Friday, November 14, 2008

In the wonderland of HR Business Partners – Part 1

The posts in this series constitute some sort of 'random' walks in the wonderland of HR Business Partners (HRBPs). Since our objective here is to explore the terrain (and not to reach anywhere in particular), we have the liberty of adopting the amazingly liberating philosophy of "if we take any path and walk long enough on it we are bound to get somewhere".

There are a wide range of HR roles that go by the HR Business Partner (HRBP) title. For the purpose of our discussion, let us focus on ‘pure’ HRBPsHRBPs whose role is that of being a strategic business partner - to the business they are supporting. This would mean that they are supposed to have very little or no transactional/operational HR responsibilities. So these roles (HR roles that don't do usual HR work) are some sort of freaks of evolution- in the evolution of the HR function. Freaks occur in the course of biological evolution also. But they are unlikely to create much of a problem as they usually don't live long enough to reproduce. However since HRBPs can (and do) survive long enough in organizations to create (hire/develop) more HRBPs, it is worthwhile to take a closer look at them and their world.

I must say that I have handled HR Business Partner (HRBP) roles – in the not too distant past. Most of what I say in this series of posts are based on ‘hard experiences’ – mine and those of my fellow HR Business Partners – across organizations. While some of the observations in this post might seem funny, I have absolutely no intention to make fun of HRBPs. I know the challenges and complexities faced by HRBPs a bit too well to attempt something like that. Again, though I am in a specialist role now, I have a great amount of respect for HR generalists (see ‘In praise of HR generalists’), – including HRBPs.

In the wonderland of HR Business Partners – Part 1 : Seven guaranteed ways to make an HR Business Partner fail

A story...

Once upon a time, there was an HR Operations leader who was doing very well in his job - happily implementing HR processes & policies. Then the corporate HR leadership in his company came under the spell of Dave Ulrich’s ideas - or what they thought be Dave Ulrich’s ideas. They also saw other firms in their industry adopting such ideas. They did not want to be left behind. After all what is the fun of being in corporate HR - if you are not considered to be 'progressive' and 'state of the art'. So the inevitable happened - the company changed its HR operating model - worldwide.

Being ‘top talent’, our HR Ops leader was chosen to move into one of the newly created HR Business Partner roles - the roles that were supposed to take the HR function in the company to the next level of excellence and to add immense value to the business.

He understood that he should play a strategic HR role. He knew that he should partner with the business leadership. He knew that he was a high cost resource and hence he should produce good results-that too quickly. He wanted to do a good job – he was a top performer throughout his career.

So he worked very hard. In the spirit of collaboration and to ensure seamless service to the business, he did his best to proactively cooperate with other parts of HR and even with the finance & communications teams of the business he was supporting.

Many months passed. Our HR leader was feeling strangely uneasy. Initially, he could not figure out what was wrong. He was doing a lot of things - including participating in all the Leadership Team meetings of the business. He was in a role that was supposed to be the 'highest form of evolution' among HR roles. But he was not feeling happy. Sometimes he felt that he was like a 'mouse in a maze' - running here and there, feeling extremely busy, but getting nowhere. So he took a week's leave - to think things over. After he was away from the pressures of work for a few days, things started becoming clear in his mind.

He realized
…that playing a strategic role required skills he did not have & that these skills are not easy to develop - especially in a short period of time
…that what the business leaders expected from him was not really strategic
…that they wanted him to ‘manage the HR system’ – to ensure that what they want gets done
…that he was getting involved in issues that he was not supposed to – as per his role
…that he was fighting too much with other parts of HR - leading to too many escalations and that the global HR function was looking less like a 'team' and more like a 'house divided against itself'
…that Finance team was not taking him or his role seriously
…that he couldn't get reliable data to analyze business level patterns & trends on people issues
…that he wouldn't have enough results to show at the end of the year to justify his salary &
…that no one really understood what exactly his role was supposed to deliver

Being an intellectually honest person, he could not help wondering if he himself understood his role correctly & if his role really existed.

7 guaranteed ways to make an HRBP fail

1. Don’t define the scope and responsibilities of the HRBP role clearly

2. Don’t establish the performance measures for the HRBP role

3. Don’t secure the buy-in/agreement from the business leaders for the HR operating model, HRBP role, its deliverables and the choice of the role holder

4. Don’t make the other parts of HR (HR operations, specialist functions etc.) accountable to the HRBPs

5. Ensure that the HRBP does not have the data and analytical/reporting tools to derive the business-level patterns/trends on key people and business related parameters. This will create a situation where the HRBP can't work at the patterns/trends level (as they are supposed to do), prompting them to get involved in 'individual employee- level' issues (after all they have to something) - a great recipe for ensuring 'territory battles' with HR operations.

6. Move HR staff from other parts of HR into HRBP roles without verifying if they have the requisite competencies to be effective in the HRBP role. If you can't find any other role for a senior HR leader, move him/her into an HRBP role. Assume that the vacuum created by the removal of transactional/operational HR responsibilities will get automatically filled up by strategic activities (see 'Nature abhors vacuum' for more details)

7. Change the HRBPs frequently - before they have had the opportunity/time to understand the business or to build relationships and credibility with the business leaders

Now that we have heard the story of an HRBP and also derived some lessons from the story, let us explore what can be done to maximize the chances success in HRBP roles. Some of this can be derived from this post itself – by logical deduction. But some other aspects are not so obvious or easy. Anyway, we will look at some of them in the subsequent posts in this series.

Over to you for your comments/suggestions and experiences!

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Crazy HR for crazy times!

It has been argued that insanity is a perfectly sane response to an insane environment. This also implies that ‘abnormal’ situations require ‘abnormal’ responses. While I have often talked about the connection between HR and madness (see ‘HR professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder' and ‘Career Planning and the Myth of Sisyphus’), here I am using the term ‘abnormal’ in the statistical sense of the term (i.e. not fitting into the normal distribution). So in this context, 'abnormal' just means ‘different from normal’.

The basic point in this post is that normal/usual HR responses (HR strategies/practices) are based on certain assumptions about the situation (context/environment) in which the organization (and hence HR) is operating in and when we are faced with situations where those assumptions are not valid, normal/traditional HR responses will not be effective. It also follows that when situations are radically different from usual/normal, we might need HR responses/practices that look very different from the normal/usual HR responses (i.e. responses that are ‘abnormal’) – and that is where we come to ‘crazy’ HR. Again, with the ‘abnormal’ situations becoming increasing common, effective HR responses/practices might also become increasingly ‘crazy’ – till we redefine (or even reverse the definition of!) what is ‘normal’ and what is ‘abnormal.

Now, let us look at a few typical practices/principles/assumptions in HR and explore the implications for the HR response when we are in contexts where those assumptions are not valid. Please note that these situations (and responses!) are not independent - there are common themes - and even contradictions - among them!

1. From long-term employment relationship to short-term employment relationship

This is a big one. Actually, 'continuity of employment relationship' can be treated as the basic assumption that underlies many of the assumptions in HR. If we look at many of the HR systems (like career planning, training and development, staffing etc.) there is often an assumption that the employees/prospective employees will stay with the organization for a long period of time. Now, if one is in a context (organization/industry) where the most of the employees spend much less than 2 years in a particular organization, these assumptions and hence HR strategies/ practices/ systems based on these assumptions, are obviously not valid/effective. So what makes more sense is to assume that the organization would be involved in 'managing' (planning/ developing) only a limited (often very limited) part of the career in the case of most of the employees and to design HR strategies/systems/processes accordingly.

Now, the idea here is not that the systems/processes should be designed to push most of the employees out in two years or less! The idea is just that the HR strategies/systems/processes should not ignore the ground reality - even if it is unpleasant.

In many contexts the reality is that most of the employees are likely to spend only a very limited time in the organization and that HR strategies/systems/ processes should deliver value to the employees (and enable the employees to create value for the organization) within that time while maximising the return on HR investment for the organization. Of course, if one has a reasonable chance to shape the situation (or to create a new reality that is more favorable), it makes sense to make an earnest attempt. May be the attempts to shape the reality (i.e. increasing the time that the employees spend in the organization) will be more successful-if they are focused mainly on some segments of the employees (we will discuss this further later in this post). But 'deluding oneself' or 'wishing away the reality' don't really help - and this brings us to our next point.

2. From trying to reducing attrition to redesigning HR systems to work well in a high attrition environment

The typical HR response in a high attrition situation is to try to reduce attrition. But after one has repeatedly tried this and has failed consistently, this response no longer makes much sense. A better option may be to re-design the HR policies/processes/systems so that they can work effectively in a high attrition environment.

As an example of re-designing an HR system/policy to suit a high attrition environment, let us look at the Training and Development system. In a high attrition environment, there is a high possibility that employees who have been trained (at a significant cost to the company) may leave the company to join a competitor. Now, there are multiple ways of responding to this. One option is to focus most of the training investment on top talent and on employees in critical roles (i.e. don’t try to follow the approach of providing training to everyone). Since they form only a small percentage of the total employee population, the organization (with even limited resources) will be in a better position to create a compelling value proposition for them. So the organization will have a much higher chance of ensuring good return on training investment. The training needs for the rest of the employee population should be met mainly through a shared training infrastructure that provides e-learning solutions for common learning needs. Of course, there are other approaches like skill-based pay, training bonds etc. that tries to ‘lock in’ the employee. But my preference is for the approach focusing on top talent and on critical roles.

3. From Job enrichment to Job deskilling

Designing/redesigning jobs to increase their motivational potential has been a key principle in HR. This is typically done by improving various dimensions of work like skill variety (the variety of activities required), task identity (the completion of a “whole” and identifiable piece of work), task significance (how substantial an impact the job has) and autonomy (the freedom, independence, and discretion that one has to do the job).

Now there can be situations where the opposite of this response (i.e. job deskilling) might be called for. Examples of this can be found in situations where is a critical need to

(a) Manage process risk - Creating detailed process maps that specify each step in micro-detail (e.g. level 5 or level 6 process maps) and insisting that the employees carry out each step as it is described can be good way to manage process risk/reducing chances of error (though it adversely impacts 'autonomy' and hence job enrichment mentioned above).

(b) Reduce cost - The same approach (detailed procedures - strictly enforced) can also reduce the skill-level required to do the job. This can obviously provide opportunity to reduce salary cost (as employees with lower skill profiles can be hired for the job) and training cost (as not much training is required).

(c) Operate in high attrition environment - Again the same approach (detailed procedures and lower skill profile) can make it easier to find and replace employees (as there is not much need to hunt for specialized skill profiles that can be difficult, time consuming and costly to find) and to minimize the adverse impact of employee turnover on work/deliverables (as the 'learning curve' of new employees can be very short because of the low skill requirement of the job).

But there can be many complications when we try to implement the above (job deskilling) idea. Let us look at a couple of the major ones.

The first one is that in some contexts the nature of the work makes the 'formulating detailed procedures and enforcing them strictly' approach difficult to implement - because there are certain parts of the job that require a high degree of skill/judgment/discretion. Here one can try to re-design the jobs so that the activities that require a high level of skill are grouped into a few jobs and most of the other jobs consist of activities that don’t require high degree of skill (where the above approach will work). Of course, this will work best if there is an opportunity to reengineer some of the processes so that there will be greater opportunities for re-designing jobs/grouping activities into jobs differently. Now, this has other advantages like further saving on salary cost (as we need fewer number of high cost specialist positions) and reducing attrition among the highly skilled jobs (as the specialist jobs get enriched in the process because the lower-skill parts of the job are taken away and as the organization can provide these specialists much better value proposition because they are small in number - making the additional investment required much smaller and manageable).

The second problem arises from the very nature of the job-deskilling approach - lower skill requirement for the job is likely to result in lower 'motivation potential' for those jobs (because of its adverse impact on the factors that drive job enrichment that we had discussed earlier). But this can also be avoided to a large extent. Here the trick is to change the profile of the candidates/jobholders. So if the job was being done (before the job re-design exercise) by a graduate engineer, the candidate for the deskilled job should not be a graduate engineer (who will find the job de-motivating) – it should be someone with only an engineering diploma/certificate. Now, what seems routine for a graduate engineer can still be quite challenging and motivating for a certificate holder. Of course, this approach also has cost advantages (as a certificate/diploma holder in engineering costs less as compared to a graduate engineer).

I am not saying that these are the only HR responses possible (or even the best responses) in the situations described above. My point is that certain situations require radically different HR responses – responses that seem so different from the usual/traditional HR responses that they appear to be crazy. But they are actually much more sane - as compared to the alternative of 'continuing to persist with the same (failed) normal/traditional HR response and expecting different results' - which incidentally was the way Einstein defined madness.

What do you think?