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Viewpoint: What Is Your HR Department's Defining Purpose?

It's a question worth asking

A man in a suit and tie standing in front of a building.
​Josh Bersin

Over the last several months I've had the opportunity to talk with HR leaders from iconic companies of all sizes from around the world. They're all dealing with a myriad of issues: what technologies to buy, how to improve culture and engagement, what leadership programs to develop, how to speed recruiting, how to conduct onboarding, how to cultivate their employment brand, and much more. In fact, I would say that right now, with so much digital disruption and political change taking place, almost everything in HR is being challenged.

One of the chief human resources officers (CHROs) I met with mentioned to me that, after being in her role for more than 15 years, "now that I've been doing this for a long time, I realize that 75 percent of what I've been doing we probably could have done without." Another CHRO of a large global company just told me "we have been continuously asked to cut costs and improve service quality, and I'm starting to ask myself why we are really here."

The point I'm trying to make is that HR, unlike almost every other function in business, only operates well when it has a very clear defining purpose. And that purpose should be timely, relevant, and appropriate for the company, the leadership team and the market.

Let me give you a few examples:

One of the clients I've worked with for years is a large technology company going through a series of major acquisitions and mergers. This company has grown very effectively for more than a decade but is now in the middle of one of its biggest mergers ever. What is HR's role? Above all else, its purpose is not just to "harmonize processes" and "integrate departments" but to "define and drive the right culture" so everyone in the newly combined company knows what to do and how to act and feels at home in the new organization. This is a defining purpose that will shape this company's HR department for the next 12-24 months.

Another HR leader is running HR for a fast-growing Internet company. His particular challenges are very broad: He has issues with hiring, leadership, engagement, learning and onboarding. Ultimately, however, after we spent an hour talking, he realized that his defining purpose is to create a recruitment process that rapidly and effectively finds the "perfect people" as quickly as possible and convinces them to join. This means that programs for sourcing, branding, recruiting and onboarding should take 75 percent or more of his time and energy.

A third HR leader told me that her company is going through the beginnings of a major digital transformation. It is a global manufacturer and has occupied the dominant position in the market, but the company is starting to see the edges of that market being chipped away by niche providers. While it sells an "end-to-end solution," the company is questioning whether that strategy will survive as digital competitors sell products just as good at lower prices (without the integrated suite and support). The HR leader's big questions to us were "How do I build innovation into leadership, and what does digital leadership look like?" I would say her defining purpose for the next year or so is to create, develop and deploy this new "digital leadership" model and make sure it engages top leaders.

My point is not that any HR department can afford to do only one thing. But if you wake up in the middle of the night with the question "Why are we here?," the answer should be clear, and everyone in the company should agree. In most cases, the defining purpose is a series of strategic programs, but ultimately there really is one that stands above them all.

HR happens to be a profession where we have the opportunity to add value and solve problems—and likely also be blamed for problems in a wide variety of areas. Companies are questioning their structure, redefining their business models and looking for leadership acceleration everywhere I go. My recommendation to you, as an HR professional or leader, is to make sure you know what your department's defining purpose is for the next 12-24 months and that you are very clear about it. It can help you add value, help your team feel more engaged and give your entire company a sense of security.


Josh Bersin is a principal of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, a leading research and advisory firm focused on corporate leadership, talent, learning, and the intersection between work and life. Contact him on Twitter @josh_bersin and read his blog

As used in this document, "Deloitte" means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.


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