HR Capacity Building
I really enjoyed this recent Forbes article “Don’t Just Bash HR. Help it Succeed.” In it, Ron Ashkenas talks about the transition that HR is going through, and the fundamental shift in some organizations’ thinking about where many HR accountabilities should reside. Here’s a quote from the article:
“So HR’s evolution…does not just concern changing HR. It’s also about helping managers take more accountability for people and culture, and eventually blurring the rigid distinction between ‘HR’ and ‘management’.”
For me, this quote sparked with an idea that’s been rattling around in my head for awhile, based on one of the many things I’ve learned since I entered the non-profit sector a little more than 2 years ago: the concept of capacity-building.
If you’re not familiar with the term, I’ve asked someone imminently qualified to help explain. Gabrielle Groves, PhD, Program Coordinator, Asian Institute of Technology (as well as my dear friend and former University roommate) explains capacity building thusly:
“Capacity building is essentially the development of human capital – that can occur at the individual, institutional and societal level – enhancing skills and knowledge – to achieve sustainable and measurable results.”
International development organizations, and indeed many domestic non-profits, engage in capacity building at a local, national or international level as part of a strategy to equip individuals, groups or even governments with the ability to tackle the problems endemic to their own environment or society and sustain any advances made.
Building Organizational HR Management Capacity
What if we as HR practitioners were to apply this concept to how we approach some of the more predictable, ‘endemic’ human capital challenges our organizations face? What if, as Ashkenas suggests, the goal became to blur the line between HR and management, so that some of HR’s accountabilities become the accountabilities of all people managers? HR’s role would become more akin to that of a capacity builder, responsible for enabling, advising and supporting managers to more fully incorporate effective HR practices into their day-to-day management of people. [In my mind it's no coincidence that the description of HR as capacity builders sounds quite similar to the recently advanced concept of HR as Performance Advisors (see my previous post on this topic, and Michael Carty's excellent follow-up)].
If the transition that Ashkenas describes continues, progressive and talented HR teams will make the case that they can have an exponentially larger impact on an organization if things like employee engagement, training transfer and turnover cease to be seen as primarily ‘HR responsibilities’, and instead are viewed as organizational responsibilities connected to organizational effectiveness. Simply put, even the most expert, dedicated HR team can only have a limited impact on how many employees choose to leave the organization, or apply newly acquired knowledge to their day-to-day work, or feel engaged and challenged on a daily basis, especially if organizations give managers a pass to make these “HR’s job”.
The Increasing Demands on People Managers
The need to build HR capacity amongst front-line managers is all the more relevant given the ongoing flattening of organizations, largely related to the gutting of middle management. Front-line managers now have more responsibility and a larger span of control than ever before, and frequently receive little to no training about how to actually be effective people managers, rather than just functional experts who happen to supervise others.
In my mind, the shift in viewpoint required to blur lines between managers and HR rests on the reasonable assumption that it will be advantageous to an organization if front-line managers are empowered to deal with day-to-day employee relations issues, answer questions about policy, provide effective performance feedback, build development plans and resolve interpersonal conflicts. HR as a function is then freed to focus on more critical, complex or holistic people problems and programs.
HR, My Employee Smells
It’s hard to argue that organizations seeking to leverage human capital practices to support organizational performance would not benefit from such a shift in viewpoint. But in actual practice, many HR professionals in organizations of all shapes and sizes spend a significant portion of their time addressing questions and problems that should never even make it to their desks. HR folks: ever experienced one of the following scenarios?
HR Pro: “Hello?”
Manager: “Hi, HR? Yeah, I have a problem. My employee smells. The rest of my team is complaining. So, I need you take care of this. You know, talk to him or whatever.”
HR Pro: “Hi Sue, what can I do for you?”
Manager: “So, top performer employee X on my team wants to go to a funeral for her neighbor, but our bereavement policy doesn’t cover that, so I wondered if their was another policy that addresses this situation, or should I just say no?”
It is truly not my intent to trash managers here- not at all. I know that people managers have an incredible amount of work on their plates- they are tasked with reaching business targets as well as somehow finding time to coach, develop, train, recognize and engage their direct reports. And yes, there are HR folks out there that (incorrectly) think that hanging onto these duties increases their relevance and authority. But I think that the vast majority of us would agree that it benefits no one at all when managers feel like they are ill-equipped to address difficult conversations with their direct reports, or aren’t empowered to make discretionary calls that may skirt policy, but make the best sense. Managers deserve the training, support and trust from their organization’s leaders and their HR teams, to manage their own human resources effectively. And we should do more to give it to them.
So, the next time you get a call from a new manager who wants you to tell one of her direct reports to stop wearing fish-net stockings to client meetings, spend the time to coach on her on how to tell the employee herself. All will benefit….
Image credit: Mike Bitzenhofer via Flickr Creative Commons