To lead in an ever-changing world, today’s chief HR officers (CHRO) must act swiftly, pushing through unfamiliar boundaries to find innovative business solutions. At the same time, they must continue to ensure the excellence of transactional HR programs such as pay and benefits.
HR leaders’ response to this challenge will help determine how prepared they are to drive organizational capability and performance within an evolving ecosystem of work.
The New Table Stakes
The Fourth Industrial Revolution—with its attendant automation, robotics and artificial intelligence—is disrupting the world of work as well as the HR function itself. Powerful software and analytics are streamlining time-consuming transactional activities, from benefits enrollment to compensation management, while also enabling segmentation and personalization, shaping a more meaningful experience for talent.
In the past, the administration of HR programs and compliance-related tasks were an HR leader’s primary focus. Today, these activities are table stakes for HR executives and not how they will be expected to bring value to the organization. Still, HR must devote time to foundational programs, which requires following HR technology trends, and continuously evaluating and updating programs in response to the needs of talent and the business.
But as technology and automation increasingly frees HR leaders from more administrative and process-related work, they can invest more time in driving strategic initiatives, cultivating opportunities for innovation and accelerating business value creation. Initial findings from a global joint research initiative between Willis Towers Watson and HR People + Strategy on the evolving role of the CHRO highlight the new and emerging capabilities needed to grow and develop the next generation of HR executives.
Adopting an Agile Mindset
An agile mindset helps the HR executive power solutions that deliver business value. The concept of agility, however, transcends traditional change management models that imply a start and a finish, and often fail to keep up with the accelerated pace of change. Now, there’s a need for perpetual recalibration and reinvention in the workplace, and curiosity to quickly learn and adapt to shifting business conditions.
By adopting this mindset, HR leaders can intensify their focus on identifying and solving problems in creative ways. There’s less focus on structure and ownership of problems/solutions, and a greater emphasis on identifying the root causes of problems and building the best teams to find solutions through ongoing cycles of iteration, testing and learning, versus a linear “one and done” approach.
This emphasis on developing solutions in an agile manner requires CHROs to acquire a cross-business, cross-function attitude and aptitude. Additionally, they must develop a greater external focus to better understand how the external market is changing and to explore and identify potential solution partners and joint ventures.
Putting Agile to Work
But how might HR leaders implement a more agile way of working in practice? Some HR leaders are beginning with a hybrid approach. For example, in a leading multinational company, roughly a third of the HR function spends its time on traditional, transactional HR work such as payroll and benefits; another third divides its time between transactional work and contributing to an agile business team in a particular area of expertise (for example, workforce analytics); and the last third operates in a fluid manner with time allotted for solving high-priority business issues.
In another example, HR leaders in a financial services company collaborated with the business to implement agile release trains whereby talent in various roles from IT to market research temporarily left their current roles and joined agile teams to more quickly develop and release innovative solutions to complex problems, such as developing a new product or enhancing an existing service.
Courage Is Essential
Respondents also stressed that forward-looking CHROs are courageous. It takes courage to make bold moves and test new ideas, implement quickly and enable feedback loops to evaluate results.
But that’s not all that courage demands. Courage, as a CHRO, requires knowing when, how and why to discontinue existing programs or processes. As HR leaders continuously evaluate solutions effectiveness, they must often make the tough decisions to let go of traditional HR beliefs and solutions, such as positioning the organization for future growth by emphasizing talent’s potential over experience in reviewing performance or considering hiring decisions.
But which barriers might block HR leaders from exhibiting this courage? When asked this question, participants in a virtual focus group cited in the following order: The tension between “old HR” and the emerging world of HR, lack of senior/organizational support and lack of appetite for change.
The steps below can help HR leaders overcome these barriers:
- Build a culture where smart risk-taking is valued and failure is viewed as a learning opportunity.
- Develop pathways for HR staff to acquire diverse business skills in such areas as finance, technology and analytics. For instance, an organization might facilitate rotations in different parts of the business.
- Build strong, trust-based relationships with the CEO and other C-suite members by staying ahead of trends and market developments and helping the business to proactively identify growth opportunities.
Courageous CRHOs are reinventing HR in order to meet the demands of a constantly changing workplace. In addition to ensuring the effectiveness of foundational programs critical to the delivery of the talent value proposition, they are leading a new, agile way of working, thereby accelerating innovation and business value creation.
About the study: The Future of the CHRO Study, a global research initiative exploring the rapidly changing role of the HR executive, is being conducted by Willis Towers Watson and HR People + Strategy (HRPS), SHRM’s (Society for Human Resource Management) Executive Network. This research, designed to explore the growth and development of the HR executive of the future, consists of in-depth interviews with CHROs, CEOs, corporate board members, other C-suite executives and academics as well as a pulse survey of HR executives from organizations across a range of sizes, industries and countries. A comprehensive global report will be published in the fall of 2019. Readers can also look forward to complementary pieces exploring the key themes and findings including blog posts, presentations, articles and videos.