Will HR Go Back to Basics and Unplug in 2013?

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Be there.

The race towards self service appears to have come to a head, and businesses large and small are using HR service centres to deal with HR administration almost as a de facto arrangement now. This is a long distance from where we were, say, just five years ago where the Service Centre was but a distant dream. Today, it’s the norm. We outsource our HR regardless of organisational size or structure, and we understand how to ‘add value’ through a more lean internal service.

But do we? For all the talk of outsourcing and adding value, we’re over-reliant on the Service Centres, and the talk in the HR industry is all about ‘acoustic HR’, a phrase put forward by Trish McFarlane last month. ‘Acoustic HR’ – or ‘HR unplugged’ is all about putting away the laptop, hiding the tablet, turning off the e-mail, and talking.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? After all, this is what the Service Centres were meant to do, weren’t they. We outsourced so that we could add some value. Yes, we’d find financial advantages in outsourcing, but we were seduced by the suggestion that this would give us time to be more strategic. ‘Acoustic HR’ is an opportunity to develop that strategic approach.

Counteracting the feeling that HR is ‘elsewhere’

There is a feeling that HR is now an 0800 number. Even the New York Times said so, so it must be true. We’ve gone from a department to a web portal, at least in the eyes of our employees, and built a distance between ourselves and our people. HR staffing numbers are down, and HR is viewed as increasingly transactional by employees.

Neil Morrison at Change Effect makes an excellent point that HR can, at times, be viewed as the Sausage Factory. It processes instead of serving. Technology has become the be-all-and-end-all. Shaun Dunphy at HR outsourcing company Ceridian claims this approach is doomed to fail, saying that ‘Re-engineering focused purely on technology but ignoring people will fail’.

That feeling that HR is ‘somewhere else’ has to be tackled by an internal HR presence that both helps promote the online or over-the-phone administrative aspect of the service delivery, but also ‘unplugs’ itself and starts the conversation internally.

Peter Cappelli, from the University of Pennsylvania, sums it all up by saying that the move to Self Service means employees have no one to talk to when there’s a problem. That should never be the case. We need to make HR the first place to turn to.

Demonstrating our true value as HR professionals

If we have an internal presence within an organisation, we need to stick our heads above the parapet and make ourselves known. As Trish says, unplug ourselves from the machinery, and simply talk. This is playing to HR’s main strengths. HR professionals have always been “people people”, and have always been trained to appreciate the emotional side of the workplace.

The focus needs to be on conversations, not emails. It needs to be on interpretation and communication of reports, not the compilation of dashboards. And equally, we need to sharpen our focus on the usage of the Service Centres, and derive the value that we actually set out to obtain from them. Acoustic HR is about clarifying the thin line between transactional and strategic, and getting back to what we’re good at.

Participating and spreading the value

Shaun Dunphy mentioned the “right-sizing” of HR itself, coming as a result of HR “right-sizing” the rest of the business, which was an unfortunate consequence of the restructuring of the economic downturn of the last few years. What Acoustic HR, and the return to basics, should do is demonstrate the true value of having an internal, strategic HR presence.

Equally, what HR needs to do is spread that value to cross-functional initiatives. In other words, it needs to develop some sharp elbows. Therefore, in addition to being touchy-feely and “people people”, HR professionals need to get pushy. And there’s good reason to be so…

For one thing – thanks to HR outsourcing and the Service Centres, data is readily available, and it’s in the hands of Human Resources. HR has the knowledge, and the skills, from participating in initiatives such as customer service improvement projects, to pushing out talent strategy programmes more widely.

Going acoustic, unplugging the laptop, and providing the skills that we’ve always had sounds like a simple idea, but it’s one that HR professionals haven’t all been practising in the rush to Self Service, or at least, it’s one that HR professionals haven’t been perceived to be practising.

It’s time to close the sausage factory, and provide a service that adds real, tangible value to the business. Value you can talk about … and talk ‘to’.

About Gareth Cartman

Gareth Cartman is a business blogger, and has spent many years working alongside HR professionals.

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