Human resources less important or more important

February 19, 2011
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For those people who observe business and organizational trends, you will be aware that things have changed a great deal over the years. The speed of organization change, like many elements of today’s society, continually gets more rapid.

However, everyone does not change at the same rate. In fact, organizations bringing new products or services to market plan for such staggered change. They plan for the “early adopters” to help break ground and capture the second phase “change seekers or trend setters.” Then the emphasis shifts to the “trend followers.”

Many in this group observe where things are headed, see opportunity and often come out with the improved model, building the work of the innovators. Change eventually reaches the masses just about when the next innovation cycle is already underway.

This sequence of change applies whether you are producing products, services or idea innovation. It has been recognized and utilized in just about any situation where someone is unhappy with the status quo. The change agents are the innovators, the early adopters and the change seekers. These are the people who really have impact.

Change strategy can apply in global situations such as revolutions, the thinnest phone or just being the coolest kid in class. The key is to spot the need, then get others to take notice and recognize the value being presented.

The same concepts apply to how organizations evolve and operate. The identification of need will come from those who take the time to observe, utilize some creative juices, and willingly take some risk by stepping outside the norm. It requires a moment or two when you can lift your nose up from the grindstone and smell the winds of change.

More and more organizations allow and some even plan for checking the winds of change. The smartest of leaders make a special effort to listen to those who are “checking the wind.” Then they can organize, control and integrate necessary modifications to their practices and meet their objectives without falling prey to evolving events.

How does this apply to human resources? Unfortunately, the innovators and change agents are often in short supply. To some extent it is the result of how human resources has evolved and who holds the positions.

In a lot of organizations, the HR person is focused on cranking out the reports and documents that keep things in compliance on a timely basis, and dealing with the things that no one else wants to address. In other organizations, HR also is responsible for determining new and more efficient ways to handle old problems. These folks are often highly focused on HR matters, looking at what “the best 100 organizations” are doing, but are not so involved in what the organization is about. These are the “masses” that follow the trends and often have limited impact on the organization.

There is, however, an evolving group of HR executives who become part of the management team representing a critical operating element: labor. They have the opportunity to have notable impact on the organization. A critical aspect of this role requires a broad appreciation of the business requirements, but also establishment of personal credibility to be on equal footing with other key organization leaders. They aren’t satisfied with being a follower, nor is it desired by their leadership.

Finally, there are HR leaders who are innovators, who are watching the mega trends and critical events outside the organization and sensing the wind changes. They will identify opportunities and then push or lead the organization in the direction of those opportunities. They are shaping the organization’s culture and positioning it to be a player for the future.

For example, we recently heard President Obama speak to the issue of “gaining the future.” He was expressing an idea and hoping to inspire people to lead an economic revolution. He wants people to see opportunities and be bold about seizing them.

Whether or not you like his politics, it is important to understand that he is shaping the environment. I believe he was not only expressing an inspirational goal; he was also sounding an alarm. Much of his speech involved jobs and getting people to work. He saw solutions through innovation and leadership. He is pushing the idea of educating and retaining talent. What Obama didn’t express is how organizations are learning to do more with fewer people. He didn’t deal with the significant demographic changes resulting in a rapidly aging work force.

These concepts are almost too large to get your arms around. But if you step back and consider who is or can be in a strong position to address these matters, you may want to look to the HR executive. An executive who has foresight, who can get his colleagues both inside and outside of the organization to get on the bandwagon, and who can help align company goals with the mega trends, shape government policy instead of just acting in compliance, this will be a most important position for those organizations who want to gain and shape the future. It will also be critical for CEOs and their boards to let such executives flourish. These will be the organizations that will attract, shape and retain the talent of tomorrow. 

The adopters, acceptors and stragglers of change will learn how to operate in the new environment, but at a distinct disadvantage from those who drive change. How you and your organization see the human resource position will likely be a self-fulfilling prophecy for the position and the organization.

Ardon L. Schambers is a principal in the firm of P3HR Consulting & Services LLC in Grand Rapids.

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