Managing Organizational Change with an HR Department of One

Five critical competencies

By Joe Jones, Ph.D. Sep 7, 2016
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​When organizations face significant change, they look to HR—the "people" department—to help with or even lead the effort. But how does a one-person HR department successfully manage organizational change, and which competencies does he or she need to navigate the new landscape? Even professionals trained or certified in change management can be uncertain as to which HR competencies are most important to prepare a department of one for such a task.

The following fictional example will lead us to five critical competencies. 

Tanya is the sole HR professional for a midsize retail chain. Business thrived in the last century and the retailer employed a staff of around 2,500. The recent rise of online retailers and new technologies, however, has contributed to a sharp decline in business, leading to store closures and layoffs. Today, the retailer employs a staff of around 500. Despite this continuous downward trend, the retailer's organizational leadership was slow to react and adapt, putting its future success at risk. Finally, the remaining executives agreed at a strategic planning meeting to try a new tactic and re-enter the market from a different angle with the use of "retail trucks." This spinoff of the popular food truck concept would be similarly successful, according to trend projections. 

In her previous position as organizational development manager for a multinational tech firm, Tanya helped implement a new customer relationship management platform. Her current retailer's chief operating officer knew about Tanya's earlier change management experience and asked her to lead the effort required to implement the retail truck concept. Tanya has never managed a change effort at a small organization as an HR department of one. Does she have the competencies she needs to carry out this charge? What are they, even? 

The short answer: It depends. Change management is a broad topic. Different situations require different emphases on different HR competencies. The long answer: Common themes exist among many change management efforts and can be applied in many situations. How crucial a competency might be depends on the situation (e.g., a small versus a large HR department) and one's role in it (e.g., leading a change management effort). No competency is unimportant, but specific competencies are likely more important. 

In the given circumstances, the following competencies are most important for Tanya to successfully manage change as an HR department of one: Relationship Management, Communication, Business Acumen, Consultation, and Leadership & Navigation

Relationship Management. To gain—or regain—confidence and trust from leaders and employees, the professional in an HR department of one must be proficient in Relationship Management. There's a catch, though, and it's important: You're on your own. To build and maintain positive organizational relationships, you must (1) be an effective communicator, (2) possess strong business acumen and (3) increase your skill in communicating effectively by using your business acumen. Put another way, the better you are at building relationships (Relationship Management), the more you learn from leaders and employees about the business (Business Acumen); the more you learn about the business, the better you become at communicating (Communication) with others about the business. This process is the foundation for maintaining the relationships you build. 

Communication. Every change effort requires effective communication. Communication is essential in a one-person HR department because no one is there to back you up if you do not or cannot communicate effectively. During change efforts, poor communication can lead to loss of confidence from the leadership team (particularly as to HR's effectiveness and value), loss of trust from employees, and mistakes in the change process affecting time, cost and effectiveness. Communication is also one of the few tasks that cannot be outsourced to an external change consultant. For change to succeed, the person serving as an HR department of one must be highly proficient in Communication

Business Acumen. A key driver of successful communication for a one-person HR department is Business Acumen. In a larger HR department, HR professionals can turn to each other for guidance and knowledge about the business. In an HR department of one, however, the professional may have only a single shot at getting it right. 

Consultation. The one-person HR department is the internal consultant regarding the "people" side of the change. Working with an external change consultant can be beneficial, but as the sole HR representative, you still have to have strong Consultation skills to manage internal-external relationships and to act as the liaison between external consultants and internal stakeholders. Moreover, external consultants almost always depart from the organization's day-to-day operations once they complete their tasks. The HR department of one continues to provide internal stakeholders with similar consultation services that help sustain the results of the change effort across the organization. 

Leadership & Navigation. HR is already important to any organization and to any kind of organizational change effort. In a larger organization undergoing change, the larger HR department can build a united leadership front by pooling its leadership resources. In a small organization, however, its one-person HR department must demonstrate power and confidence to prevent the HR function from becoming subsumed by other functions with greater power in numbers (e.g., sales and operations). Power and confidence are demonstrated through the HR professional's leadership and navigation capabilities. 

All of the competencies in the SHRM Competency Model are important. For the one-person HR department charged with managing organizational change, the five competencies described above are critical. 

But the remaining competencies come into play in important ways as well. Critical Evaluation provides the HR professional with an understanding of how to evaluate the effectiveness of change management efforts. Ethical Practice requires the professional to ensure that the changing organization and its employees follow all legal and ethical guidelines. Successful change requires proficiency in Global & Cultural Effectiveness, which recognizes the global and cultural factors and differences in opinions and approaches that affect change. And HR Expertise in the many functional areas of HR knowledge involved in organizational change undergirds it all. 

If you are an HR department of one, oversee an HR department of one or consult with an HR department of one, develop the above competencies first to maximize success in leading or managing organizational change.  The Society for Human Resource Management is about to release the first book in a series on how to develop and apply HR competencies successfully in a small business or an HR department of one, beginning with a book about Business Acumen by HR department of one expert and consultant Jennifer Currence, owner of OnCore Management Solutions Inc. Look for this and other books in the series to hit the SHRMStore soon. 

Joe Jones, Ph.D., is director of HR competencies at SHRM. 

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