HR must lead its own Transformation

Transformation is a BIG word.  How could this possibly apply to the Human Resources function?  Especially if you’re applying the same expertise and your desk doesn’t move.  We can learn from some research by KPMG on HR transformations that don’t work:

‘The common characteristics for failure of HR initiatives were:
organizations not changing roles or structure consistent with their transformation (85 percent),
not identifying measures for success (90 percent) and
having moderate to no change management capabilities (75 percent).’

Reading between the lines there seems to be a theme – the plan wasn’t thought through to its implementation at the front line by the HR people themselves.  So, to what extent is this kind of change done to HR?  The complexity of HR tends to be continually under-estimated.  The human factor is far more sensitive than in the transformation of other functions.

However, the data gives real insight.  Put more simply, organisations failed to pay attention to:

  • Changing how HR people operate
  • Being clear about what they’re trying to achieve
  • Developing the skills and behaviours that help HR to implement change and make it stick.

Running throughout these is one red thread –  how HR people interact with the business.  This is what we researched – what does good interaction between HR and line managers look like?  What activities and behaviours lead to great HR outcomes?

First, let’s look at what we mean by HR Transformation

Transformation means a shift from model A to model B during a set period – ie. it will look, feel and perform quite differently and will deliver different outcomes.  On the other hand, change is more about moving from A to A+; ie. more effective but essentially the same.  Typical themes include organisations transforming HR from reactive to proactive, from ivory tower to customer-centric, and from expertise-led to business-led.  The need may come from a change in business strategy – if your whole organisation is making a major shift, then HR must too.  We’ve also spoken to many HR people who themselves want to achieve the transformation – they want to add greater value, enhance their reputation, get less hassle and more co-operation.

What are the elements of HR Transformation?

In an ideal world, HR strategy, organisation structure, operational processes and transactional systems would all be redesigned.  You’d have sufficient budget, leadership, co-operation, IT support, time and resources to tackle all of these at the same time.    This is where the big consultancies come in, to orchestrate the multiple elements of a strategic change programme.  The research above, however, shows that the full involvement of HR is often left out.  Had the HR people been involved early, and fully engaged and supported, those three failures would have been rectified.

Transformation in the real world

The plan for a transformation can look like a game of chess when you’re sitting in the boardroom.  You can see where the pieces are, and where they could move to.  However, the world doesn’t stand still for long enough for this kind of plan to be sufficient.  Real life tends to be much more messy and unco-ordinated, with everyone too busy rushing around with business-as-usual.  This is another feature of HR that’s often underestimated – the relentless demands.  It’s hard to pay sufficient attention to ensuring that radical change takes place when you’re stuck in the reactive cycle that you’re trying to get out of.

How successful is this kind of redesign anyway?  Research shows that the results are disappointing.  For example, a popular approach for many years has been the Business Partner model advocated by Dave Ulrich.  It makes so much sense – HR practitioners working closely with their client groups rather than from their ivory tower.  However, Ulrich himself tells us that this has failed to achieve its potential, and is clear that this is because it’s the relationship between HR and the business that needs to change.

It isn’t about structure.  It’s about behaviour.

Let’s take a closer look at this example.  Re-structuring HR into Business Partners works well on paper.  It’s easy to see how the the organisation chart changes – we move HR roles from the HR function into ‘client’ departments.  Their HR budgets may also move with them, and ideally HR and the line would plan activities together.  Experience shows, however, that it can be even harder for HR practitioners to become ‘transformational’ in that structure.  Without the right behavioural strategies they can be pulled into a reactive cycle that’s frustrating and damaging to HR’s reputation.  It’s exhausting and demoralising, especially if their HR leaders and colleagues are all resigned to the same spiral.

Transformational Intent

So, let’s look at ‘transformational’ in a different way.  What if it were about transforming attitude and behaviour?  You’d have to change it on both sides, ie. within HR as well as with colleagues ‘in the business’ in order for it to achieve real change.  We know, however, that we can’t change the behaviour of others, only our own.  This is why Intent is so important.

What do you want the impact of a particular interaction to be?  To reinforce your current way of operating, or to lead into a new way of being?

Short-term v long-term dynamic – this is often the nub of the choices you are making from day to day.  The pressure is most often to do the most expedient thing.  Get the job done, get the tick in the box, get them off your back, move onto the next thing.  But this is transactional – ie. it moves nothing forward.  There are many occasions when this is the most efficient thing to do.

However, you will sometimes recognise, or be able to create, an opportunity to do, or say, something that will take you forward into a different place.

Transformation can happen conversation by conversation

This is the opportunity that exists for everyone.  Most of us don’t operate within a well-orchestrated, cohesive strategic change programme.  We can, however, decide upon our own Intent.  For example, ‘I want to transform my relationship with this manager.’  If we decide upon this is an HR function or an HR team, it becomes even more powerful: ‘we will transform the way we interact with the business’.  If everyone in HR is having a new kind of conversation with their line counterparts, they will soon start to feel some traction.

Intent drives behaviour.  It takes courage and determination, and skill too.

HR can lead their own transformation

Once you’ve decided, together, that you want to make a transformational shift, you can begin to work through all the implications.  For example:

  • How do we make sure we understand the business realities and challenges and how we should respond?
  • How can we be seen to understand the business and be seen to respond effectively?

For each organisation the steps required will be different, but you can work them through together.  Then you can use techniques like Advocacy and Inquiry to help you have the right kind of conversation – watch out for a future blog on this.

A structure for transformation in HR

We designed enable-hr to provide a framework of the behaviours and activities that underpin success in HR.  Explore our 7 Enablers below – there’s a short read and a longer read in each one, with some questions that you might find useful to your own situation.

From our own experience in HR, we understand the complexities and all the different angles involved in the HR role.  We’ve also worked with leaders and managers in all functions for over 20 years so we understand the other side too.  There are some powerful techniques that we can help you to apply to your own challenges.  Call us if you’d like to discuss further.  Alternatively, go straight to our Self-evaluation Tool.  This can also be used as a 360-degree Feedback Tool for use by stakeholders.  Our Team Workshops bring your HR Team together to re-align and re-focus.

Measuring HR effectiveness

It’s always been tough to measure HR’s contribution to business results.  One real challenge is that we’re not in total control of whether our efforts succeed or fail.  In everything we do, we are partners with leaders and line managers.  While HR activities can affect every single employee, they do not report to us from day to day.  There are some accepted people measures, such as engagement and retention, and there’s no doubt that HR are a driving force in these areas.  However, it’s readily recognised that the responsibility for actually improving these numbers is shared.

ROI on HR activities

 There are two dilemmas, when we want to work out the Return on Investment on the HR budget.

  • First, that the effectiveness and performance of employees is difficult to measure anyway because many of the measures are ‘soft’. For example, the level of trust they feel they have with their manager, or how much recognition they receive, are subjective yet are accepted as key enablers of engagement.
  • Second, it’s extremely difficult to distinguish the contribution made by HR to that. We design and offer best practice routines and standards, and develop managers’ skills to use them, but we all know that there’s still a lot that can go wrong.

HR Analytics are only part of the picture

 This is why getting meaningful HR data is so difficult, as acknowledged by the CIPD in their 2018 Factsheet; ‘the profession should view data and analytics as an emergent HR capability, and one that requires further investment, in terms of both capability and research.’

Measuring HR’s relationship with the business

What if we were to look at it another way?  Any financial investment will reap greater rewards when it responds to the actual needs of the business, in the most appropriate way possible.  So – why not measure the quality of the interaction between HR and the business?  Everyone agrees that’s a key driver.  That’s what we do at enable-hr – develop the alignment of HR to the business.

How do HR identify where to focus, and how to make investments pay?

In our analysis of many research papers, and from working with HR practitioners, we’ve seen some themes repeated time and again.  We have distilled these into 7 Enablers – they’re the activities and behaviours that CEO’s and HR influencers are looking for.  These are quantifiable – either you do them, or you don’t.  Arguably even more important is whether you are seen to be doing them.

An opportunity for a review of your HR activities, in collaboration with your stakeholders

Our framework helps you to structure your thinking, and then your planning, about how to deliver what the business needs.  For example, working from the strategic to the personal, it can help you to:

  • have the conversation with your senior leaders about what they want from you
  • learn how to get plugged into key decision-making cycles and meetings
  • explore with line and functional managers how to partner effectively with them
  • raise your game as an HR team and get more deeply aligned
  • put together your own Personal Development Plan as an HR professional.

For more information, please explore our website at, or call me, Deborah Wilkes, on 07766 564537.  We’re passionate about improving HR, both for the business and for hardworking HR people.  We offer HR workshops, and expert HR coaching.  We like to start with a free consultation, so that we can begin to understand what you’d like to achieve.

Ever wondered what people really mean by HR Transformation?  Look out for our next blog.


Trends in Learning

Digital learning methods become ever more popular, enabling learners to access the learning when and where they want it, and via a mix of dynamic media.  It can be extremely cost-effective, and naturally can seem attractive to the digital generation. However, what’s the most important ingredient to make sure that it really achieves the change you want?  Recent research shows that it’s good old human interaction.

Building on 70/20/10

It’s still popular to explore learning opportunities in this way (see below).  It fits well alongside digital learning as it’s equally flexible, and self-directed.

70/20/10 in Learning

The challenge with all learning, however, is that it’s not only ‘pulled in’ by the learner, but also aligned with the kind of performance improvements, or changes in behaviour, that you need.  If you’re in L&D, you’ll know that it’s not always easy getting the line manager to play a full role in making the critical links.  Research shows, however, that they (and other interested parties) are more important than ever.

Feedback is still the magic ingredient

High quality feedback is vital because relevance leads to commitment:  ‘I’ll learn this because I understand what’s in it for me’.  It’s interesting that millennials in particular value honest conversations with their boss about their performance.  They’re impatient to get on, and understand that this will help them.  Then, they can relate it to the development.  Why do I need to learn this?  What are you asking me to do differently, and how, exactly?  Where will it get me if I put the effort in?  How does this module relate to my actual job?  How will you help me put it into practice?

‘Interactive’ managers and colleagues support interactive training

This takes us back to 70/20/10.  There are many opportunities to make learning happen, and only some require a digital device.  There is still no substitute for the kind of experience, insight and wisdom that human beings can provide.  Reaching out to them, and having the conversation, is in itself a development project.  That’s the nub of what we found in our research on current thinking – the most exciting potential exists in integrating and aligning the digital and the human together.  Sounds simple, but of course it isn’t, and that’s our challenge as L&D professionals.  There’s a fundamental truth here, that’s backed up by neuroscience.  Engaging with a human activates emotions as well as intellect, and emotional engagement is a vital ingredient in getting the ROI from your development budget.

Extend and deepen HR Relationships

Our research into HR trends showed that we are good at collaborating across our field, but could partner more effectively with other parts of the business.  Open and trusting relationships help us to learn about how our business really works, and we can draw in insight and expertise that can help us in new ways.

How would you evaluate the quality and extent of HR’s relationships across your organisation?

If you imagine your reach into the organisation – how would you describe it?  We have networks of relationships, often built in a reactive or tactical way.  In an ideal world, the reach of HR could be seen like a spider’s web, stretching across the whole organisation.  In reality, is it more targeted than that, depending on the job that needs to be done?  Your web might be stronger in some areas than others, and even have holes in it, where you don’t perceive a need that merits the effort.

Breaking through glass doors as well as glass ceilings

Recent HR research shows that we could realise huge potential by reaching out to build new relationships, or deepen existing ones.  This is especially valuable where we want to learn how to add more value, in new ways.  New challenges demand new solutions, and constant innovation.  Where will new ideas and approaches come from?  The irony is that we often can’t predict that, until we put two people together and enable them to share what they know.  I came across a wonderful example at the GE Global Research Centre where they wanted to generate innovation.  They put an aerospace expert from their jet engine business together with a molecular physicist from their X-ray business, with no agenda except creating possibilities.  The conversation had to start with generous curiosity and a question we could all use: ‘tell me about your world’.

Developing new approaches demands a different kind of conversation

If we want to come up with new approaches, we have to ask more open questions.  It also helps to engage with stakeholders earlier in the planning process – opening up new areas to explore and making sure we understand the real need or opportunity.  Even before that, there is a critical step.  To have that kind of conversation, you have to have an effective relationship in place.

Leading through relationships

‘We manage through meetings.  We lead through relationships.’  I can’t remember who said that, but I’m sure you’ll agree.  Most of the time, we feel too busy to explore new areas, and are more likely to focus on using meetings to progress our agreed goals.  Investing time in building relationships for their own sake takes courage, but it takes your potential to add value to another level.

HR adding value in new ways

GE did generate a great idea from the collaboration of X-ray and jet engines – the sensitivity of X-ray is now used on aeroplane wings to check for minute damage.  The idea could only be generated once they had shared openly, in the spirit of collaboration.  What kind of fresh approaches could you develop if you explore further the worlds of your client groups?

Some questions for you to ask yourself, if you would like to extend and deepen relationships across the organisation with HR:

What are the key opportunities and challenges facing your organisation?
  • What are the strategic priorities and what’s on the horizon, and how can you ensure that you fully understand these?
  • Who are the people who understand these challenges best and how they play out in reality in different functions?
How would you evaluate your relationships with the people who hold the knowledge and insight that you need?
  • Would you describe the individual relationships as comfortable or uncomfortable, purely functional or eagerly collaborative, cagey or trusting?
  • Can you imagine having a different kind of conversation with them, eg. one that starts with the question ‘tell me about what happens in your world – I want to truly understand, and I may be making some assumptions.’?  If not, why not?
How committed are you to building more trust in this relationship, so that you can add more value?
  • Would it be worth the effort?  It will take time.
  • Where it is worth the effort, how could you start to build a stronger bridge and learn to collaborate towards building new solutions?
Before you start thinking about solutions, spend longer creating an open climate that can lead to deeper trust.
How can you build the relationship so that you are both open to fresh learning on both sides?
  • How can you hold back your existing frame of reference and preferred HR approaches until you’ve opened your mind to what’s really needed?
  • How can you adopt their language and frame of reference?
With these questions, you are preparing your mindset as well as the conversation.
Connection is one of our 7 Facets – the behaviours and activities that lead to success in today’s HR challenges.  Here’s a summary.

HR Development Framework Also check out Reputation and Perspective from the icons below.