical in nature - but they can really hurt. Please see 'Leaders and battle scars' for a related discussion.). The 'injuries' sustained in 'specialist battles' are more likely to be similar to 'cuts' , whereas those sustained in 'generalist battles' are more likely to resemble 'wounds'. It is important to note that here we are talking not just about the 'injuries' sustained by HR specialists/generalists. We are also talking about the 'injuries' to the other players in the organization and to the relationships - the relationships between HR professionals and business leaders/managers that are very important (especially for the HR generalists) to get their work done! In general, 'cuts' tend to heal faster (and neater/with less scarring !) than 'wounds' !
Another factor here is that the boundaries of generalist roles are often not well-defined and hence all kinds of tasks/problems (especially those no one wants to touch) can get dumped on the generalists. In some contexts this can also imply that HR generalists are 'on call' 24x7. Work can become a series of small activities with nothing substantial to show (or to add to the CV !) at the end of the year. Again, there is the greater need to walk the thin line between confidentiality and openness, empathy and objectivity, cooperation and capitulation, emotional intelligence and emotional manipulation etc. One can even end up feeling like a 'mouse in a maze' - running here and there, feeling extremely busy- but not reaching anywhere! Now, what amazes me is that I have seen many HR generalists being effective and producing very 'neat' work in such a 'messy' situation. So how can I stop myself from writing this post - 'in praise of HR generalists'?