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Let's Demolish HR and Start Over

The traditional administrative function is adding little value.

The future of the human resources function is up for discussion in the business world. That’s clear from the cover of the July-August issue of Harvard Business Review, “It’s Time to Blow up HR and Build Something New.” The level of dissatisfaction has been known for years. These articles are the latest arguing that the HR function needs to be redefined. Critics contend the function adds very little value.

The dissatisfaction is not limited to the private sector. In government there have been reports that state HR directors have been downgraded. At the federal level there has been no public discussion of the HR function although strategic human capital management has been on the Government Accountability Office’s high-risk list for several years.

Despite the well-documented revolution in workforce management, HR’s role on paper has largely gone unchanged for decades. Technology has automated a great deal of HR’s traditional work. Outsourcing is solidly entrenched. Specialized firms now compete to handle the administrivia. In contrast to HR offices in the private sector, government has never made succession planning, workforce planning, compensation management, or performance management a priority.

The emerging HR role is summarized in another HBR article, “People Before Strategy: A New Role for the CHRO.” The authors, three prominent business consultants, argue that chief human resources officers “should recommend ways to use human capital to unlock or create value.” That is to say, HR offices should champion the “people management” changes that contribute to an organization’s success. That has not happened in government.

Elevating and Expanding HR’s Role

Government needs to unlock and better utilize the capabilities of its workforce. Unfortunately the civil service system is an impediment to change. Moreover, the culture has never made performance a priority. Effective “people management” has been given lip service but has never been a priority. The concept of a bureaucracy is inimical to a work environment where individual initiative, innovation and problem solving are encouraged.

Efforts to improve government performance have been ongoing for more than 20 years. There are no new management methods or systems on the horizon. The recent focus on performance metrics has been disappointing. What may have been expected at the executive level clearly has never cascaded down to where the work is done.

As industry has learned, employees are capable of performing at significantly higher levels. As industry also has learned—in a supportive, healthy work environment people look forward to their workday and the sense of achievement when their contributions are acknowledged and valued.

Traditionally managers have been on their own to supervise their people and their performance. Some, no doubt, are outstanding; others are clearly ineffective. Those working relationships are established, and it's very unlikely they will become more productive—without a coach and agent to facilitate change.

If there is to be improved performance, it can only be realized at the front-line level. As long as the civil service system remains sacrosanct, any initiatives will have to work within that framework.

Despite the inflexibility of the system, a lot can be accomplished. It has to start by convincing leaders that the HR office has an important role to play in making performance a shared priority. That role has to be partnering with managers, confirming HR’s understanding of the policies and practices—the levers—that influence an employee’s commitment and their performance.

Here are several initiatives that could raise performance levels:

Championing improved internal communication practices. Research shows employees perform better when they understand the organization’s goals, progress in achieving those goals and any barriers. Employees want to know how their efforts contribute to their employer’s success.

Supporting innovation and continuous improvement. Bureaucracies resist change. Improved performance depends not on effort but on an openness to new ways of working. Employees always have ideas for improving operations. Agencies need a forum to assess those ideas.

Consulting on changes to solve workforce problems. No function is better qualified to fill this vacuum. HR should be called in whenever people issues inhibit a group’s performance.

Expanding the use of metrics. The data have not been used as expected to guide operational decision making. That is a people issue.

Improving recognition and reward practices. Working with managers to see that the most valuable employees are recognized. It’s particularly important to minimize bias and discrimination.

Sharing best practices and success stories. HR is the logical resource to track and promote innovative work management practices in other public organizations.

A longer term but more important project is developing the next generation of supervisors and managers. With projected retirements, the importance of millennials and the pressure for improved performance, this is the time to base the selection of new supervisors on the personal traits that bring out the best in the people they supervise. They need training to develop their supervisory and managerial skills; the most effective need to be promoted to higher levels of management.

The authors of the article “People Before Strategy” argue for elevating HR and creating “a triumvirate at the top of the corporation that includes [the CEO and] both the CFO and the CHRO.” That would “link financial numbers with the people who produce them.” That’s more important for government.

(Image via James Steidl/Shutterstock.com)