Avoiding The Scrap Heap: Food for Thought for HR Directors Contemplating 2017


By Adrian Harvey



When I was a lad it was the “Personnel Department” and sales people were called Salesmen (even if they were women!) and the “Re-cycling Centre” was called “The Tip”.

Things change and hopefully they change for the better. The transition from the Tip where everything was shovelled into landfill into a place where Surrey assures me 65% of the waste is re-cycled has to be a good thing. Even if you hate the queues and the neo-Nazi security and “Body cams” (I kid you not) used by the ‘re-cycling operative,’ it’s hard to argue that this change at least has been a change for the good.

There was a time when the EU was called the Common Market and one day it morphed into the wannabe United States of Europe and then the people spoke and Britain at least has decided that losing our sovereignty isn’t a change for the good and we pressed the middle pedal and voted for Brexit.

But what of the good old Personnel Department, did it just change its name and carry on doing the same old thing under a different moniker? Did the Personnel Manager get a shiny new 3-letter acronym and become the Human Resources Director (HRD) but largely keep on doing the same role? I don’t think so. I think I’m on pretty safe ground when I say the role changed and so did the responsibilities. Your modern day HRD has a far wider remit, much greater responsibility than their foremothers (probably all women in the old days!) and significantly more visibility and representation at the top table in almost every major company in the developed world.

From employee satisfaction, talent, recruitment, compliance, unions, learning & development, CSR, employment law, dismissals & tribunals, redundancies, pay & conditions, the role of the modern HRD has changed enormously from the role of the old Personnel Manager. But is this a change for the better? Is it as obvious a change for the better as the change from the Tip to the Re-cycling centre? I don’t think so.

Put it another way, is the HRD seen as the dynamic face of the future or the boring keeper of the things that the rest of the business doesn’t want to do! Harsh challenge indeed – but let’s explore this further. Let’s compare the old with the ‘new.’ Remember everything is relevant, when I started my first role with a subsidiary of ABNAMRO in leafy Windsor, Berkshire, computers were a rarity that nobody understood except Frans (The IT Director) and some odd blokes downstairs who nobody really talked to. The ‘paperless’ office was what we were aspiring to and IT was taking us there.

Since then Information Technology has boomed and now every company has a CIO/CTO and spends apparently every increasing dizzying amounts on tech and tech related stuff each year. The CTO is king/queen. Data security and keeping the company safe from cyber attack is the big deal. The internet & social media, its opportunities and faults is where the game is, not boring old HR.

Automation, self-serve, drone-delivery, driverless trucks this is where the game is going and for those like Mystic Meg who can see the future (clearly not well enough to foresee the demise of the News of the World!) they see that the HRD is in fact a dead man/woman walking and condemned to oversee the ever shrinking groups of staff in a quest for the new Holy Grail, the ‘peopleless’ office.

I would suggest that in much the same way that Frans and his buddies failed to deliver against their vision of a paperless office (just look around you I bet you can see a printer!) the new crew will fail to deliver against the peopleless office and that this change is in fact in many ways a change for the worst, that is already seeing widespread consumer rebellion. Those in HR need to recognise this and take back the crown from the young pretender in IT!

Apparently we don’t want banks, well at least branches on our high street, we want technology, we want Internet banking. We also don’t want to speak to somebody on the phone, why would we when we can use technology and speak to an IVR instead? Thing is I (and apparently lots of others) like to use branches and like to have conversations with real people not terrible IVR systems that drive us mad. Which is why for the first time in decades new banks are springing up, literally branch based banks like Metro bank and firms like PlusNet have an entire advertising strategy that hinges on the fact that they employee people.

Maybe what we want as consumers isn’t the peopleless office but greater choice that technology, when it works, can deliver. It isn’t about removing people from the equation it is about ensuring that as a consumer I have the customer experience that I want and enjoy. This may mean that I prefer to log my own meter readings for my energy usage rather than having a 20-minute repetitive call with a ‘customer service advisor’ in Bangalore. It may mean that I would rather speak with an expert who can add value and advise me on what the best grass seed is for my slightly shaded garden with overhanging pine trees! What it certainly means is that people who can add value to my customer experience are a critical part of the solution. And people are the domain of the HRD and the HR community needs to get with the program and get itself a louder voice.

So, as you sit reading this contemplating 2017 and beyond, maybe you should be asking yourself the question ‘what can I do to affect change for the good on the scale of the local Tip?’ Maybe unlike the Personnel Manager of old the modern HRD needs to take the lead from the CIO/CTO and become part of the answer and not simply a service provider to other parts of the business. I mean – if the chaps that used to sit downstairs talking gibberish can collectively fashion a situation where they have become so fundamentally integral to the future of our corporations, then HRD with responsibility for the people who themselves are the very company, must be able to do the same and add more value.

The reality is that today, right now HR is NOT part of the solution. The enterprise is not turning to HR and asking for strategies that will drive positive increase in bottom line performance of the business through the creation of revenue. Many might be turning to HR to work through downsizing plans where costs can be cut, but not as a strategically important source of material and sustainable revenue growth.

The obvious single greatest impact that the HR function could have is ensuring that each and every member of staff has achieved and retains the knowledge and skills needed by the enterprise to function. We know from over 20 million individual competency interventions in 2016 that, on average, employees, irrespective of their role, know just 54% of what their employer needs them to know to be high efficient and highly functioning in their role. Ask yourself the question, if your business can deliver the performance levels it does now despite this lack of capability, how much more could the business deliver if every employee achieved and maintained the required standard?

We know the value at stake for employers fixing this problem is measured in billions of pounds and that tapping this rich seam of value is the role of the modern HRD. What are you doing to ensure that you are an integral part of the solution in 2017 and not the dumping ground for sh*t others don’t want to deal with?!