A “force multiplier” sounds magical and even other-worldly, but its roots are actually quite mundane. A “force multiplier” is a factor that can increase (thereby multiply) the effectiveness of a group or team and it is most often described in a military context. Significant battlefield examples are enhanced technology, inspiring leadership, or geographic features that enable deception. So how does this term have any relevance for the field of Human Resources?
One of the popular historical beliefs about HR is that it adds little or no value to the organization. Keith Hammonds gave voice to these beliefs in 2005 with his Fast Company article “Why We Hate HR.” But 30 years before Hammond’s widely-read article, professor Wickham Skinner pinned the label “Big Hat, No Cattle” on HR. Translated from the Texan, this means that HR is a lot of talk and little action, and therefore doesn’t make much of a difference.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the phrases “doesn’t make a difference” and “adds little value to the business.” It is clear that someone who makes or sells a product is adding value to the business. Without the efforts of this direct labor, products, and ultimately the business, would not exist. It is more difficult for overhead functions, such as HR, marketing, IT and finance, to be perceived as adding as much value. The argument goes that overhead functions provide the support for the direct labor to produce products and drive the business forward; but the linkages and specific contributions of indirect labor can be difficult to discern.
How is value to the business measured? A person’s salary can be a proxy measure for the value that he or she provides to an organization. In return for a person’s salary, the business expects that a commensurate amount of value will be created. Besides salary, there are other proxy measures for value provided. In some cases, it is possible to quantify the expected output of a particular role such as salesperson or production line worker. As previously mentioned, this calculation is easier for direct as opposed to indirect labor. Revenue per employee is a general indicator of overall productivity (and therefore value provided). This measure is useful because it does include all employees—both direct and indirect—involved in generating revenue regardless of specific roles.
But all of these proxy measures are based on the individual contributor mindset.The emphasis is on what the individual can do by him or herself to move the business forward. As important as this individual effort is, it is not highly leverageable. What if a person could contribute so that virtually everyone could be impacted? What if a person had a role that enabled a contribution beyond his or her own salary or individual work? What if a person became the architect as opposed to the bricklayer? While the bricklayer certainly makes a meaningful individual contribution, it is the architect that creates the vision within which many people can excel.
HR can be the leading organizational architect by creating contexts in which talent and innovation can flourish. HR improves the workplace so that the workforce can be more successful, again and again. In other words, HR creates and shapes the optimum environment for the performance of many, not just the few. Consider how the following HR actions can improve organizational capabilities and outcomes.
- Promoting increased organizational transparency initiatives resulting in higher trust levels and engagement gains of 5 percent.
- Improving on-boarding programs so the new hires are proficient two weeks earlier.
- Providing bottom-up innovation programs resulting in a 10 percent increase in new product ideas and proposals.
- Recognizing employees who have intentionally expanded their professional networks by at least 6 people per quarter.
- Holding quarterly best practices manager panels comprised of managers with the highest employee engagement scores to recognize excellent coaching practices.
- Developing a team selling approach that doubles new product sales in the first six months of a product’s release.
- Recognizing employees for the risks they have taken, thereby encouraging more innovative behavior.
These efforts do not just impact a single person; they shape teams, departments and even cultures. They become true force-multipliers—difference makers—that leverage and optimize the performance of many people. These actions help to create a cycle of value that leads to sustainable organizations that do not just endure, but thrive.
The irony, of course, is that it is true that HR does not return the value to the organization that direct labor can, but as a force-multiplier, HR can return so much more.