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The Role of the human resources leader

Abe Thebyane
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The roles of the chief HR officer, HR business partner, HR director and manager have had numerous articles written about these. Many conference hours have been devoted to this topic. Many HR Leaders and HR professionals consider Dave Ulrich's explanation of the role of HR and HR Leaders as the best there is so far. For the first time, Dave Ulrich, helped clarify the ways in which HR can add value to a business in tangible, measurable and practical ways.

HR business partner

Due to Ulrich's work, HR is no longer seen simply as a cost centre but as a value adding function.

The business partner role of HR leaders as defined by Ulrich is something that HR Leaders took to like ducklings take to water. Many of them felt liberated and exhilarated by this new found truth "As HR business partner I exist to enable my business to achieve its objectives." This is how the business partner role of HR is defined.

Many HR titles were changed to conform to this new found truth. It became fashionable for HR professionals to be given the title of HR business partner.

In all this excitement of HR professionals being true business partners, we somehow forgot that Ulrich expounded other roles of HR, such as employee champion, administrative expert and change agent. In fact Ulrich was expounding a multiple-role model for human resources management not a single role model, such as business partner.

Why is this fact overlooked when the role of HR is discussed?

It's overlooked because business partner is the easiest of all the roles that HR has to play. As business partner, the HR professional focuses on aligning HR strategies and practices with the business strategy. In playing this role, the HR professional works to be a strategic partner, helping to ensure the success of business strategies, says Ulrich.

The business partner role, as understood by many HR professionals is no different from the "reactive, wait to be told what to do" role that HR traditionally played in organisations.

The easy part of being a business partner is figuring out where the organisations is going and then working to get it there.

The most difficult part is for HR professionals to play their rightful and more meaningful role of first influencing where the organisation is headed. In other words, how to influence the strategic direction of the organisations first, before you work to facilitate the implementation of the strategy.

The role of HR in influencing business strategy

The Marikana massacre of 2012 and the destructive five-monthsAMCU strike in the platinum industry, are two examples that should lead HR Professionals to re-examine their roles.

The re-examination should focus firstly on the business partner role.

What can HR do to influence the business decisions of the organisation to ensure that these take sufficient account of employee, community or government interests?

As HR business partners, HR should have played a role firstly in influencing business decisions to ensure that the outcomes of those decisions are positive not only for the company but the employees as well.

But how can HR do this?

SELF model for influencing business decisions

The Cornell Centre for Advanced Human Resources Studies (CAHRS) has developed a simple but powerful model that HR leaders can use to influence business decisions. Based on a series of questions, focusing on the strategic, ethical, legal and financial considerations, HR leaders can begin to influence business strategies favourably on behalf of all stakeholders

1. Strategic

"This decision we are making, in what way does it advance or detract from the broader strategic objectives of the company?"

2. Ethical

"What are the ethical considerations to take into account in this decision?"

3. Legal

"What legal considerations should apply to this decision?"

4. Financial

"What are financial implications of the decision?"

The SELF model can be used in individual business decision or to influence the entire strategy of the organisation.

Being an HR business partner is about more than just facilitating the implementation of business strategies. It is also about influencing those strategies first. HR leaders forgot that the Ulrich model is about a multiple of roles that HR should play simultaneously. Those HR leaders who effectively manage the tensions between the various roles that HR has to play would be the most successful.


Abe Thebyane is the Group Executive: Human Resources at the Nedbank Group. He has a BAdmin, Postgraduate Diploma in Management (Human Resources) and an MBA. He joined the group, and was appointed to the group executive committee, in February 2011 as head of group HR. Abe has 29 years' experience in HR, which he acquired through the various senior and executive positions he held in large corporations in SA. Prior to joining the group, he was executive head: human resources at Anglo American Platinum Limited for six years and before that he was executive director: human resources at Iscor Limited.


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