When many of us first embarked upon our professional careers, few if any disciplines had the opportunity to truly reinvent their organizational roles on the fly. Things were fairly steady, moving forward at a relegated pace, keeping stride with what, at the time, was the revolutionary influx of information technology. While the support tools were evolving, sales was still sales, finance was still finance, and HR was still HR. Turning our contemporary lens back onto those bucolic days of the 80s and 90s now has the feel of looking back into the archeological record of some ancient civilization.
Things have change. Really changed. Not just on the surface, but deep into the very essence of what business now does in its never ending pursuit of value creation.
During the Industrial Age, value was created through the exploitation of cheap and abundant raw materials, the organization of specialized labor (think assembly lines), and the application of capital. Industrialists like Henry Ford and Alfred Sloan helped usher in the golden age of the corporation. Economies of scale, vertical integration, corporate finance and sophisticated marketing methodologies took root and flourished. Great sales people ascended to dizzying heights. These were the tools and drivers of their time.
The Information Age, the precursor of today, breathed new life into tiring, threadbare methodologies of management and organizational development. Information technology enabled the aging structures to shed overhead and secure gains in productivity, while the very essence of their fundamentals were quietly slipping away beneath their feet. Resource constraints, environmental concerns, the first waves of globalization, and labor strife were all taking their toll during the 1970s, right at the threshold of the coming IT revolution. Those of you old enough will remember the gas lines, stagflation and the emergence of the Rust Belt that marked the close of the decade.
While the internet, cloud computing, and Big Data all offer productivity promise, the very source of value creation has shifted dramatically over the past thirty years. In today’s economy, value is created through the efficient commercialization of intellectual property (IP). The assembly lines of the past have been supplanted by teams of knowledge workers. Multi-cultural, multi-generational workers that are often dispersed around the globe. The new raw material of our age is human creativity and the human beings that bring their creativity to life.
The implications are far reaching, but the opportunities are even greater, especially for the professionals in Human Resources and Talent Management. The fact of the matter is, what was once perceived by senior leadership as overhead, a department that was saddled with risk management and often derided as a necessary evil that slowed things down, is now center stage in the value creation equation.
With this unprecedented opportunity for unleashing remarkable productivity gains (Gallup® once again, for the 12th year running, reported employee disengagement levels hovering at 70%) comes equally remarkable challenges for HR. While the source of value creation has shifted, the political capital HR requires in their new role has lagged behind. Chances are, this political capital wont be philanthropically handed over by the Sales and Marketing folks; it simply isn’t in their nature. But the fierce competitors must inevitably give sway to the fierce collaborators if companies are to maintain their competitive advantage in rapidly changing markets.
So HR professionals are left to blaze a new trail, to build their voice at the strategic table of senior management. The challenge is, where are the forbearers? Where are the pioneers to whom we can look for guidance and methods to set this new standard? You’ll find them in the mirror. It’s you, and it’s your time to step up and lead.
Having been on the forefront of this revolution for the past five years, I’d like to share a few thoughts as you embark on the first steps of this new journey:
- Cultivate your business acumen. Tap into the thought leaders beyond the traditional practice of HR (i.e. The McKinsey Quarterly®, the Harvard Business Review®, and people like Dan Ariely, Daniel Goleman and Rich Davidson). Tap into the many entrepreneurial voices heard through blogs and the unadulterated business press of the internet. Find a senior mentor from outside HR and learn as much as you can, as quickly as you can about both the new and evergreen fundamentals of business.
- Invest in your leadership competencies. Not the old command-and-control philosophies, but methods based upon transformational and service leadership. It is values-driven leadership that resonates with today’s multi-cultural and multi-generational workforce. And it is intrinsic values that resonate (i.e. authentic relationships, purposefulness, being of service and a part of something bigger than one’s self) in today’s world. Leveraging extrinsic values alone (i.e. money, power, prestige) is an artifact of the past (and a contributing factor to endemic employee disengagement).
- Look for integrative solutions that drive insights. Today’s business world is faced with accelerating complexity. One-off, simple solutions are no longer capable of bridging the growing performance gap. The solutions to today’s adaptive challenges lie in the convergence of seemingly disparate disciplines (i.e. the convergence of neuroscience, applied behavioral economics, emotional intelligence, leadership development, creativity science, and advanced analytics).
- Build metrics into every HR initiative. This is crucial in gaining a respected voice at the leadership table. Sales is transactional and easily measured. Human creativity, collaboration, leadership development, and innovation precursors require a bit more thought to construct meaningful metrics. But these metrics are there if you look, and be sure to ask every HR vendor for their metrics as well. If they shy away from measuring their own impact on the business, find vendors willing to step up and be accountable.
- Be prepared to take some risks. This is the threshold, the point at which you will either embark on what famed author and scholar Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey or fall back into the staid definitions of the past. Here’s the thing, if you follow the first four steps of advice, the risks will be measured, rational, and justifiable. Those are risks worth taking and those are risks one survives.
We’re truly working and living in unprecedented times. The HR profession has arrived at a nexus. The opportunities for those bold enough to redefine themselves and their role within the organization will enjoy equally unprecedented success.
© 2013, Terry Murray.