Exploring the HR Profession in Denmark

An Interview with Finn Bech Andersen
Alison Hill, Queen's IRC Research Associate
Human Resources

In August 2011, I moved from Kingston, Ontario, to Copenhagen, Denmark. I’ve been fortunate to continue working remotely for the IRC while living in Europe. The past five months have been a learning experience, as I’ve continued to transition and adjust to work and life in a foreign country.

With a background in adult education and an interest in the HR profession, I am especially intrigued by the ways in which the HR profession in Denmark is similar to, or different from, the HR profession in Canada. Throughout 2011, my IRC research focused on describing the state of the HR profession in Canada, including in-depth qualitative interviews with HR professionals and a national survey that quantitatively and qualitatively explored the HR profession, based on the perspectives of practitioners. While living in Europe, I am keen to share my own observations, and those of senior HR professionals around the globe, with the IRC community.

This article is a summary of a conversation that I had with Danish HR professional, Finn Bech Andersen.

What kinds of professional experiences have shaped your views on the HR profession in Denmark?

Finn Bech AndersenI am currently an independent HR consultant engaged in the development and implementation of business strategy, developing executive leadership capabilities to align with organizational strategy, and the transformation of the HR function within organizations and globally. I have almost two decades of international leadership experience in large and complex organizations. Most recently, I was the Head of Organizational Development, Strategy, and Learning at Maersk Line. My work included implementing strategic change management processes, and overseeing global HR processes, such as talent and performance management, learning, and development.

Prior to joining Maersk, I worked for the Danish military for a number of years. After leaving the military, I soon realized that I had developed a strong background in HR because of my education and the work that I did, including, recruitment, branding, and a lot of training, and development. My work wasn’t specifically classified as “HR” at that time; it was seen as part of operations. During my career, it has taken me a while to realise that HR is a profession. I think this is true globally – HR is not always recognized as a true profession.

My perspective on the HR profession in Denmark is shaped by the fact that I have worked with many different companies. I consider myself to be an academic within HR. I enjoy theory, concepts, reading, and participating in discussion seminars. But, I am equally a practitioner, and through my work I have developed an understanding of the evolution of the HR function. Theory and practice now enables me to identify and develop the potential of individuals, teams, and organizations – and to derive results therein.

How would you describe the organizational culture in Danish workplaces?

I think that the Danish way of managing employees is about delegating work to and trusting in the capacity of your team. Workplaces have a collegial environment. Perhaps due to the limitation of natural resources in Denmark, we tend to focus on the human capital. An interesting example of a Danish company is Lego. They emphasize creativity and innovation in their workplace practices.

The way in which the labour market is organized in Denmark is also influencing the organizational culture. Organizations and unions negotiate collective agreements on a regular basis. It is extremely rare that the state intervenes. The social systems and networks provided by the state are very strong. In Denmark, an individual secures many benefits from the state rather than an employer. Fitness, good health, and family are important to Danes. Parental leave, and vacation time, are integral to Danish work. Because of this, Denmark has one of the most flexible workforces, but when you are living here you don’t necessarily see that.

Danish organizations are also becoming more diverse, with the view that everyone should have equal opportunity. Cultural awareness is important in the workplace. Many Danes speak English fluently, and business can be conducted in English. When there is one non-Dane in a meeting, the general practice is to conduct the conversation in English. There is no choice for Danes; we have to speak English – it’s a universal language.

The number of global operations is increasing in Denmark. Maersk and Novo Nordisk are examples of Danish companies with offices and plant operations all over the world. They both have a strict ethical code. To compete in the global marketplace, Denmark needs to be innovative and progressive, with a focus on strategic leadership, organizational development, and performance management.

How would you describe the state of the HR profession in Denmark?

In my view, for small and medium-sized companies, HR is still very transactional. Larger companies are able to advance their HR function because they can invest in technological advancements and HR professionals that raise the capacity of the HR department. These investments are required for organizations that operate in a global setting. I think that many HR professionals have been focused on the transactional tasks like payroll, recruitment, and so forth. As many business leaders are primarily asking for this service, it seems difficult for smaller HR organizations to move beyond the transactional focus.

Ten years ago, I saw many individuals with the title HR consultant. Now, the trend is to be an HR partner. In Denmark, many organizations are advocating the development of HR business partners, supporting their own learning and growth. Senior management is starting to recognize the critical importance of the HR partner.

Throughout my career, I’ve been involved in many aspects of HR. One of the dilemmas that I see facing the profession is what I call promoting the value chain of HR. That is, what value does – or can – HR provide to the business, the leaders, the organization, and the employees? In what ways can HR professionals provide the decision makers with return on investment? I think that CEOs are increasingly willing to pursue strong HR business cases, if they are presented to them. For me, end-to-end HR process encompasses organizational development, recruitment, employee flow, performance management, learning and development, compensation and benefits, and talent management. Taking an end-to-end HR approach can allow the HR function to deliver business results, adding real value to the direction of the organization. This approach needs to be supported by linking HR metrics to business performance.

Traditionally in Denmark, HR has been very focused on individuals and employees. To a certain extent, that’s why Denmark works: we are concerned about individuals, value, and care for employees. However, this focus is changing. For good reasons, HR is becoming more focused on leadership and the business.

Over the past 10 or 15 years, HR professionals in Denmark, and globally, have struggled to justify our existence. I believe we need to stop considering HR as a function that is separate from the business. We are a part of the business! And if not, then we very quickly need to establish this role within organizations, and our own minds.

My training has focussed on business leadership. This training, combined with several years of HR experience, has enabled me to understand and interact with the business world. However as an HR professional, I feel that my value comes from my HR experience, skills, and knowledge that are required in this role. HR professionals need to have a solid understanding of their HR role, combined with business acumen. A word of caution: I see a tendency to go a bit overboard on emphasizing the need to acquire business acumen. Yes, HR professionals need to know the business, but primarily HR professionals need to be competent in their HR discipline. Otherwise, we wouldn’t bring anything different to the management table.

Accordingly, I think that the HR profession in Denmark needs to become a more robust discipline. For example, to be a recruiter years ago, it was okay if you could make a job ad and put it in the newspaper, do some screening and testing, conduct interviews, and make a hiring recommendation. Today, it’s much more complex. A recruitment specialist needs to be able to build and execute a recruitment strategy using social media, and to clearly communicate to potential candidates what the business is all about: the value proposition. I also see the need to cultivate in-house consultant capability in areas like organizational development in larger companies. These are just two examples of how the level of competency required for the HR profession is advancing.

Based on your experiences, how would you describe the future of the HR profession globally? What are some of the trends that will influence the role of the HR profession?

I can see that the HR profession does differ between countries. I also believe that there are more similarities, than differences. But I am not claiming to have a complete overview of what’s happening globally. I think that HR is being challenged – in part, as a natural consequence of the global financial situation. HR has grown during last couple of decades, in terms of developing an understanding of what its true value is and what it brings to the team, and so forth. I think HR professionals need to move from justifying their existence to proving their capacity. That is, to encourage the business from thinking inside-out to outside-in. Although some critics would like to bury the thinking of great minds like Dave Ulrich, I am still a believer. Based on my experience, Ulrich’s work is relevant and should be adapted and implemented in organizations to the extent possible. However, I think that HR professionals need to realize that a one-sized approach doesn’t fit all, and content is key when designing the HR function.

My own research and thinking has started to consider the next HR paradigm. I’ve participated in conferences and various workshops focused on this topic. I think that very few of us HR professionals are able to identify the new paradigm simply because we are living the current one. Rightfully so – many of us are still struggling to get HR business partnering right, for example, and in several areas where HR can impact the business there is still room for improvement. I think that HR departments will need to be more strategic, and especially proactive in their initiatives and priorities moving forward. Personally, I would really like to see the HR function to be more focused and direct in the support to the business results. Many HR departments that I know struggle with seeding too many projects, too many initiatives, too many demands, and fail to focus. Time management is critical. Too often, we underestimate the time required to complete projects and achieve the desired end state. Project management requires patience and persistence. Thus, HR also needs to be mindful of the operations and be more innovative in process improvements.

Organizations really need to put their employer brand, their value proposition, out there. This brand needs to be based on the reality of the company and supported by senior management. By strengthening the employee value proposition internally, we can improve engagement and thus the bottom line. Having a well-defined employee value proposition makes the employer branding so much easier and relevant. Current employees will become ambassadors. Prospective employees will be able to determine if this is a company that they want to work for. In Europe and North America, there’s a shrinking work force, an aging work force. So the fight for the best employees will intensify. Organizations will increasingly need that employer brand to attract and retain the right talent, and manage employee turnover.

I think HR professionals will need to become more specialized in their work, including investigating areas traditionally less explored by HR professionals, such as organizational development. In my past work experience, I had two PhDs on my team. I was actually looking for more because this level of expertise was needed to be able to support the business strategy.

Offshoring and outsourcing of HR functions is an emerging trend in Denmark. For many organizations, outsourcing of transactional tasks is not new, and this will likely continue to grow. Furthermore, we are starting to see companies that are hiring an external HR manager or HR specialists whose contracts may be for one year or available on an hourly basis. The company brings on this capacity as needed, because it is not required on a day-to-day basis. I think that this trend will prevail. One could argue that the consultant companies are taking this approach towards the service they provide their customers.

What skills and knowledge do you think are necessary for HR professionals to meet future organizational challenges?

I think that business acumen is a building block. If you are a true HR partner, you need to understand the business of HR and be able to communicate with businesses using their terms and language.

I also think it’s important to know when input from HR is required in decision-making. So you need to understand business, you need to think in business terms, but you also need to understand when to deploy the unique capabilities of HR – and be decisive in doing so.

There are many different mixes and blends of formal education and experiences in HR. The path to becoming an HR professional is more varied than in many other disciplines. Here’s an example. If you want to be a lawyer, you know exactly what education you need to pursue. It’s not the same in HR. Post-secondary education, in general, is necessary, but HR-specific education is preferred. HR professionals will need to continue to elevate their level of competence, skill, and knowledge. I would like to see that a masters degree in human resources focuses not only on the high-level HR disciplines, but offers an end-to-end, operational and strategic perspective on HR.

I think as HR professionals, we need to recognize that we are a part of the business. We are not the business, as I have heard some HR departments say, but we are part of the business. HR professionals need to hone their specializations and develop networks. Being connected to a professional network, such as LinkedIn, or the Danish HR Association, is viewed as positive in Denmark. These networks are important for professional guidance and development, but also to elevate the HR profession.

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