Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paradox of 'business orientation of HR'

This post allows me to come back to one of the key themes for this blog – exploring the paradoxes in the Human Resources (HR) domain. Based on more than a decade of experience in HR, I can confidently say that HR is a field that is rich in paradoxes (Please see 'Paradox of HR systems' , 'Paradox of potential assessment', 'Career planning and the myth of Sisyphus', 'Paradox of hiring good people and letting them decide' and 'Crazy HR for crazy times' - for some examples).

A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to contradict/to be in conflict with one another. Going by that definition, ‘business orientation of HR’ qualifies as a paradox.

There is no conflict of opinion on whether HR should be business oriented. HR exists to support the business and hence it should be aligned to the business needs/goals/strategy. ‘HR for HR’ (‘I want to do some HR interventions and I will get the business to agree’) is definitely not a good idea. The paradox occurs when we look at how exactly should HR demonstrate this 'business orientation'.

There are multiple possibilities here - each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, HR can agree to whatever the business leaders say on people related issues ('after all, we get paid to support the business'). HR can take this approach to the next level by trying to ‘guess’ what the business leaders will be comfortable with and advocating that ('business leaders are our primary customers and we should be anticipating customer needs'). HR can also avoid surfacing issues (or suggesting solutions) that they think the business leaders will not be comfortable with ('business leaders are already stretched to the limits fighting for the survival of the company, how can we risk annoying them at this point').

This approach might help in reducing the number/intensity of possible arguments/conflicts between HR and business leaders on these issues and the associated investment of time and emotional energy, leading to faster decision making and smoother relationships. In this case, business leaders will ‘like’ HR and hence they will be more likely to cooperate in the roll out of basic HR processes and less likely to come down heavily on HR when HR makes a mistake. Hence conflicts are avoided - making life easier for both the parties involved. However, this can also lead to suboptimal decisions (see ‘Training the victim’ for an example).

The other option is to develop and articulate an independent point of view – based on the HR philosophy of the organization (see ‘Towards a philosophy of HR’ for more details), HR functional expertise and an assessment of the context/situation.

This might turn out to be different from what the business leaders have in mind/are comfortable with and hence this can create conflicts and lengthy discussions/arguments and possibly delays in decision making. The business leaders might feel that ‘HR does not understand the problems that the business is facing’, ‘HR is becoming a pain in the neck’ or that ‘HR is being too idealistic’. This might lead to a situation where business leaders become very demanding – questioning the rationale behind each of the initiatives that HR comes up with. Thus this option can make life more difficult for both the parties involved. But if the conflict (of opinions between HR and business leaders) can be managed constructively, this option can lead to superior decisions and also to the development of mutual respect and trust. However, there is no guarantee that this can be achieved in all the situations.

So, which is the ‘better’ option?

It is possible that the business leaders were more open than what the HR professional had guessed. May be, they wanted HR to make an independent recommendation. Again, it is possible that the HR professional’s ‘independent assessment’ of the business needs/constraints was totally off the mark, making his/her point of view completely unrealistic. May be, the context is such that the conflict of opinion can’t be resolved successfully quickly enough for the matter at hand. Thus there are many possibilities here.

It can be said that if we take a long term perspective, if both the parties are competent and sincere and if the conflict can be managed constructively and quickly enough, the second option might give better results. But that is too many ‘ifs’ (3 in the last sentence!). It can also be argued that the two options mentioned above are just two extremes and that reality lies somewhere in between. For example, a particular HR leader might adopt option 1 in the case of some issues and option 2 in the case of other issues – depending on the context/nature of the issues. After all, ‘picking and choosing one’s battles’ is supposed to be a key requirement for survival in the corporate world!

An important factor here is the nature of the relationship between HR and business leaders. Often, HR does not pay sufficient attention to the relationship management aspect (positioning of the HR function appropriately, establishing the relationship, managing/shaping expectations, building capability and consistently meeting commitments/delivering value, enhancing the levels of mutual respect and trust etc.). See 'Nature abhors vacuum' for an example. This can be problematic as effectively managing the relationships with the business leaders can turn out to be the most significant enabler for demonstrating and sustaining 'business orientation'.

Of course, in this discussion about 'business orientation' we should not forget the other customers of HR- like the employees and first-line managers. There is an increasing tendency on the part of HR to give less emphasis to the ‘employee champion’ role because of the increasing importance given to the ‘strategic business partner role’ (see 'In praise of HR generalists' , 'Of specialists and business-alignment', and 'In the wonderland of HR Business Partners'). This can easily lead to situations where there is not enough focus on ‘employee engagement’ (other than the cosmetic efforts/peripheral initiatives – see 'Employee engagement and the story of the Sky maiden’ for details). As it is widely known, employee engagement is a good predictor/lead indicator of business results. Thus, if this 'business orientation' (and being the 'strategic business partner') is achieved at the expense of 'employee' engagement, the result might be 'strategic (long-term) harm' to the business.

It is also interesting to model this situation using the concepts of 'static' and 'dynamic' equilibrium (A chair has static equilibrium. A bicycle in motion has dynamic equilibrium. In a state of static equilibrium there is balance, but no change or movement - that exists in the case of dynamic equilibrium). A 'live and let live' kind of arrangement between HR and business leaders (that avoids conflict) is similar to 'static equilibrium'. But a scenario in which HR and business leaders openly & clearly state their independent opinions, followed by constructive debate/conflict leading to decisions that both the parties are comfortable with is similar to 'dynamic equilibrium'. This does not mean that the parties can't be passionate about their points of view/express 'strong' opinions. The requirement is just that they should not get too much attached to their opinions (see 'Passion for work and anasakti' for a related discussion).
I feel that, in general, dynamic equilibrium provides richer possibilities (sitting on a bicycle allows you to do things that you can't do sitting on a chair). But, establishing dynamic equilibrium might not be required or feasible in all the cases. It requires more time, effort and skill (as the equilibrium needs to be constantly reestablished) . It is also more risky (you are more likely to have a fall from a bicycle as compared to that from a chair - especially when you are learning to ride - which can be compared to the 'establishing the relationship' part/phase of the 'relationship management' that we had discussed earlier!).

Any comments/ideas?