What is HR's Role in Managing Change?

Sep 1, 2016
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Debra Cohen, Ph.D., SHRM-SCP, Consultant and Speaker

Debra Cohen
Dr. Debra Cohen has more than 25 years of HR management and leadership positions in the profit and nonprofit sectors as well as public and private universities. She is a consultant and speaker, a member of the Executive Advisory Council at Workcred, and a member of the Business Practices Council at AACSB International.

From my perspective, HR has multiple roles in managing change. Sometimes HR has to implement a change because it is required by outside forces (changes in laws or safety requirements, for example). Sometimes HR has to facilitate change because it is requested by other internal stakeholders (changes in IT operations due to efficiency or effectiveness needs, for example). And sometimes HR enables change because it is the right thing to do to given current and future organization conditions.

Regardless of whether change is required, requested, right or all three, a key ingredient is to be respectful. And HR has a major role in ensuring that change is identified, developed and carried out in a respectful way. The behavioral competencies required by HR professionals allow them, through things like relationship management, critical evaluation, consultation and leadership and navigation, to engage employees in the needed change at hand.

It has been said that it is up to management to enable and facilitate change. In the case of HR, the role needs to be change agent—not in the sense of being just a conduit of change but in the sense of planning the right changes in consultation with other executives and senior leaders. Change is all around us and occurs for a variety of reasons. And it is important to manage change because all too often change initiatives fail. Failure does not always mean that something doesn't happen—it often means that something doesn't happen well or effectively.

Change is important to HR because change is going to continue in the HR profession itself. As shown in SHRM's Business and Human Capital Challenges report, C-suite executives expect there to be a wide range of changes in the HR profession in the next 10 years—everything from broadening the scope of HR business partnerships to outsourcing HR tasks to pushing out more HR responsibility to line management. These changes will require finesse, collaboration, expert communication and a focus on measuring the success of change initiatives.

The changes that will be occurring in HR are long-term structural changes. That is, although many of the principles of HR remain the same, the way HR is executed has changed and will continue to change. The driving forces behind these changes will be organizational need and leadership, but to ensure that the changes actually take place, transformation has to happen from the bottom up. Thus change in HR must take root at every level if it is to be truly effective. One key role for HR is to ensure that organizational strategy and organizational culture are aligned; without this alignment no matter how good the strategy or how good the culture the disconnect will likely cause failure.

At the end of the day, organizational change and changes in HR need to be successful. The HR profession suffers a multitude of critics both within and outside the ranks. HR does not need any more negative attention—it simply needs to make the changes that will drive positive value and improve organizational effectiveness while helping to align strategy and culture. If change will be constant, whether large scale or small, then HR needs to embrace its role in being an effective facilitator of change. Starting with the HR profession itself makes sense. The better we are at embracing changes in our profession the better we will enable changes throughout the organization.

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