Don’t Get Fixated on 'Technical' and Miss Big Picture

By Kathy Gurchiek Sep 27, 2013

HR professionals need to find the sweet spot between being technically adept and getting outside of their comfort zone, advised John Boudreau, Ph.D., in the Sept. 19, 2013, webinar “Strategic Approaches to Future Trends in HR: Does HR’s Reach Exceed its Grasp?

He noted that Robert Browning famously wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for,” in his poem about Italian Renaissance painter Andrea del Sarto. In it, Browning suggests that while, by all accounts, del Sarto was a better artist technically than fellow painters Leonardo DaVinci and Michelangelo, his work lacked the fire and passion theirs exhibited; thus, they ended up having a greater impact on the world.

Boudreau, a professor and research director at the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations and Fellow of the National Academy of Human Resources, sees similarities between that sentiment and some of the findings from a 2013 survey of HR leaders that asked what HR’s role should be in nine areas—globalization, generational diversity, sustainability, social media, personal technology, mass customization, open innovation, big data and gamification—and what its role is now.

“For virtually every trend, HR envisions itself and its ideal role as somewhere between [being] a primary influencer and an expert, even though in many of these trends [respondents indicated that] HR’s current role is occasional or no role or, at best, active support,” Boudreau pointed out. “Again, here’s the notion of man’s reach exceeding its grasp.”

The 200 to 300 HR leaders (director level and above) who responded to the survey, which has been conducted every third year since 1995, were from a consortium of 11 companies in North America, Europe, Australia and China.

“HR seems to want to lead across everything—that’s probably not practical, and looking at some of these trends, it may not be the best way for HR to strategically make the best contribution,” he said.

“This presents a real dilemma. There are many, many important trends emerging. HR seems to feel its ideal role would be to be a leader in all of them. The current role of HR suggests that it’s pretty far away from that on some of the emerging trends. HR will need to pick its battles; HR will need to pick its most strategic territory for doing this.”

HR professionals must ask themselves, “Am I trying so hard to capture every possible image I can as a painter that I’m not doing a very good job of it?

“We need to think carefully about the idea of perhaps getting so fixated on our technical [abilities] that we may be missing some of the bigger pictures on the horizon that offer the profession and you, personally, the opportunity to make a very big impact in your organizations,” Boudreau added.

HR professionals must find out which trends their organization is pursuing, determine whether HR has the expertise to contribute to them and, if not, bring an expert into the department, Boudreau advised.

“It goes back to picking your spots on these trends and doing it in a way that’s very specific to [your] organization” by:

  • Reaching out to talent from outside of HR.
  • Venturing out by influencing beyond function, company and geographic boundaries.
  • Finding and surfacing unpopular truths.
  • Leading transformational change and actions.

How You Spend Your Time Matters

Boudreau also pointed to data from 1995, 2001, 2007, 2010 and 2013 that showed very little has changed in how HR professionals in North America are spending their time in the areas of maintaining employee records, auditing/controlling/ensuring compliance, and developing HR systems and practices.

However, there was a significant drop in how much time they spend providing HR services and implementing programs (31.3 percent in 1995 vs. 25.6 percent in 2013) and a significant increase in the time they spend serving as a strategic business partner (21.9 percent in 1995 vs. 27.2 percent in 2013.

“We do have a profession that’s changing,” he acknowledged, albeit it’s at a slower pace—and in some cases at “a glacial rate”—this survey and others suggest.

“If we’re changing relatively slowly in the broad scope of the profession,” he asked, “… are we changing quickly enough to pick up the opportunities on the trends that are emerging?

“Are we sort of like del Sarto—being very good technically and working very hard on the traditional technical things when there are these other passionate opportunities available to the profession, or to you in your organizations, that we might be missing?”

He noted that the 2013 survey found that time spent on strategic partnerships mattered to organizational effectiveness. The more time HR professionals recorded spending on maintaining records or auditing and controlling, the less highly they rated themselves on HR’s role in strategy, effectiveness and organizational performance.

“Is there a way that spending more time or being more effective as strategic partners might help us not only improve our contribution to the organization today but understand where we can take advantage of the emerging trends?”

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor for HR News.

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