HBR: It’s Time to ‘Blow Up’ HR

powIt’s summer blockbuster season, with actors like Chris Pratt and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson saving us from rampaging dinosaurs and earthquakes with the aid of tons of CGI special effects (and plenty of clunky dialogue), so perhaps it’s appropriate that the Harvard Business Review (subscription required) has emblazoned the cover of  its July/August issue with an icon of a ball of dynamite and the provocative headline “It’s Time to BLOW UP HR And Build Something New.”

The three related articles inside aren’t quite as explosive as the cover suggests, but  thought-provoking nonetheless. The first piece is by none other than our own Talent Management columnist, Wharton professor Peter Cappelli, who writes that business leaders tend to see HR as a valuable asset during talent crunches but as a mere nuisance when times are better. In order to get out of this rut, HR leaders need to “set the agenda,” Cappelli writes. Rather than waiting for the CEO to tell them what to do, HR leaders must strongly advocate for excellence in every process the function touches (or should touch), from layoffs to recruiting to performance management, he writes.

HR leaders also need to either deepen their own knowledge of analytics or partner with those who are experts in order to “help companies make sense of all their employee data and get the most from their human capital,” Cappelli writes. Finally, HR leaders must help their organization’s leadership “take the long view,” he writes:

How can HR bring the long view back into organizations? By reconciling it with the immediate pressures that businesses face, which those one-at-a-time projects are designed to address. … HR should also keep stepping back to study those initiatives in the aggregate: What emerging needs do they point to? How do those needs map to the organization’s talent pipeline and practices? Which capabilities need shoring up?  … That’s the kind of analytic counsel the “new HR” should provide.

The next piece is by none other than Ram Charan, the management consultant who stirred up controversy last year with an HBR piece in which he argued for splitting HR in two. Well, he’s back and this time he’s got company in the form of co-authors Dominic Barton, global managing director of McKinsey & Co., and Dennis Carey, the vice chairman of Korn Ferry. In “People Before Strategy,” they argue for a new triumvirate at the top of organizations comprised of the CEO, the CFO and the CHRO. This three-person team will form a “core decision-making body” for the organization in which the CHRO will be the trusted advisor in all things people-related. “Forming such a team is the single best way to link financial numbers with the people who produce them,” they write.

The final piece is a deep dive into the work done by the HR department at tech firm Juniper Networks to make itself a vital part of that business. Juniper Networks has had to make a number of adjustments to its business over the years, write co-authors Jon Boudreau (of the University of Southern California’s Marshall School of Business) and Steven Rice (former EVP of HR at Juniper Networks and now CHRO at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), and HR has been key in those transformations. Rather than reaching for the latest “bright shiny objects,” as too many HR leaders do, they write, the JN team worked hard to understand the big picture of the company’s business, identify the most valuable ideas, apply them in context and carefully manage their impact.

The work the HR team did included working closely with business leaders to reorganize the organization to make its operating model more simple, do away with cumbersome processes that were adding little value (including a forced-ranking system that was hurting morale) and finding ways to increase collaboration and innovation.

Developing a reputation as an innovative HR organization “requires walking a fine line,” the authors write. Ideas for innovation often arise from popular talks and articles, yet if you “embrace too many of these … or apply them too superficially,” you’ll develop a reputation for fad surfing, they write. Instead, “dig beneath the surface to the fundamental scientific research and insights, and you can set the stage for true impact.”

All in all, a worthwhile series of articles — complete with the bizarre yet compelling artwork the HBR has been featuring in recent years.

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