Emerging Issues and Opportunities for HR Consultants

By Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR May 29, 2012
As the environment shifts, so do the issues that drive demand for HR consultants. The current environment is increasingly ripe with opportunity and areas of demand, say HR consultants and experts around the U.S.

“The business trends that I see shaping the HR consulting needs are multigenerational issues, globalization, the impact of social and mobile technology, and workforce transformations to improve efficiency and profitability given recent market pressures,” said Patti Johnson, CEO and founder of PeopleResults in Irving, Texas. Some of the trends she sees impacting HR consulting are:

  • "Just-in-time" learning that is adapted quickly to a changing landscape and that doesn’t require being in a classroom as a group.
  • Development of virtual leadership and teaming capabilities.
  • The growing need to be a true business partner as business transformations are completed.
  • The use of social media to drive engagement and collaboration.
  • Multigenerational impacts.
  • The increased use of sophisticated workforce analytics to improve planning.

These shifts have had—and will continue to have—a significant impact, according to Michael Denisoff, CEO of Denisoff Consulting Group, a management and HR consulting firm based in Redondo Beach, Calif. “This reality is impacting HR trends and the role of HR consultants primarily in the areas of transactional HR services, strategic compensation and strategic HR,” he said.

Transactional Opportunities

Transactional opportunities include areas such as benefits, compliance and payroll. HR departments, Denisoff said, are demanding greater flexibility, options and integration with these services than in the past.

While these areas have already proved to be obvious choices for outsourcing, this is evolving, according to Denisoff. “When these services are delivered by outside consultants, they not only must provide excellence in delivery but offer additional value in how that service connects with the organization, integrates with other HR offerings and aligns to its culture,” he said. “Off-the-shelf solutions are no longer good enough. HR consultants now must provide flawless delivery along with insights and customization to support the overall effect of the HR team.”

Strategic Compensation Issues

Compensation is another area in flux and representing opportunities for consultants.

“Traditional compensation programs are in need of being tweaked in order to meet new demands,” Denisoff said. “Labor costs have long been not only a significant line item on a company’s income statement but also a key attribute in talent retention. Today, organizations need greater flexibility and mobility with their compensation programs in order to both maximize the company’s performance as well as to connect with the new employee’s perceptions.” HR consultants specializing in this area, Denisoff said, must understand these needs and be willing to “let go of some tired and tried programming.”

Strategic HR

“HR, just like all functions, is not only being asked to do more with less but also to explicitly prove their contribution to organization performance,” Denisoff said. That means taking a strategic approach to tie business needs to HR impacts.

“Take employee engagement or retention, for example,” he said. “Consultants need to offer not only the service but also a case-by-case explicit explanation proving its impact. Lessons from the movie ‘Moneyball’ could really help consultants to upgrade this discipline in their offerings.”

Mark Frederick, director of global talent management for IOR Global Services, in Northbrook, Ill., agrees. “HR consulting is developing a focus beyond some of the traditional HR areas to include strategic work around talent management challenges,” he said. “Companies are hiring HR consultants to help them build talent pools for global assignments as well as design onboarding initiatives that better communicate and represent the company culture.”

HR consultants are also becoming involved in merger and acquisition initiatives, Frederick added. “They are useful in conducting focus groups and surveys to better position integration initiatives and gather continuous feedback on how the integration process is evolving,” he explained.

To prepare for these opportunities, Frederick suggested that HR consultants get certified to use assessment tools that can provide data and input on company cultures and that consultants develop “a high comfort level with a variety of survey instruments in order to gather organizational inputs.”

Other Areas of Opportunity

“Another area which remains in hot demand for HR consultants is compliance,” said Nancy Saperstone, an HR consultant with Insight Performance Inc. in Dedham, Mass. “With lean departments and everyone wearing different hats, companies are looking to their HR consultants to ensure that compliance areas are in check so that they can focus their energies elsewhere. It’s something many companies want to take off their plates and hand over to their consultants,” she said.

Ethics is another area of focus, noted Ron Katz of Penguin HR Consulting in New York City, particularly as it applies to social media and interactivity. “With all the news about Wal-Mart, the Secret Service, Goldman Sachs, people are looking back to the basics. Ethics has long been an issue but is seeing a renaissance as organizations try to figure out how to best apply it to the evolving economy,” he said.

As the workforce grays and a greater percentage of workers near retirement, succession planning is another area of opportunity, said Rick Dacri, president of Dacri & Associates, an HR consulting firm in Kennebunk, Maine. “Companies are not stepping up to address this,” he said. “Consultants can help educate boards and executives on the importance of developing plans to prepare the organization for succession, emergencies created by the sudden loss of a key person and the loss of institutional knowledge.”

In addition, he said, consultants can help executives with the emotional aspects of knowing that someone else will be sitting in their seats someday.

The bottom line: Ample opportunities exist in a rapidly changing environment for HR consultants to capitalize on growing and emerging business needs aligned with their areas of expertise or interest. As companies continue to struggle to deliver value to customers in an increasingly competitive environment, their need for strategically positioned staff whose activities are aligned with business needs will only grow. That’s good news for HR consultants.

Lin Grensing-Pophal, SPHR, is a Wisconsin-based business journalist with HR consulting experience in employee communication, training and management issues.

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