A surface transformation is happening in HR that has deeper ramifications. I am talking, of course, about the popular shift away from the name “Human Resources Professional” toward “people officer.” In recent months, I’ve spoken to quite a few experts who have shown some discomfort toward the concept of referring to employees as “resources.” To some, that might make employees seem like a commodity, such as electricity, the Internet, or financial services.
One expert who finds the term “Human Resources” somewhat uncomfortable is expert Paul Burrin, Vice President at Sage People. I had the opportunity to speak with him about this transformation recently. He explained that this transformation has been borne of a “perfect storm” of “different generations in the workplace and the changing nature of work, work styles, a more diverse workplace, flexibility, and remote work, in addition to contingency workers.” Burrin thinks that “as a consequence, there is a bigger shift now toward the worker being the center of gravity. HR recognizes that it’s all about people” now.
The Research Supports Recognition of the Shift
According to recent research by Sage, only 18% of HR leaders said they had already made the change from HR to people, but 94% of respondents said they anticipated such a change in the next 5 years. Burrin interprets that finding as “94% say this shift is real—it’s actually happening.” He added that another “86% of them said it’s not a one-and-done. It’s a journey, and it’s going to play out over a number of years.”
Technology Playing a Big Role
Part of what drives the change toward people from HR involves the pace of technological change in the workplace. In his research, Burrin found that “79% indicated technology was one of the key external drivers for talent,” followed by a war for talent and changing work styles. That affects how organizations approach their workers because “from a technology point of view, the sorts of solutions that worked yesterday that were traditional human capital management (HCM) solutions are obviously having to adapt to this world or new types of solutions are required.” He elaborates that those new solutions would have to be “more employee-centric or work-centric.”
That could represent a real problem. While organizations are increasingly recognizing that technological solutions are a priority (the same research as above found that the top priorities of HR and people teams were “cloud” (43%) and “mobile technology” (36%)), successfully rolling out that technology has historically been an issue. Burrin says, “I think humans probably haven’t learned how to manage technology effectively. We can deploy it easily. It’s all available. But how disciplined are people in terms of how they really use it to make sure that it’s freeing time up for the things that really matter?”
And that’s the crux of issues like the rapid change of technology. I’ve spoken with many HR technology experts and vendors, and they all say the same thing: This technology will free up your HR folks to do the real work. But has it? If it does, how intelligently are organizations filling up that free time? Is it with activities that ensure organizations are evolving with the demands for more equitable workplaces, implementing more successful onboarding, or improving company culture efforts? Do you think that is happening at your organization? In other words, is the new-found free time being spent focusing on people/your employees?
“We fill up the time that was available to us in a day,” says Burrin. He adds, “And some of it we don’t have control over, but a lot of it we do. And how do we best use the time we have available?” At the very least, organizations should be asking themselves these questions and start a discussion around making sure that new technologies are helping and that there is a plan in place for what to do should they successfully free up time for HR staff.
Time to Upskill HR
As HR transforms to people, the skills that go along with that transformation will also have to be updated. Burrin says that “about a third of those polled felt that they weren’t really experts in what they did, and that struck me as a high percentage.” I’ve asked every HR professional I know how each got started, and there hasn’t been one who wanted to be in HR from the moment he or she got out of high school. What does that mean? It means that HR is populated by a lot of people who sort of fell into their job. I am not suggesting that HR people are unqualified. What I am suggesting is that as organizations have to get more strategic in how they move forward, we’ll see some serious changes in which HR roles will work and which ones will not.
Burrin suggests that “maybe there’s a whole set of new things that we know are urgently needed and have been for a while. HR professionals may have to be trained in those things.” As the landscape rapidly transforms, organizations are going to need to strategize on precisely how they are going to give their HR professionals the skills needed to survive these transformations. Burrin adds that “communication, marketing, creativity, behavioral psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines are becoming increasingly important in terms of getting the best out of people and putting people at the center. You’re going to need really different, complementary skill sets.”