Permeable Employee Boundaries Are Part of HR's Future

By Kathy Gurchiek May 10, 2012
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HR’s success in the future will rely, in part, on boundary spanning and accepting diverse definitions of the HR role, according to speakers during the recent 90-minute webcast, “The Future of HR: Multiple Disciplines, Multiple Connections, Multiple Levels.”

“HR success will mean reaching out to other disciplines,” said John W. Boudreau, Ph.D., a Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources and a Trustee for the Foundation of the National Academy of Human Resources.

“That means that itwon’tbe just traditional HR, that we really need to find the discipline and the frameworks that underlie the function very differently than we have before” and in a more open-minded way, he said during an April 2012 webcast presented by the Center for Effective Organizations (CEO).

He and co-presenter Ian Ziskin offered observations from their continuing study of the future of HR, which includes focus groups, interviews and thought leadership reviews. During the webcast they touched upon the implications of several key trends for the future of HR.

Boudreau said one particular skill HR leaders will need to develop in their organizations “is the ability to see … employee boundaries as very, very permeable and very changeable.” This will require communicating with and establishing links across different groups—boundary spanning.

Additionally, “HR success will require accepting diverse definitions of the HR role,” he said. “There’s a good deal of debate right now about whether and how HR becomes a profession.” Boudreaunoted that in the development of other professions, “you see a sort of trend where they began to sort of draw some lines around the profession where … you don’t get in unless you have this certification or these qualifications or you master this information or you operate by these standards.”

While there is “a lot of good work going on in that vein,” Boudreau acknowledged, he said he and Ziskin are “contrarians” regarding that philosophy.

Breaking Down Barriers

“The future and the effectiveness of the HR profession may well lie in breaking down some of those barriers and really opening up to the idea that there are diverse definitions of what HR means and what the different roles in HR mean.”

Boudreau sees the HR profession evolving from one that is interested in persuading others about the value of HR to “reframing HR issues in terms of models more familiar to leaders” of the organization.

That means making better decisions, understanding human capital better, using good working models and using those skills and working models throughout the organization.

Ziskin, CEO’s advisor and executive in residence, predicted an increasing emphasis on analytics in HR,which he said will require HR to reach outside of the HR function.

“One of the biggest implications for HR leaders is to get comfortable with the idea of bringing in talent from outside of HR that enables us to tell a better story about why many of the things we’re selling ought to be of interest to people outside the HR function,” Ziskin said.

“Expect more and more people with marketing backgrounds and engineering backgrounds, program management, supply chain, finance, even things like anthropology and other nontraditional sorts of backgrounds,” including statistics, “to be brought into HR functions … because they bring an analytic bent that we need.”

Ziskin talked about the need for HR professionals to be included in their organization’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies and efforts.

“In many cases, the HR people in their companies are noticeably absent in these efforts” involving organizational change. “They’re not really contributing,” he said. Instead, it’s falling under other areas such as operations, engineering, public affairs and sometimes health and safety.

“As HR leaders, do we want to be left out of this particular area of responsibility? It does not mean that [CSR] has to report in to HR—although in some cases it does—but the degree we can get comfortable in partnering with a number of other functions” in sustainability areas.

“This one is going to increase in its importance and its emphasis over time,” Ziskin predicted.

In addition, he and Boudreau see a trend of a more collaborative approach that draws on the ideas and problem-solving skills of all employees—or “agile co-creativity”—instead of relegating innovation to one department, such as research and development.

“Organizations and HR need to get much better at defining creativity in a broad way. That creativity is really going to happen everywhere in the organization,” Boudreau said.

It points up the need to figure out the right way to generate ideas, how to harness the soft processes in and outside the organization, and what HR is doing to get good at providing the organization with the tools necessary for that agile co-creativity, he stated.

Customized Employee Rewards

Both men addressed the trend toward what Boudreau calls the “mass customization” of employee rewards. It’s important to serve individual needs, he said, but segmentation must be framed around certain business-related standards so everyone understands “where and how it makes sense for an organization.”

Ziskin expects the move toward segmentation—rewarding people differently based on their contribution, role and potential—to escalate. It’s a trend likely to make HR very nervous given the large role it plays in preserving fairness at organizations, he said, because segmentation challenges the notion of how fairness is defined

“Somehow or another, over the years that emphasis on fairness has been translated in a number of fashions, one of which is to treat everybody the same to minimize the risk of causing people to feel that they’re not being treated fairly,” Ziskin said.

“Does fairness, in fact, get in the way of segmentation?” he asked. “More importantly,” he added, “does the interest in fairness get in the way of treating people in the way that makes sense based on the jobs that they’re in and the contributions they’re making to the organization?”

He likened the workplace to a garden, suggesting that “HR people have tended to want to put everybody in the sunlight and pour water on them” in an effort to preserve the concept of fair treatment. However, different plants have different needs and do not thrive under the same treatment, said Ziskin. He pointed out that reward segmentation occurs in the sports and entertainment sectors, where certain people have tailored deals.

“While we don’t necessarily anticipate every employee in every large company is going to have their own individual shoe contract, what we do anticipate is that certain types of skills will in fact demand and command that [customized deal].”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.

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