An obsession with functional excellence is self-defeating, an expert claims. Photo: Shutterstock

Friday 24th June 2016

Looking the wrong way

Focus on the business not the function, says Rita Trehan

Rita Trehan, the transformation and capacity-building expert, suspects there’s never been a better time for HR to shape the future of business.

‘I can’t think of an industry that isn’t going through disruption right now,’ she says. ‘But because HR is steeped in ‘functional excellence’ it’s completely missed the point in terms of what CEOs are looking for.’

By ‘functional excellence’ – an idea that sounds great but apparently isn’t – we’re talking about an obsession with HR-for-HR’s-sake issues that barely connect with the wider organisational landscape. This obsession prohibits HR from engaging with real business issues, by which we probably mean those agitating the C-Suite.

It’s the difference, perhaps, between spending time worrying about time-to-hire, and spending time asking whether you should be hiring people in the first place.

There’s a case for saying that many of the current big disruptions are driven by human resource innovations. Uber and other players within the ‘gig economy’ are causing disruption largely by exploiting contingency work. Disruption is also happening by organisations cutting overheads by encouraging home working. And let’s not forget crowdsourcing – effectively contingency work writ large – gaining a footing in fields such as creative design and executive sourcing.

So people-based change is happening. But as a rule, HR isn’t knocking on the CEO’s door with disruptive ideas.

Not far enough

This ‘disappoints’ Trehan. ‘It’s depressing. Generally we’re nowhere near where we should be and certainly not adding the value we could be adding. We should stop patting ourselves on the back for ‘getting so far’ when we haven’t gone far enough.’

Her proposed reorientation is simple: don’t look at the function, look at the business.

In particular, the job of HR should be to build capacity throughout the business. (‘Capacity is where HR needs to be. We should be asking, how do you maximise the capability and potential of a company?’) That’s mainstream commercialism, not outlying personnel practice. But then commercialism is close to Trehan’s heart: she talks warmly of sitting outside her parents’ clothes shop as a child, selling socks to passers-by on the pavement.

There are a few more thoughts, suggests Trehan, that can get HR on the right side of the functional/organisational divide.

A new story

There needs to be a key narrative change. HRDs and CHROs shouldn’t see themselves as heads of function, but as ‘CEOs of the business of HR.’ In other words, as leaders with influence that spans well beyond the cosy HR corner of the org chart.

Trehan: 'Disappointed'
Trehan: ‘Disappointed’

From that perspective, the HR workload looks different. ‘You should be having conversations about investors, analysts and competitors. You should understand disruptions, speak to the board, really understand brand internally and externally, and provide advice that is aligned to where the organisation, not the department, needs to go.

‘And, of course,’ she admits, ‘keep the company out of jail.’

There also needs to be a shift in HR’s language. Currently, HR’s terminology is too arcane – complexity and weird neologisms are overvalued and inhibit the spread of good ideas externally. ‘We think fancy buzzwords make us important. Actually, the simpler the work is, the more credibility we gain. We don’t need crutches to show why we’re needed.’

She’s not dissing HR. She just wants it improved. ‘It’s one of the best professions in the world,’ she says. ‘Other than being a CEO, CHRO is the most exciting role.’

But it’s up to us to make it exciting. ‘It’s our job to change it, and it’s our time to change it. We as practitioners need to step up, not wait for academics or associations to tell us what to do.’

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.