HR as We Know It Isn’t Working—It’s Time to Redefine It

HR has a problem. Despite now having a seat at the executive table and more resources than ever, HR outcomes aren’t improving. The number of HR-related workplace lawsuits has increased. Employee engagement remains below 35%. Many small and midsize businesses operate without fully understanding their legal obligations. And as the #MeToo movement has painfully exposed, many workplaces continue to struggle with fundamental compliance and values.

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To close these HR gaps, HR executives and teams have turned to project-based outsourcing and HR software applications. These tools are useful in streamlining or automating processes, building capacity, creating increased visibility into HR databases, or executing on HR initiatives. But organizations’ investment in HR outsourcing and software has failed to deliver sustained improvement in their HR outcomes. These strategies are often treated as a substitute for, rather than by-products of, an organization’s evolving capabilities and processes. They create dependencies instead of helping organizations evolve.

This problem is especially acute for small and midsize businesses, whose HR functions are primarily done by the owner, office manager, or an “HR department of one.”

The answer to breaking through the paradox of increasing HR investment and declining HR outcomes is a new mind-set and model that revolutionize the relationship between internal HR teams and their HR providers. Instead of being solely consumers of HR solutions, HR teams collaborate with their providers to drive lasting business impact. This new model is Collaborative HR.

What Is Collaborative HR?

Collaborative HR uses the same sort of partnership-based approach found in personal fitness and paired programming to build the capabilities of an organization’s internal HR resources and deliver sustained improvement in its HR outcomes. By enhancing the internal HR function, companies reduce their organizational risk, improve their employee engagement and productivity, and are better positioned to leverage the HR technology and services available to HR practitioners today.

But Collaborative HR doesn’t happen in a classroom. It takes shape through a combined effort of the organization’s internal HR team, who intimately understands the organization’s purpose, culture, goals, and people, as well as external experts who know and understand the environment outside of the organization, such as business laws and best practices. The internal HR team and the external advisers combine their strengths and work together to tackle the organization’s immediate HR issues. As a result, the organization prepares to succeed tomorrow while quickly addressing the challenges of today.

Collaborative HR departs from traditional HR consulting models based on two defining characteristics: (1) technology-enabled HR services and (2) a concerted focus on building the organization’s internal HR capabilities through cooperative relationships.

Technology-Enabled Services

In a Collaborative HR environment, HR practitioners are seamlessly connected with the HR content, data, tools, and advisers supporting them. This connection is “always on” and intimate, establishing trust between the people working alongside each other and the tools they use.

This collaboration is facilitated through technology. Whereas traditional HR consulting relies principally on standard business applications (e.g., Microsoft® Office), Collaborative HR leverages sophisticated domain-specific technology to facilitate collaboration among in-house HR teams, outside HR advisers, HR content creators, HR data repositories, and other providers in the HR ecosystem.

As a result, the value of technology in a Collaborative HR environment is not measured by the transactions processed, as it is for most technology. Instead, Collaborative HR technology is only as good as it enables the parties’ collaboration to be.

Strengthening HR Capabilities

Collaborative HR has a singular goal: to build the capabilities of an organization’s internal HR resources. It does so by rapidly transferring HR knowledge, skills, and tools from external subject matter experts to internal HR practitioners. This focus on capability building changes the traditional HR delivery model.

In a Collaborative HR environment, the external HR advisers are educators and strategic partners, not simply practitioners, who help organizations improve—and get better results from—their HR policies, programs, and practices. It’s this ability to teach, coach, train, and empower a client that distinguishes a Collaborative HR partner from a traditional provider. In turn, organizations get the most out of their own practices, policies, and programs because they’ve taken ownership of them.

Because Collaborative HR aims to strengthen HR capabilities, it can help any practitioner of HR, novice and experienced alike. With Collaborative HR, new business owners can quickly master their basic compliance responsibilities and learn to successfully navigate the personnel challenges every company faces in its infancy and adolescence. Office managers who have been assigned a handful of HR duties can leverage the knowledge and experiences of external advisers to prioritize HR projects or pursue HR certification. Experienced HR generalists can consult with those external advisers to develop an internal HR team that’s well positioned to guide the company into its prime.

However Collaborative HR is used, the relationship between the client and external HR advisers evolves over time, like that of an athlete who goes from learning the basics to preparing for the Olympics and the coach. As organizations gain expertise to make better HR decisions and quickly tackle repeat issues, the focus of the partnership continually shifts to increasingly valuable and challenging HR work.

Whereas traditional HR consulting relationships often create dependencies, Collaborative HR fashions an environment in which organizations have the capabilities to sustain improvement on their own. The result is powerful: Organizations have a sustained competitive advantage in minimizing their HR risk, engaging their employees, and building a productive workplace.

Moving Organizations Forward

The concept of using collaborative partnerships to tackle problems isn’t new. Personal fitness, meal kit delivery services, journalism, paired programming, and other industries have implemented similar partnership concepts. But its application to HR is new, and its arrival creates a powerful opportunity for organizations to move their HR programs and outcomes forward. Small and midsize businesses can use it to enhance the owner’s HR know-how, empower an internal HR generalist, or develop a competent and confident internal HR team—all while promptly resolving the day’s HR needs.

Moving HR forward will require not just a model change but also a mind-set change. The time for Collaborative HR has come.

Nathan Christensen is the CEO of Mammoth HR.

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