The business world is transforming and the HR profession is transforming with it.
By Simon Kent
The role of HR today is more complex than ever. Innovations in data science and technology, the growth of a diverse, multi-generational workforce, and increasing globalisation are shifting the focus of HR departments from process-centric administrative tasks to people-centric functions that support greater business strategies. Throughout all of these talent landscape transitions, the HR profession has been forced to grow and evolve.
“We are incredibly blessed to work in a profession where you can work in the media for one job and then utilities the next,” says Neil Morrison, HR director at Severn Trent Water PLC. “Not only that, but there aren’t very many professions where you can work in the UK, the U.S., and Australia using the same skills.”
Morrison’s own career is a case in point. Currently working for a large water company, he spent nearly nine years at publisher Penguin Random House, during which his responsibilities stretched internationally and included a seat on the board. Yet he admits that some HR professionals can be self-effacing about their careers, prioritising the talent needs of the business and the aspirations of the people they are responsible for rather than considering their own needs.
According to Ed Houghton, head of research and thought leadership at the CIPD, the organisation’s The People Profession in 2018 report demonstrated a positive link between the number of years of experience a practitioner has worked outside of HR and their promotion prospects.
“We found the majority of HR and people professionals have experience working in other fields,” he says. “This has increased by 9 per cent since 2012 when 75 per cent of HR professionals said they had experience working in other functions. It seems that more people today are moving in and out of the profession, building a range of skills and experience.”
Houghton also reports that two in five HR practitioners claim they have the skills to cope with more demanding duties, suggesting organisations aren’t always making full use of their potential. “The majority of HR professionals—65 per cent—believed they were not likely to receive a promotion within their current organisation in the next three years,” added Houghton. “The same proportion felt happy with their career progression to date and 91 per cent felt a strong sense of meaning in their work.”
HR professionals can do their careers a favour by seeking out opportunities and increasing their general business experience, but Houghton suggests that organisational culture also has a part to play in whether HR professionals receive the recognition and promotion they feel they deserve.
Kevin Green, non-executive director of Brookson Group and author of “Competitive People Strategy,” believes the profession is still to some extent battling against the siloed structure that has characterised it historically. In the usual run of a career, HR professionals have selected and stuck with an area of practice, working as advisers, generalists, or functional specialists of learning and development, remuneration, and other areas. But, he says, the “people agenda” for employers is now more significant and can be a driver of value for every business. As such, HR should—and in many cases is—gaining importance within businesses and a place at board level.
However, Green’s optimism about the future of the HR profession is clouded by his perception that there has not been any significant or radical new thinking within the HR function for some years. The importance of the workforce may have grown for employers, but it has not been met with any new or revolutionary management techniques from HR. “I’d love to see a business school that specialises in HR,” he says. “There’s none that I would class as a shining light. In the U.S., there are maybe six or seven business schools with a practical HR faculty but where would you go elsewhere?”
But Green’s aspirations for the profession aren’t necessarily shared across the function. HR may have a contribution to make at board level, but does it have what it takes to lead? Morrison questions whether HR professionals should ascend to the heights of CEO, given that many companies desire technical skills to manage the financial and operational concerns of a business which some in HR may never directly acquire on their way up their career ladder.
“Do HRDs really want to be CEOs?” questions Robert Hicks, group HR director of Reward Gateway. “I am sure some do. I am not sure that everyone does. I think those that do need to have responsibility outside of just the people side of things, and be willing to push themselves into areas which they may shy away from too. Like everything, if you think you can do it, go for it and do the best you can.”
For his part, Hicks has several suggestions as to how HR professionals can develop their careers without relying on official education or career structures. His approach involves networking, making friends, and building relationships that will help throughout a career. “Stay connected when you leave your old firm, make sure you keep reviewing what you are doing and why,” he advises. “Give something back, always make time for others, and give that advice, mentoring, or pro bono work.”
“You have to think every job is a long-term job and every company is a long-term company, but make decisions that impact you for the best,” adds Hicks. “I always tell people in HR to make sure that what they’re doing is challenging, rewarding, and also growing them.”
Whatever the direction of an HR career, it is clear that heightened status will come with delivering value and being pragmatic. “HR directors should become more evidence-based in their decision-making by drawing on a variety of sources, including organisational data and scientific research,” says CIPD’s Houghton. “We found that data-driven practitioners are more able to apply professional judgement with confidence, which is likely to promote their credibility in the organisation.”