Whether you want to rid New York City of ghosts or a profession of one of its nagging stereotypes, you have to be disruptive. Proton-pack energy streams worked well for Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd to clear New York’s infestation in Ghostbusters, but demystifying a profession can be a bit more problematic. One of the persistent criticisms of the HR profession over the years is that it is too siloed, inwardly focused and process driven. Most would agree that there is some truth to this view.
Many professions, not just HR, erect barriers to buffer themselves and herald their own accomplishments. IT and finance have certainly created these separations in the past. These artificial barriers essentially say that you can’t join us unless you know these things, speak the right language or have these degrees. These walls can be more quickly constructed if the profession is a bit insecure and uncertain of itself. It is also true that a silo mentality is comforting to many HR professionals; they know what is expected and, within their own universe, are in control of their destiny.
Historically, HR has also had the view that it needs to be separated to protect the business; and this is why compliance and process-orientation have been such critical activities. With the average U.S. legal settlement exceeding $200,000 these days, it is difficult to argue with this perspective. But excess of a virtue can become a vice, and too great a focus on the protection role can undermine HR’s ability to make more significant contributions to the business.
By definition silos are limiting and restrictive; and they constrain the impact that a profession can have. If you accept the view—as articulated in Fearless HR—that the ultimate purpose of HR is to drive business results, then we need a little silo disruption à la Murray and Aykroyd. HR, in fact, should become the connective tissue of the organization, not be isolated in its own bubble. The first step is to recognize that HR will always be a second-class citizen if it stays in its protected world, separate and distinct from the business.
The next step is to become knowledgeable about the business and develop a broader point of view (beyond just the comfort of one function). This means sharpening business acumen and financial literacy, knowing the industry, and differentiating among key competitors. Here is a little Business Acumen Quiz on your company’s key financials and strategic positioning.
1. Are revenues increasing or decreasing over the past three years, at what percentage, and which products or services are the biggest contributors?
2. What percentage of revenues are COGS (cost of goods sold) and SG&A (selling, general, and administrative)? Are these cost percentages increasing or decreasing over the past three years?
3. What percentage of total costs are people-related costs?
4. What percentage of market valuation (for publically traded companies) is comprised of intangible assets?
5. What is the current revenue per employee and how does this compare with the top three competitors?
6. What percentage of revenue has come from products developed within the last two years?
How did you do? These questions, of course, are more than a little quiz; the answers should inform HR’s agenda in the future. Business acumen and financial literacy are the table stakes for silo busting. If you don’t demonstrate these understandings, you aren’t in the game.
Beyond this knowledge, there are specific actions than can be taken to increase both the visibility and credibility of HR professionals throughout the organization. The overarching activity is to consciously expand personal networks and meaningful connections. Reid Hoffman and colleagues have presented a simple equation; it is “I to the power of we” (Iwe ). The power and influence each of us brings to the organization is directly related to the breadth and depth of our professional networks. Here are six ways to intentionally build the social capital that we bring to the organization.
- Bridging networks. Cohesive networks exist within HR and Bridging networks span to other functions and groups. Both are important sources of value, but the latter are particularly important for silo busting. Seek out connections in other groups and departments on a regular basis; set a goal to increase connections by x number per quarter.
- Cross-functional teams. Participate in interdisciplinary and diverse teams. These are often the most meaningful developmental experiences as you become exposed to different ideas and experiences from colleagues throughout the company.
- Rotational assignments. Seek out opportunities in other groups and departments; volunteer to get out of your comfort zone, learn from others while working side-by-side with them.
- Non-work collaboration opportunities. Look to expand your network by getting involved with others outside of work. CoP (communities of practice or interest), health and fitness programs and community projects (such as Habitat for Humanity) are excellent ways to widen your arc of connections.
- Buddies and allies. It’s not just about making casual connections, but having meaningful exchanges with people whose opinions you value. It can take time to develop truly reciprocal relationships and turn acquaintances into allies or buddies; but this is where the real value of a network is realized.
- External communities. Just as bridging networks take you to other departments, external networks take you to other organizations and an even wider world view. No matter how many smart people are in your organization, there are always more smart people outside than inside.
While these suggestions may not be as spectacular as proton-packed energy streams, they will bust silos, perhaps slowly but surely. And this is what HR must do if it is drive business results and be perceived as a business—not just a functional—leader. In terms of who we going to call to bust silos, it turns out the best answer is us.