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How HR Leaders Are Getting And Keeping A Seat At The Table

How HR Leaders Are Getting And Keeping A Seat At The Table*

By Jim Kochanski, Gerry Ledford, Don Ruse and Gregg Passin who can be contacted at www.imakenews.com

1. Introduction

It is ironic that the importance of human capital has never been more widely recognized, yet the organizational function with the greatest expertise on the topic—Human Resources—has not been so insecure for decades. It has become commonplace to argue that human capital is today’s most important battleground for competitive advantage, as other sources of competitive advantage have receded in significance. Capital, raw materials and even technology are cheap and easily acquired. Sustained competitive advantage is most likely to come from the ingenuity and motivation of employees. Yet HR executives are increasingly worried about the status and impact of their function, despite its importance. Recent studies* suggest that HR executives wish to play a more strategic role in the company, but cast doubt on whether that is happening. HR leaders face intense demands to show a return on investment for the function. Some companies have abandoned hope that HR will play a strategic role, and simply seek cost savings by outsourcing virtually the entire HR function to a growing collection of capable vendors.

HR executives must meet two primary challenges if they wish to get and keep "a seat at the table" when business decisions are made. The first is to support the organization’s business strategy more effectively. This requires bringing expertise to bear on how best to acquire, motivate, develop and organize people. The second is to provide HR services more efficiently. This is a test that all support functions must meet if they wish to be business partners, and is essential for HR credibility.

We are less pessimistic than many observers that HR leaders will adapt to these demands. Our client experiences have convinced us that many companies are grappling effectively with these challenges, and that much innovation is going unnoticed.

Sibson Consulting is conducting a study to better understand how HR executives adapt HR policies and practices to support the strategic needs of their businesses. We have recently collected interview and questionnaire data from the top HR officers of 40 American and British companies. This article summarizes our findings so far. When appropriate, we will contrast the results from a set of eight of the most "strategic players" with the other cases. These eight cases met three criteria: the HR head reports directly to the CEO; the HR organization is directly involved in addressing major business challenges; and the HR organization clearly has influence, credibility and business leader support.

We have organized the findings around several puzzles posed by the data. We will describe each puzzle, indicate why it is important, present relevant data and draw some conclusions.


2. Puzzle 1: How Does HR Get a Seat at the Table?

One of the most important questions we hoped to answer is how HR can exert more influence on business direction and results. We considered several potential levers, including a strategically oriented HR leader; an enlightened business leader who appreciates the value of human capital; certain organizational models; improved information and tools; and solutions that are better linked to business strategy. The study shows that these levers are often part of the story, but that something more fundamental is required before they can be used successfully. There must be a business need for a strategic HR function that is understood by corporate leaders.

Harnessing the business need requires several behaviors from the top HR leader. That individual must understand the business and the way human capital issues are related to key strategic issues. The HR leader also must be able to articulate the importance of human capital issues, and to influence business leaders and gain their support.

Comparing the most strategic companies in the study to the other participants offers a clue about how this can be accomplished. The strategic players rated eight of nine business challenges listed in the survey as more serious than did HR leaders from the other companies. High on the list of serious business challenges requiring human capital solutions were cost reduction, speed to market, building knowledge and intellectual capital, and growth through mergers and acquisitions.

The perception that these business problems are more serious for the strategic players has two possible explanations:

Firms with the most severe business challenges attract the most strategic HR leaders.

The most strategic HR organizations are more in tune with business challenges.

Our interviews suggest that both of these factors contribute to getting a seat at the table. For example, in several participating companies, severe business needs led the company to go outside for a new HR head who could behave more strategically than the available insiders. Even while still new to the organization, these HR leaders were very articulate about the business challenges and the ways in which HR solutions and priorities line up against them. These companies had a business need for strategic HR, and the HR leaders understood it.

Forging HR priorities in the context of changing business imperatives is critical to getting or using a seat at the table. For example, the senior vice president of HR in a company created in a spin-off shifted HR's priorities several times in a few years as the business imperatives changed from getting the cost structure and infrastructure right, to growing organically, and then growing through acquisition. Business leaders initially were skeptical about the strategic value HR could contribute, but they came to see the value. Rather than trying to be heroic by "hitting their own home runs", HR focused on meeting the business’ imperatives. At the same time HR has been driving its own agenda to upgrade talent. The senior vice president reminded us that getting to the table and remaining there involves more than just doing the right things for the business—it is also about having the right kinds of relationships with other business leaders. In this company, HR leaders maintain close one-on-one relationships with other leaders who have their own priorities. By adding value for these leaders, HR builds its own credibility.

3. Puzzle 2: How Can Talent Decisions Become Strategic Decisions?

Much of HR’s influence comes from its expertise in helping to attract, develop and retain the right number, types and quality of employees. A key finding from our study is that most participants identified attracting, developing and retaining the right talent as a critical business issue. They were especially concerned about two talent segments—next-generation business leaders and employees with the skills most critical for executing the business strategy. These findings indicate the importance of HR’s ability to help executives understand the talent implications of their business strategy and implement a clear action plan that ensures management has the talent it needs to run the business profitably.

Study participants were grappling with a number of difficult talent issues. These included:

>> How can HR leaders get business leaders to care about talent when there is no immediate shortage inside and outside the organization? The availability of talent during the past three years—a time of higher unemployment—has led many companies to relax their guard about talent issues.

>> How is HR leading the alignment of the organization’s talent strategy with the business strategy?

>> Does the HR organization know enough to help business leaders determine whether to buy talent (hire from the outside) or build talent (train and develop)? Few firms appear to have a good understanding of the economics of build versus buy talent approaches.

>> How does HR take accountability for talent without removing the responsibility for line management?

Comparing the strategic players to the others indicates that the strategic players are stronger in five areas:

A. Helping the business translate the human capital implications of their strategy into skill sets that are more or less critical, enabling the organization to understand the business impact of different talent segments

B. Accurately forecasting future talent needs in terms of type (skill sets) and number (headcount) for longer periods. Strategic players indicated that their forecasts normally look two to five years into the future. They said this is especially important as their businesses begin to rebound from the economic downturn of recent years and prepare to take advantage of an improved economy

C. Calculating critical talent gaps in terms of size and importance. This enables executives to make critical investment choices about buying external talent and building internal talent.

D. Sourcing and acquiring the right talent in a timely manner to ensure the right people are in the right place at the right time.

E. Developing talent by moving people through key assignments identified as being most critical to skill development.

By doing these five things well, strategic partners create a strong sense of line ownership for talent management in their organizations. At the same time, they reinforce the need for HR to have a seat at the table by presenting insightful information that enables executives to make more informed decisions about running the business. The top HR officer of a leading financial services organization argued that unless HR can effectively illuminate the impact talent management has on top- and bottom-line results, it will remain a second-class function.

4. Puzzle 3: How Can Compensation Be Leveraged for Competitive Advantage?

Compensation program design is one of the main opportunities for HR to influence the performance and focus of the organization. Those HR organizations that can refine compensation program design according to changing business needs have a place at the table. Compensation design goes beyond managing cost, competitiveness and internal equity. Strategic compensation design helps employees to focus on the right measures, giving their best effort and cooperating with other individuals and groups.

The emphasis on cost and competitiveness of the 1990s led companies to simplify compensation structures and focus much more on the external labor market than on internal equity as the primary basis for pricing jobs. These changes simplified compensation administration and made it cheaper. Companies also increased the use of variable pay, to tie changes in compensation to the firm’s ability to pay and provide incentives for individual or collective performance.

The companies in the study reflect these trends. Fully 93 percent agreed that top company executives see "using limited compensation dollars more effectively" as a high priority for the HR function in the next year. Three-fourths reported experiencing "severe pressure in containing compensation costs." Two-thirds reported that differentiating more among employees in delivering compensation dollars is "important" or "very important" to business success. Three-quarters positioned base pay (wages or salaries) at the average market level, while only 21 percent set base pay above average market levels. Reflecting the heavy use of variable pay, however, half positioned total compensation above market levels, with the remainder positioning total compensation at market level. Only one firm in our sample favored internal equity over market levels to price jobs, while one-third relied primarily on market levels in pricing jobs. Overall, nearly six of 10 indicated they relied more on market level than internal equity in pricing jobs.

Some of these trends were even more prominent for the strategic players, who were even stronger in agreeing that using compensation dollars more effectively was a top HR priority. Although the strategic players made heavy use of incentives, they were also much less likely to position total compensation above the market. A fourth of the strategic players, compared to 60 percent of the others, priced total compensation above market. This indicates that variable pay did not create a high payout risk for most strategic players.

The interviews confirmed that the primary differences between the strategic players and the others involved the use of variable pay to gain competitive advantage. We found that most strategic players cover most or all employees with incentive plans, while almost none of the other firms do so. One financial services firm covered 100 percent of employees with more than 350 incentive plans that are customized to the needs of local businesses. A large multidivisional firm adopted a company-wide incentive plan for most non-management employees, who can receive a maximum bonus of 10 to 15 percent based on a combination of corporate performance and operating company performance. This formula has focused attention on overall corporate results, but also on the business unit, for which there is greater line of sight. A retail-oriented financial services firm offered several hundred different sales incentive plans to more than 80 percent of its workers. That company explicitly ensures that total compensation is in line with market levels so it does not lose competitiveness through the plans.

We suspect there are unrealized opportunities to rethink base pay. In particular, we believe that the pendulum has swung too far toward external market pricing when valuing jobs. In many cases, it would be better to balance internal and external factors to take into account the strategic value of jobs to the firm, thus tying HR’s work in compensation more to the company strategy than solely to external benchmarks.

5. Puzzle 4: How Does HR Demonstrate Business Success?

We heard a painful HR joke in one of our interviews. How do you tell the HR leader in a business meeting? Answer: That’s the person without any data. We do not believe that the HR function will be seen as a business partner in most companies until its insights on human capital are based on good data and business-based metrics. Yet in no area did we see less evidence of progress than in HR metrics.

The problem is not that HR lacks information and performance measures. Indeed, HR leaders were easily able to identify three to five key measures for the function, and the cumulative list runs for pages. Analysis indicates that companies are using three broad types of measures: traditional HR measures, transactional measures and business metrics.

>> Traditional metrics assess either HR activity (for example, number of hires, training hours delivered) or employee outcomes (for example, employee satisfaction or morale, employee turnover).

>> Transactional metrics are somewhat newer, and assess the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the HR function in delivering services. Examples include cost per hire, the time it takes to fill open positions, the ratio of HR staff to employees, and HR operating costs per employee served.

>> The third type of measure is an HR business metric, typically a ratio that ties a standard business metric to HR investments. Examples include gross margin per employee, revenue per employee, ratio of total employment cost to total revenue, and EBITDA per full-time employee.

The clear majority of companies in our sample used both traditional and transactional HR measures. However, only 10 percent of our sample used HR business metrics, and their use was still a work in progress even at those companies. Interestingly, the strategic players were not more likely to use HR business metrics than the other companies in the study.

This creates a particularly perplexing puzzle: Can HR ever gain a real seat at the table without being able to demonstrate its success and the return on human capital? Is the problem that, despite years of large expenditures on upgrading HR technology and systems, the relevant data is still not available? Or is there more to this puzzle?

As we pondered these findings and asked ourselves these questions, we developed an intriguing hypothesis: Perhaps HR efficiency measures have become more strategic. If HR organizations have been transformed into lean, strategic engines and if employees and managers are doing the transactions for themselves, then traditional HR efficiency measures are no longer applicable only to HR, but to overall people management. For example, if we posit the unquestionable strategic importance of human capital, could it be that achieving an employee turnover rate below that of industry peers has become an acknowledged measure of organizational success, not just HR success?

If this is the case, it does not preclude our asking whether HR’s work can or should be evaluated using broader company-wide measures. Should HR use measures such as revenue and income growth or improved customer satisfaction when so many other areas in the organization have at least an equal responsibility in those areas? For now, at least, many of the study participants do not seem to think so. We would point out, however, that no one finds it unusual for a function such as Finance to track company-wide metrics.

We will continue to test our hypothesis as we conclude the study.

6. Conclusion: Transforming the HR Function

A seat at the table implies HR leaders working with business leaders, but the study participants told us that it really requires transformation of the whole HR function. They also said the transformation is difficult to achieve. More than half of the participants said that:

>> They do not have enough HR talent capable of meeting the needs of the changing HR.

>> They are having difficulty evolving beyond the HR of the past.

Some of the study participants felt they were further along than others in their transformation. Many of the stories we heard mentioned the strategic levers listed above: getting talent management and compensation aligned with the business needs, outsourcing, and using metrics and information better. Another common theme had to do with removing HR leaders and employees who had difficulty transforming. This may explain why more than half the participants expressed concern about the supply of HR talent and the difficulty in moving beyond the past with people rooted in the past. Is a critical mass of new HR people required?

The companies that expressed frustration with transforming HR have done the same things as those further along in their transformation: outsourcing, developing new competencies, adopting new HR organizational designs, and so on. However, those companies that were further along used transformation techniques that were not simply copied from other companies. Those having difficulty often quoted the source of the technique or practice they used (i.e. someone else’s organizational model), while those making progress talked more about the actual change that occurred and the results that came with it. For example, in one technology company that had downsized thousands of line employees, the HR senior vice president talked of transforming HR to keep costs in line with those of a much smaller company, changing HR capabilities from managing downsizing to developing the people they have, and changing the reward system to focus on the longer term.

In some examples, new HR leaders from outside the company served as a catalyst. On the other hand, several of the more impressive examples of transformation were led by existing HR leaders who recognized the need for a drastic change. Almost all of the transformations included a new structure, new roles and new jobs for HR employees.

It is clear from this study that HR can get a place at the business decision-making table. To do so, HR must play up its role in talent management and compensation, and make better use of people information and metrics. Transformation does not always require a new HR leader, but it does require leaders who recognize changing business needs and can shift HR's capabilities and priorities accordingly.

As we complete the "At the Table" study, the participating companies will further explore the process of getting and keeping a seat at the table. We will make additional results available when we release a complete report of our findings.

* Reprinted by permission. Copyright © 2004 by The Segal Group, Inc., the parent of Sibson Consulting, a division of The Segal Company. All rights reserved.


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Gary Watkins

Gary Watkins

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