Differentiating Yourself as a Strategic HR Partner: A Case Study

George Harth

Amalgamated Intercontinental LLP had fared rather worse than its competitors during the economic downturn. With revenue, quality and productivity down, management set several goals to reverse the company's fortune. One are in need of improvement was human resources and "Janet," the newly appointed CHRO faced a daunting challenge: to quickly re-invent the Human Resources function, reposition it a strategic partner to the business and improve employee perceptions of her department. Her predecessor retired after leading a major reduction in force and two major divestitures causing a significant exodus of key talent, some unexpected. Janet was charged with finding a way to retain top talent and develop a steady but highly-qualified stream of candidates to fill regular as well as critical positions. Amalgamated Intercontinental's CEO agreed with her that differentiating the human resources function was essential for senior management's plan to succeed.

In her first two weeks on the job Janet discovered:

  • Requests for information on several employee categories revealed her department didn’t have a comprehensive searchable repository of employee (or applicant) data; unless routine every request yielded spotty information from several systems, took days to compile and sometimes offered up conflicting data.
  • Job descriptions were inconsistent, long but vague lists of high level "duties and responsibilities" and qualifications; the terms used were not defined or uniformly applied; there was little to distinguish junior from senior personnel beyond years of "relevant" experience; focused on largely technical skills, fuzzy descriptions of soft skills when offered at all were invariably "boilerplate."
  • Job titles didn’t reflect the work people did, used instead as a framework for budgeting and compensation. For instance, Amalgamated Intercontinental employed nearly a thousand Business Analysts across the planet, in every sector wherein it did business, many doing unique work requiring different knowledge and skills.
  • Aside from providing a coordinating function, human resources had outsourced recruiting to third parties who presented candidates based on their internet postings and other sources. No matter the level or criticality of the open position, human resources rarely conducted interviews or assessments before or after handing over the third party resumes to the hiring organization and would get involved again only when a candidate was selected.
  • HR’s participation in the onboarding process of new employees was limited to having them attend a half-day orientation session where, between a video and a slide presentation about the company, they filled out benefits-related, payroll, ID and other paper forms. The new hires’ functional organizations were responsible for all other orientation and getting the employees to be productive.
  • Learning and Development (L&D) had largely been outsourced to several companies that provided generic on-line courses; function-specific career development was left to each functional area to manage however it thought best. Everything reinforced silos.
  • The recent departure of several mission-critical employees disclosed no systematic means of capturing expertise from employees; when they left, their knowledge left with them.
  • The Performance Management System (PMS) didn’t align with anything, was viewed by managers and individual contributors alike as a burdensome annual chore that interfered with people’s "real jobs."
  • Where process maps existed at all (within and beyond HR), they were scattered throughout the entire company, had no consistent format, were developed in various applications, and were unvaryingly out of date.
  • Succession Planning was limited to the top ten percent of executive and senior managers.
  • Fortunately, if sadly, Amalgamated Intercontinental’s cost to hire was nearly double that of comparable global businesses with vendor contracts negotiated and managed informally, assuring at least a favorable ROI from this area and provide seed money to initiate HR’s transformation.

The artful management of talent is one of a handful of strategic services human resources can offer. The waning of traditional HR functions through automation, self-service and outsourcing demands a "culture change" within human resources: adopt a business focus by an organization still structured largely around benefits administration, time and attendance reporting, labor cost processing and similar transactional operations.

After diligently reviewing the past four years’ budget/actual numbers (as Glenn Tobe, business transformation enabler, leadership development innovator and executive coach at the Tobe-Schnur Group put it, "show me your budgets and I’ll tell you your strategy"), individually confirming these and other observations with her colleagues on the Executive Management Team (EMT), getting a "feel" for Amalagamated Intercontinental’s senior management culture and bouncing around some ideas, Janet drafted the plan she would "socialize" before presenting to the EMT. The elements of her plan, required to enable human resources to act as a strategic partner included:

  • Human resources needed to "know" its internal customers much better if it was to provide strategic services, realign HR personnel as soon as possible from a centralized to a distributed model, relocating them to offices close to their business peers and customers. This would require re-skilling some people to function as single point of contact generalists before dedicating them to business units and gradually re-insource more of mission critical services like recruiting.
  • Develop a communication plan to present HR’s transformation to first human resources personnel and immediately thereafter to all of Amalgamated Intercontinental’s employees. In addition to providing a clear, concise description of what human resources would "look like" and how it would operate in the future, the initial communication to HR personnel would stress that the initiative was not aimed at workforce reduction that, in fact, it presented several opportunities.
  • Investigate turning a portion of the company’s well-regarded Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system inward to regard employees as customers and business units as clients.
  • Liaison with IT to examine implementing a comprehensive, easily queried application (Enterprise Stakeholder Database, ESD) that drew together all employee data to promptly answer management’s questions as well as, after analysis, likely pose some. The design would incorporate a Competency Management System enabling self-assessment by recruits and current employees alike against levels of Knowledge, Skills and Behaviors (KSB, see figure 1) that formed the basis of organizational roles, replace Job Descriptions and link to (and eventually integrate with) the PMS and L&D applications. ESD would also be designed to yield Centers of Excellence (COE) in which every employee would have multiple memberships so that when questions arose, the appropriate COE(s) could be tasked with refining the knowledge management required to make data-driven decisions. (Click on diagram to enlarge.)

  • Assure recruiting data of promising candidates is reflected in the ESD so that periodic communication with them demonstrates on-going interest to generate a stream of potential pre-qualified and referred applicants.
  • Explore how establishing a presence on social networks could support recruiting.
  • In locations where Amalgamated Intercontinental had significant presence, explore sponsoring (or joining) a group that assured long-term supply of qualified entry-level personnel modeled perhaps on the INTERalliance.org concept.

While fixing the broken system and processes is vital to enabling HR to act as a strategic partner, it is equally important to recognize and develop leaders. As the aforementioned Glenn Tobe put it, "every company has pockets of excellence, people who informally optimize the teachable moments. Amplify what works. Leaders need to grow leaders not HR programs, new methodologies, new models, new processes and new languages. So, when you hear ideas like ‘talent stratification, career velocity, high potential,’ remember the human resources department has too much free time..." It is leaders throughout the organization that enable a business to quickly adjust to foreseen as well as unpredictable market forces. Flexible tools and a flexible mindset, both are what human resources need to offer.

Attracting, helping to manage the productivity and retaining the commitment of employees to an organization requires human resources to project a meaningful people-are-valued-here image into the company as well as out into the recruiting marketplace, especially with external recruiters if they are used.

Notes of caution:

  • Understand your company’s culture. What’s "right" for some organizations can yield disastrous results for others. Conduct a survey at the right time; start from where the organization "is" rather than be lulled into describing it as you or your boss would like it to be; move incrementally, iteratively in small steps at least at first if the organization is "anxious"; if complacent, see Jack Welch. In either case provide a clear vision of where you want to go, be open to advice from anyone and transparent when you need to change it.
  • Understand your company’s strategic plan. What are the hoped-for and actual trends? What talent was/will be required? Does what will be needed already reside somewhere among current employees? What likely gaps can’t be developed from within the current talent pool? What are historic lead times to develop and acquire the needed KSB?
  • Understand your clients and customers: A critical part beginning with the on-boarding process is getting frequent feedback from and on the new hires. Know what it costs your internal clients to hire people; what can be done to reduce these costs? How satisfied are they with the process and the candidates? How satisfied are they with the new hire or transfer? And finally, how satisfied are your customers, the new employee and his/her coworkers?