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HR professionals are most effective in strategic mode

October 4, 2013
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It seems somewhat surprising that when you ask people what the human resource department does, you get a wide range of answers: They hire people; they discipline people; they keep the employee records; they write the handbook, etc.

It seems people in HR are most commonly viewed as one-dimensional, and that’s most likely driven by the last experience someone had or heard about.

In reality, it depends on a great many factors, from the size of the organization and the economic climate to the skills and experience of the HR professionals and the organization’s management team. It is an ever-changing operation that is usually in a reactive mode but is most effective when it operates in a proactive and strategic mode.

One of the many critical drivers is regulation. This is the result of laws passed primarily at the federal level, but frequently with state variations. Setting up a human resource function with only regulation compliance in mind normally establishes a minimum effectiveness for the operation as it usually centers on record keeping and telling management what not to do.

If you step back and look at the larger picture, you should start to think about the mission and vision of the organization and how it will achieve these goals. You can also throw in a values perspective, which will influence how things get done. When an organization gets started, these elements are usually part of the thinking even if they aren’t written down. If you have more than one person involved at the start, there is usually some general understanding of these objectives. No one is usually officially charged with addressing these matters.

The HR need, however, can quickly arise as more people are brought into the organization. The owner or general manager will frequently perform the necessary functions, not thinking of herself or himself as the HR manager. They have just determined they need someone with certain experience or skills to help them do work that needs to get done.

This is the beginning. Then you have to find people and figure out what and how you will pay them. There is a subtle notion in the background as you go through this process that you want a “good” person so that you get high value for your money. Defining “good” is the critical issue. And as the needs of the organization or its customers or clients evolve, what is good usually changes, as well.

Aligning good people with evolving organizational needs is basically the job of human resources, while avoiding land mines and pursuing that elusive goal of value received for value paid. As the organization gets larger, the job becomes more complex. New rules come into play, required skill levels become greater, and communication and alignment become more difficult. It doesn’t take much experience in business to understand these matters and some of the factors that undermine achieving them.

What to do about these stumbling blocks are the tactical and strategic efforts of human resource management. Over the years there have been multiple strategies developed and applied in various circumstances — some by creative managers, others by consultants and still others by academics as they train new people entering the work force.

If you believe there is a “silver bullet” to make everything right, I’ve got swampland in Florida to sell you. The closest thing to a silver bullet in my opinion is when you recognize you must use a number of techniques and strategies and be sure that they stay in “balance” with the organization’s operating conditions. This could be new laws, new competitors, product or service needs, as well as customer and employee attitudes. Sometimes the organization can shape these factors, but more frequently they will have to contend with the different circumstances.

Human resources can be highly instrumental in helping the organization meet the new challenges when it keeps an ear close to the ground and listens to all the voices and sounds that are impacting the organization. Then figure out what it means in terms of organization people needs and anticipates what is required to meet these needs, with the fewest, most productive employees.

This involves aligning talent with operational requirements. How this happens can be achieved in a number of ways, such as hiring the right people or creating internal development programs, but it also means attracting and retaining the right people who have the proper motivation.

Motivation, in my opinion, outweighs all the other elements once you reach a minimum proficiency of skill. Can you create this attribute, or is it something that people have to bring to the job? In either case, we know that environmental aspects of the job can kill it. Getting rid of the environmental motivation killers clearly falls under the purview of HR as well as all management staff. Unfortunately, many management staff don’t recognize they are the problem.

Identifying the motivational killers is an essential starting point to increasing the productive work force. The second step is to establish the environment that promotes motivation. This is not the same for every organization. It frequently involves developing a culture consistent with the organization’s mission and vision. Then it involves educating the employees, management and others, and communicating expectations as well as threats and opportunities discovered by all members of the team and giving recognition for jobs well done.

Keep in mind that recognition comes in many forms. Aligning all these elements and maximizing the opportunities and minimizing the threats to the organization is really what human resources is all about.

Ardon Schambers is president and principal of P3HR Consulting & Services in Grand Rapids.

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