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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.

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?

Ring ring

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.”


Knock knock

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?”

Moving Forward

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

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Thanks for posting this, and for highlighting Ashkenas’ blog. I made a comment over there that talks to HR leaders gaining competence in technology and systems thinking. You make a very good point, though, about HR feeling as if their role in doing the work of the manager lends to their longevity.

    I’ve been a senior leader in HR (never CHRO) for over 30 years, mostly in organizations with over 10,000 employees, in retail, government, banking, financial services and healthcare, and have served as an external consultant to additional industries. I say that only because I only once have been part of a leadership team that worked together, and that was in retail in the 1980s.

    Back then, retail was way ahead of its time because we had to be. Margins were small, employees were scarce, and joined a retail department store either “until they got a real job” or to get the discount.

    Looking back at these experiences, I can see three things that were different about that HR team. I have seen one or two since, but never all three together.

    1.) HR team members had experience on the selling floor. Rarely were HR staff hired without retail sales experience, and for those few of us who didn’t have it, we worked on the sales floor from the Thursday after Thanksgiving until Christmas eve, and then went back in January and July to help with the inventory process. We KNEW retail.

    2.) The top HR leader had a strong vision, which was to drive “all things people”. When conversations occurred about changes to process, HR was part of the dialogue – at the demand of the CEO who recognized that HR wasn’t about comp, benefits, or recruiting, but about hiring and developing the best workforce possible.

    3.) The HR Development side of HR was strong, capable and involved. Back then, I was in Comp, Benefits and Recruitment but my counterpart in HRD knew what we were doing in compensation and we knew what she was doing in all facets of developing the workforce. Somehow we avoided the persistent siloes that exist today.

    It also bears mentioning that we still had “management training programs” which hired eager, bright graduates and rotated them through every facet of the business, including HR.

    I wrote on Ashkenas’ blog that I see technology and systems thinking as key competencies of HR today. It feels to me, having watched the evolution for so many years, that HR has fallen into the trap of too much to do, and not enough time to be strategic. It takes a strong, visionary leader to pull their team out of the weeds to look strategically, while still keeping the basic duties going.

    It will be interesting to see the follow up comments on this topic.

    January 21, 2013
  2. this is fascinating for a non – HR professional. It’s reasonable for you to ask “people managers” , as you put it to receive the pass; the trick is to make sure it’s not a ‘hospital” pass. My experience of large ( 10K plus) organisations in all sectors is that when they recruit good people into support services ( really sorry but I can’t think of a better expression ) , notably HR and Finance, those functions begin to modernise themselves through ICT investment and professionalisation. The usual impact is that they can make a strong business case that they add high value, paid for by losing headcount of their own though usually in junior positions. At the same time operational managers increasingly engage through systems rather than personal contact. ineffect work moves from support to frontline without any movement of resource. Now I’m not arguing that savings can’t be made and HR shouldn’t move towards high value functions. but it’s not uncommon for HRDs to claim the glory of all this without acknowledging their impact on the wider business. please tell me I’m wrong!

    January 21, 2013
  3. Jason Martin #

    Insert a blank for ‘HR’ and you have a good strategy for any interaction – “Don’t just bash _____. Help it/them succeed.”

    January 21, 2013
  4. Helpful and nice piece of writing, HR is a very crucial part of company because it manages the workforce on which the profit depends.

    June 30, 2013
  5. This is a good article that i am searching for a long time. Thank you for posting it. I want to know the ways of HR capacity development for micro finance institutions.

    December 4, 2016

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