Four obstacles to HR playing a strategic business role, and five ways to overcome them

The evolution of HR—a lean, mean, tech-powered machine

HR used to be a massive department in organizations with up to 50 people handling administrative tasks and risk compliance. Over the last recession crisis, we saw big cost cuts to HR departments. In this new era, a newer, leaner HR—partnered with technology—should play a bigger leadership role in reshaping the business.

And executives worldwide are starting to recognize this shift.

The role of HR is changing for good

Businesses are starting to acknowledge the need for a more transformative approach to the attraction and retention of top talent. This was found in a recent survey of 460 senior-level executives across 13 industries in 12 countries. Nearly 63 percent of respondents identified reskilling the workforce as important to achieving business goals, while talent acquisition was the number-two priority for transforming business functions.

It’s becoming clear that HR has a more strategic role to play in financial services organizations. Businesses today are looking to HR for leadership and energy in two key areas:

  • Reskilling the workforce to accommodate new technologies and marketplace conditions
  • Attracting top talent in increasingly competitive industries

Nobody puts HR in the corner

Despite this shift in mindset, HR continues to struggle as it hides behind legacy roles and keeps getting drawn back by compliance and regulatory roles—and in the process, gets relegated to an admin role.

The question is: what can HR do to become and remain relevant in the digital enterprise, to position itself as a strategic partner vital to the overall growth of the business? If we can resolve the admin sector of HR by using the combined power of human + machine—augmenting HR with AI, machine learning and automation—we would see HR strategically crowned into a leadership title.

What would HR as an equal business partner look like?

HR is thinking more strategically and is becoming more aligned with business priorities. The survey found that HR professionals and global leaders agree on the top three workforce requirements today:

HR—powered with advanced data and people analytics—can help business leaders understand that talent acquisition is not a one-way street. C-suite leaders know what they want from their future workforce, but to attract the best talent, they also need to know what their future workforce wants from them.

Accenture conducted a multi-country study on Gen Z—the generation born between the mid-1990s and early 2000s that comes after Millennials—targeting a range of respondents from those who had just graduated from university and recent entrants to the job market. The study found that as graduates gain real-world work experience, their interest in working for large companies starts to grow, with nearly one in three wanting to work for big corporates.

However, they have expectations of their own. Gen Z comes armed with digital native skills and in return they want good, human-centered employee experiences, job security (one of the biggest worries of Gen Z worldwide is unemployment) and continuous learning and development opportunities.

Five obstacles to HR playing a strategic role

This is just one example of the level of strategic research and insight that HR professionals can bring to a business to help increase productivity, attract and retain top talent and boost the entire enterprise. However, HR still has to overcome many obstacles before it can become a strategic business partner:

  1. Perception as static

Business leaders in our survey believe that HR is slow to change with the times. Talent development and recruiting was at the bottom of the list of business functions that have seen change over the 18 months before the survey was conducted.

  1. Digital skills gap

Business leaders are looking for people with high-level digital skills like data analytics, AI and machine learning, and with knowledge of digital business models. But not all HR respondents saw these as pressing needs.

  1. Under-appreciation of automation and AI

Only 44 percent of HR respondents saw the value of automation and AI as business enablers, even though it could free them from transactional activities to fulfil a more strategic role.

  1. A missed data opportunity

A mere 28 percent of HR respondents saw the ability to make data-driven decisions as important.

  1. Legacy admin activities including risk and compliance

In the last recession, we saw massive cuts in HR departments across several organizations. This forced fewer people to be answering the admin and compliance needs of the organization on top of all the other functions of HR. Hence the capacity of HR to transition into strategic roles while still answering the critical admin activities has been challenged.

Six ways to overcome these obstacles

For HR executives to take on a new leadership role and drive change in the workplace, they need to:

  1. Own their role as business professionals.
  2. Blaze the trail to customer-centricity in partnership with business.
  3. Create an agile, responsive workforce by breaking down silos.
  4. Aim higher when it comes to reskilling.
  5. Drive decisions, actions and innovations with data.
  6. Use technology to automate repetitive tasks and reskill the workforce to unleash the full power of human + machine.

In this series, my colleague Susan Rice and I will explore the integral link between talent management and culture, and we’ll address the following pivotal questions:

  • How can companies attract top talent?
  • How can they keep people engaged during the recruitment process?
  • How can they use technology to enhance their recruitment efforts?
  • How do they get managers to buy in to their recruitment efforts—and why is it important?

We believe that HR lies at the heart of solving each of these challenges—a more transformative HR, one with energy and passion for people.

In the next post, we’ll discuss what companies can do differently to attract top talent. Until then, have a look at the following resources:

To find out more about digital HR in financial services or to join us at the Change Directors Forum and People Innovation Forum in London, contact Nicole Knott here or on Twitter @knott_nic. For more on transformative recruitment strategies, contact Susan Rice on LinkedIn.

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