Becoming a Trusted Strategic Business Partner: Lessons from the Government of Alberta

Graduates of the HR Business Partner Program, Dec 4-6, 2012, Edmonton Alberta
Graduates of the HR Business Partner Program (Series 3), December 2012, Edmonton, AB.

In 2008, when Mary Jefferies first consulted with Queen's IRC to build a new program that would enhance the Alberta government HR professionals' ability to be true business partners, she was not motivated by an industry trend, or faddishness.

The changing business of the Alberta government and of her department — then called Alberta Environment — demanded it.

"Our work was increasingly being seen on the international stage, whether it was in oilsands or in conservation. And we were being challenged to work in a more collaborative, more networked, more interactive way," said Jefferies, now an organizational culture expert in the Alberta government's Environment and Sustainable Resource Development department.

"We needed to give people capacity for systems thinking, facilitation, learning, and organizational development. We needed to respond to changes in the business, and in the expectations of senior leaders. We needed to think about emerging competencies in the workforce, talent management, and leadership development.

"And so we asked: What are the capabilities we need to be trusted strategic business partners? How do we get there?"

Jefferies knew precisely where to turn for the answers: to Queen's IRC and to Brenda Barker Scott, with whom Jefferies had previously worked on an organization design project.

The Queen's IRC team, including Barker Scott and Stephanie Noel, the IRC's business development manager, were up for the challenge to develop an HR Business Partner program, first for Jefferies' department and collaborating departments of Energy and Advanced Education and Technology, and then for the Alberta government's HR community as a whole. Participants now come from many of the Alberta government's 18-plus ministry HR departments.

The leading-edge curriculum has five interrelated workshops designed to expand HR professionals' capacity to be internal business partners: Foundations for Internal Consulting, Change Management, Building Relationships and Strategic Partnerships, Coaching Skills, and Organizational Design. Other facilitators include former Queen's IRC director Carol Beatty, Sharon Parker, Gary Furlong, and Francoise Morissette.

The goal of the HR Business Partner Certificate program is to enhance the capacity of HR professionals to work as business partners; to develop them into trusted advisors who use the knowledge of business needs, organizational context and HR policy and practices to generate insight and influence decisions. For example, the internal consulting workshop — about which Jefferies still raves — teaches a skills process, which shows participants how to diagnose challenges, collect and analyze data, design options and implement solutions.

For her part, Barker Scott credits the Alberta HR community for its foresight, and for recognizing that HR professionals need to bring thoughtfulness and a strategic perspective to their work.

"A true business partner is someone who brings strong depth and skills so they can facilitate change, so they can get good results from their knowledge of the business, so they can get really good energy and participation from their partners," Barker Scott said.

Current Queen's IRC Director, Paul Juniper, said his Centre custom-designs programs for clients like the Alberta government, a key differentiator in a crowded marketplace of HR professional development.

"The IRC's programming is unique. Programs are designed specially for practitioners, adhering to adult learning principles and practices. Our facilitators are subject matter experts who draw on their own professional experiences, while weaving academic theory and key concepts into the program content. Each program incorporates a variety of learning strategies, including exercises that allow time to reflect on and apply the concepts learned in the classroom," said Juniper.

"This experiential learning is a fundamental component of the IRC's programming; it ensures opportunities for dialogue, discussion, and debate, so that participants can network with and learn from each other. The IRC has a long tradition of excellence and strives to ensure that our programs are relevant, practical, and provide the kind of learning that participants need to address their own workplace challenges."

The result of that learning, Jefferies said, is clear: HR professionals who can better navigate increasingly complex situations.

The change Jefferies has seen in participants conjures to her a favourite quote — "A mind once stretched never returns to its original dimensions" — and a familiar acronym: VUCA.

"If you think about VUCA — about volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity — what we need in the HR world is the vision in the volatility, the understanding we can shape in the uncertainty, the clarity in the complexity, and the actions we can take in the ambiguity," Jefferies said.

"To me, that is how you add value."

For Juniper, the HR Business Partner program is about showing HR practitioners how to move beyond the traditional HR roles, and enlarge their perspectives on what the work is, and what it can be.

"HR professionals have become an integral part of HR management strategy. The IRC is proud to help HR practitioners gain the knowledge and skills they need to be successful in their roles."

The State of HR in Canada: 2011 Survey Results

 Executive Summary
Paul Juniper, Queen's IRC Director, and Alison Hill, Queen's IRC Research Associate, authored the Executive Summary of An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada (2011).

In response to increasing demands from organizations, the skills and knowledge that HR professionals require in the workplace continue to shift. As many of our program participants are likely aware, HR professionals are now more involved in strategic roles that help to shape organizational culture, effectiveness, and design.

To target the professional development needs of HR practitioners, the IRC thought it was necessary to reach out to our HR community and gain insights on the complexities of the work HR professionals perform and the challenges they face in their work. We wanted to describe and analyze the state of the HR profession in Canada, based directly on the perspectives of practitioners.

In February 2011, the IRC surveyed HR professionals across Canada to glean their perspectives on HR, the challenges and priorities for HR departments, and the kinds of skills and knowledge that are perceived as critical for the practice. Our 53-question survey was divided into two sections: demographic information and perspectives on the profession. HR professionals were keen to share their insights; we collected over 450 complete survey responses.

This article provides a synthesis of some of our data. Please note that a complimentary copy of An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada: Executive Summary is available for download from the Queen’s IRC website.

Demographics

 Executive Summary
An Inquiry into the State of HR: Executive Summary

The majority of our respondents, 73%, are female. Respondents are concentrated in the 46 to 55 age bracket, with 33.7% of respondents in this category. Years of HR experience vary amongst respondents, ranging from less than five years to more than 25 years. Job titles range from professional/technical through to CEO/President. Approximately 31% of respondents are HR generalists, while approximately 28% are senior leaders. In general, a respondent is likely to hold an undergraduate university degree (43.5%), a CHRP designation (52.1%), and belong to a provincial HR association (76.1%).

Our sample includes diverse organization sizes, with respondents employed in organizations with fewer than 100 employees to more than 5000 employees. There is a relatively even split in public and private sector representation: 43.7% of respondents work in the public sector, while 42.8% are part of the private sector. An additional 8.0% are from non-profit organizations.

We received many responses from the Prairie region; 66.3% of respondents are from Alberta, Saskatchewan, or Manitoba. The high percentage of respondents from the Prairie region is due in part to the Human Resource Institute of Alberta (HRIA) offering to forward our survey to their membership. In addition, 19.3% of our survey respondents are from Ontario, 8.0% from Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, or Prince Edward Island, and 4.2% from British Columbia. The IRC recognizes that there is a distinct lack of responses from Quebec. We suspect that this finding is due to the fact that our survey was only available in English. Moving forward, the IRC may conduct a bilingual survey.

Perspectives on the HR Profession

We now provide a summary of the HR activities in which respondents are involved, the perceived challenges, along with the immediate and long-range priorities for HR departments in Canada. Then, we present the skills and knowledge that HR professionals perceive as critical for their work.

Using a Likert scale, participants reported the extent to which they are currently involved in a select set of 16 HR activities, and also the extent to which they were involved in those same activities two years ago. With the exception of recruitment, on average HR professionals rated their current involvement higher than their involvement two years ago in all of the HR activities we listed. The five activities that were rated highest in current involvement were employee relations, employee engagement, organizational culture, employee training and learning, and change management.

To determine the top challenges faced by HR departments in organizations across Canada, participants were asked to rank order a list of 18 items. Almost three quarters of the respondents (73.8%) ranked talent management in their personal top-five list. Rounding out the rest of the top five were employee engagement (58.5%), succession planning (54.3%), change management (46.6%), and organizational culture creation/maintenance (42.1%). Further analysis showed that these rankings were consistent with no significant difference found based on region or between private and public sectors.

Despite the challenges HR departments encounter, 80.7% of respondents have an optimistic outlook on the future of the profession. This optimism is consistent across sectors and regions. We are encouraged by this optimism.

We then sought to determine the top three immediate priorities (i.e., within the next 12 months) for HR departments. We invited participants to cite the top three priorities for their HR departments. Based on the responses to this open-ended question, the immediate priorities facing HR departments include succession planning, employee engagement, talent management, and training, learning and development.

Similarly, we asked participants to list the top three long-range priorities (i.e., next three to five years) for their HR departments. The results suggest that the long-range priorities are comparable to the immediate priorities. The top three long-range priorities include succession planning, talent management, and recruitment.

Given an understanding of the challenges and priorities facing HR departments, what are the skills and knowledge that HR professionals deem critical for their work? To unpack the skills and knowledge required by HR professionals, we created two open-ended questions that allowed participants to cite their own answers. An interesting finding was that even though the questions were open-ended, themes did prevail in the data. It was clear that HR professionals share similar perspectives on the essential skills and knowledge for their work. Required skills for HR professionals include communication, the ability to think analytically, critically, and strategically, interpersonal skills, technical skills, and conflict resolution. Knowledge required by HR professionals includes business acumen, employment law/legislation, talent management, employee/labour relations, and a broad understanding of HR. Reflecting on this data, it is interesting to note that the skills and knowledge perceived as critical by HR professionals seem to exceed what is typically deemed as “traditional” HR functionalities.

Discussion

Intuitively, HR is, at its core, about people. The role of HR includes, but is not limited to, engaging employees and supporting their professional development, helping employees to manage change, along with organizational culture creation and maintenance. These trends were evident in the top five HR challenges elicited by our respondents.

According to our survey, talent management is perceived as both a challenge and a priority for HR departments, including developing and implementing succession plans, as well as building the capacity of the organization, through effective learning strategies. As such, the IRC has elected to launch a Talent Management program in Fall 2011. The program is still in the development phase; however, the focus of Talent Management is devising effective strategies for recruiting, training, and developing an organization’s talent pool. The program will be designed to allow participants to acquire the skills and knowledge to build an effective talent management strategy for their own organization, discover gaps in existing recruitment and retention practices, and become an important internal resource and advocate on talent management.

In closing, the data collected in our recent HR survey have allowed the IRC to better understand and describe the state of the HR profession in Canada. As intended, the survey findings are helping the IRC to better match our program offerings with the professional development needs of our HR community. Now that we have collected baseline data, the IRC plans to conduct a similar HR survey every two years moving forward. This survey will allow the Centre to compare trends in the profession and continue to provide quality programming for our participants. Our Executive Summary has highlighted only a few of the findings. We intend to rely on the full dataset for future IRC work.

Advancing the IRC Experience

I often think of September as a transitional month, full of promise and new beginnings. Not only does it mark a seasonal change, as summer turns to fall; it is also the time when students across the country head back to school. The Queen’s campus is once again bustling with activity, with the start of the new academic year. Likewise, the pace in the IRC office is gaining momentum, as we prepare for one of the most exciting program seasons to date. I am pleased to announce that this fall, the IRC is introducing several structural changes to our programming, in an effort to better meet the learning needs of human resources, labour relations, and organizational development professionals. In particular, we have redesigned the programming options available in our certificate series and are launching a new Advanced Human Resources Certificate. On behalf of the IRC, I hope that the changes described below lead to many new learning opportunities for our client community. For a full description of our programming, please download our new Program Planner.

Restructuring the IRC’s Certificate Series

A fundamental, strategic change to the structure of our programming portfolio is the reorganization of our certificate series. In addition to the new Advanced Human Resources Certificate, we offer certificates in Organization Development Fundamentals, Labour Relations, and Advanced Labour Relations. All program options are now categorized as 400, 300, 200, or 100- level series and are worth two, three, four, or five credits, depending upon the training time that is required. As part of this restructuring, we have sought to increase the programming options available in our certificates.

Please note, however, that the certificate in Developing Organizational Capacity will no longer be offered to new clients. Some of the programs in this series will remain, and are worth credit towards other IRC certificates. We will continue to award our Developing Organizational Capacity Certificates for a period of three years, to those who have already started on this path. Otherwise, these programs will be accredited toward another certificate series.

Four Certificates to Meet Your Learning Needs

NEW Advanced Human Resources Certificate

This certificate can be customized to address individual learning needs. A minimum of 12 credits is required to earn this certificate. Participants must complete our popular Advanced HR (3 credits) program and our soon-to-be launched program, HR Strategy (4 credits). We are also introducing two additional HR programs: Succession Planning and HR Decision Making. The Advanced Human Resources Certificate is an excellent complement to our portfolio and exemplifies our commitment to providing premium professional development.

The IRC’s Advanced Human Resources Certificate is the first of its kind in Canada, and is unique in the field of human resources (HR) education. As the HR function continues to shift from an administrative and/or transactional role, to one that has become an integral part of an organization’s business strategy, the skills and knowledge required by HR professionals to be successful in their roles have also changed. The Advanced HR Certificate will broaden and deepen the knowledge of the HR practitioner. It has been designed for the human resources or labour relations professional who has at least three to five years of experience managing an HR department, a CHRP designation (or equivalent profile), and is currently in a middle-management role.

Certificate in Organization Development Fundamentals

To earn this certificate, a minimum of 12 credits is required. The 200 Series OD Foundations program is a requirement (4 credits), and the eight remaining credits may be obtained by taking any combination of the 400 or 300 Series Advanced Human Resources programs, or the 200 Series Human Resources/Organizational Development programs.

Certificate in Labour Relations

This certificate is earned by completing the IRC’s 200 Series Labour Relations Foundations program (5 credits) combined with any of the 300, 200, or 100 Series Advanced Labour Relations or Labour Relations programs.

Certificate in Advanced Labour Relations

After successful completion of the Certificate in Labour Relations, learners may work towards earning the Certificate in Advanced Labour Relations. As such, 12 new credits are required. These credits must include eight credits from two Advanced Labour Relations programs in the 300 Series. A further four credits may be earned by completing any of the 300, 200, or 100 Series Advanced Labour Relations or Labour Relations programs.

A Tradition of Excellence

As the IRC celebrates 75 years of industrial relations at Queen’s University, we are proud of the structural changes that are being introduced to our programming. Our learning strategies remain focused on the needs of practitioners. Through a variety of instructional methods, participants will build their competencies in learning environments that promote dialogue and the exchange of ideas and best practices.

The IRC offers an unparalleled learning experience. Through in-depth, practitioner-oriented research, focus groups, and case studies, we will continue to develop and deliver programs to meet the evolving needs of our customers. We look forward to working with you in the future! Please do not hesitate to contact the IRC with any questions regarding our programming or the ways in which we can meet your custom learning needs (irc@queensu.ca; 1-888-858-7838).

Beyond the CHRP – Raising the Bar on HR: Insights and Reflections

Paul Juniper, Director, Queen's IRCThroughout my career, which spans over thirty years as an HR professional, I have been a keen observer of our profession. I now find myself in a position where a large volume of information about the development and changing nature of HR crosses my desk, and I have the luxury and time to consider, reflect on, and speak about my experiences and insights on the future of the HR profession. My perspectives are shaped by the various roles that I have held. I’ve been manager, director, and VP of HR for a number of companies, run my own HR related business for ten years, and for the last six years, been Director of the Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) at Queen’s University. In this article I argue that the CHRP designation is not sufficient for HR professionals, and point to some of the work being conducted internationally, to illustrate the kinds of training, learning, and professional development opportunities Canadian organizations should be considering for their HR professionals. Enhancing learning beyond the CHRP will, in my view, facilitate raising the bar on HR in Canada.

I always enjoy meeting with and talking to active HR practitioners. I especially like to learn about the problems and opportunities that my professional colleagues face every day. These conversations are a rewarding component of my role with the IRC, and, in part, help to shape the focus of my own HR research. As IRC Director, I am uniquely positioned to bridge the gap between the practitioner and academic communities – two communities that, historically, have had difficulty communicating with each other. In 2007, for example, the Academy of Management Journal addressed the issue of “rigour versus relevance” in a series of articles (see, for example, Volume 50, Issues 4-6). In the IRC’s own practitioner-focused research, Alison Hill and I have sought to discover those things that keep you awake at night and disseminate relevant and up-to-date information and insights to facilitate HR professionals’ success in their multifaceted roles.

Perhaps like me, in your career you have worked with a number of MBAs who know a lot about academic theory, but perhaps not so much about how to work with people and apply their knowledge. I tend to agree with Henry Mintzberg, from McGill. In his book, Managers Not MBAs: A Hard Look at the Soft Practice of Managing and Management Development (2004), Mintzberg argues that the MBA curriculum teaches the wrong people, the wrong content at the wrong time. Undoubtedly, the HR profession has made great strides forward in the past twenty years, advancing the skills, knowledge, and credentials required by practitioners, increasingly enabling our field to be perceived as a true profession within organizations and amongst the general public. As HR professionals, we now have an opportunity to explore, reflect on, and shape the future of our profession.

The CHRP is firmly established in Canada as the entry-level designation to the HR profession. It is a sought-after credential that promises a certain level of recognized knowledge and ability. HR professionals require skills and knowledge that go beyond those offered in the CHRP. In its current form, I don’t think that the CHRP is sufficient; it does not, and can not, solely provide professionals with the level of competencies required in the field. Accordingly, I firmly believe that the HR profession needs to re-examine what qualifications HR professionals need to succeed and the ways in which they can achieve success. I am increasingly concerned that organizations spend a great deal of time and effort developing and promoting Mission, Vision, and Values, but stall when it comes time to articulate the Behaviours that are needed to support them. Time after time, in the IRC’s HR programs, we hear that Mission and Vision are well-documented and supported, but Values and articulated behaviours fall short, or may even be non-existent. This is a serious problem, the consequences of which we deal with on a daily basis in HR.

I am surprised with the number of organizations that continue to pour money into developing competency frameworks, but do not support the continued use and integration of those competencies into their corporate DNA. The result? Wasted effort. Please don’t misunderstand my argument. I am not against competency frameworks. In fact, I am a proponent of this vital tool. I am, however, opposed to the installation of competency frameworks with no plan to keep them current and inadequate resources to support them. Many, many installations fail for this reason.

I am a strong supporter of the work of David Ulrich from the University of Michigan and his work on HR competencies. I think this is solid research, and appreciate Ulrich’s pragmatic approach. Ulrich’s competency framework can be implemented to support HR leaders, in any HR unit, as they endeavour to support the development of their organization. Ulrich’s work is longitudinal, multi-national research that resonates across the HR profession and provides a link to the business side of what we do – a link that CEOs and Chief Executives so often say is missing from their HR staff.

There is some very interesting work being done on HR Governance, both in terms of the design of the HR function itself and the changing role at the most senior levels between the CHRO (Chief Human Resources Officer), the CEO, and Board of Directors. The IRC has been working with Deloitte to publicize and promote the intensified exploration of HR Governance. Concerns about global issues influence us as HR professionals, regardless of what kind of organization we work for, as issues such as globalization, global warming, and sustainability move higher on the corporate agenda. In particular, younger employees are asking challenging questions of management, demanding higher expectations of their employers. HR frequently finds itself in a key communications and leadership role.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) has been doing some excellent work. Representing approximately 130,000 HR professionals in the United Kingdom and Ireland, CIPD has, in recent years, completely redesigned their “HR Profession Map” (see: http://www.cipd.co.uk/cipd-hr-profession/hr-profession-map/). It is a fascinating look at another way in which the educational needs of HR professionals can be met. It has the unique advantage of articulating bands, or levels, of competence. Having drawn the conclusion that one size does not fit all, the CIPD has designed a challenging, but flexible, model that gives HR professionals (and specialists within HR) a plethora of opportunity to design their careers.

CIPD continues to conduct research on the impact of HR on organizations. Recently, CIPD published papers on the impact of downsizing on the UK public sector, and on corporate sustainability. It is the CIPD’s contention that HR is uniquely placed within organizations to provide insights that might otherwise be overlooked or forgotten, but are critical to organizational success.

Having been formed by the merger of the national training organization and the national personnel organization (an insight that has not been able to make its way across the Atlantic, except in Saskatchewan, a story that I don’t have time to discuss in detail here, unfortunately) the CIPD offers an extensive syllabus of programs at all levels to its membership. Viewing the additions each year to their catalogue provides a snapshot of hot button issues, as the CIPD moves to meet its members expressed needs.

CIPD has, for several years, been working very hard at the senior level of the UK government to gain support for their strategic initiatives. Recently this bore fruit, as the CIPD now is allowed to issue the designation of “Chartered HR professional.” As you are likely aware, this designation parallels historical developments in the accounting profession.

The Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) investigated the idea of licensing HR professionals in the 1990s, but abandoned it as simply being too complicated to implement across fifty-plus jurisdictions in the United States. Instead they have chosen to extend their PHR (Professional in HR) designation to an SPHR (Senior Professional in HR) and GPHR (Global Professional in HR). The SPHR includes 25% strategic content. It is not easy to earn a SPHR designation. The year that I wrote the examination, only 51% of those writing passed, and that included those writing for the second and third time. SHRM exemplifies the globalization of our profession, having offices and operations now in China and India (see: http://www.shrm.org). Thus, as we can learn about the HR profession in England by seeing the courses CIPD offers to its members, we can see the changes in the US HR landscape by looking at the SHRM website listing for HR disciplines.

As we all know, the pace of change is not slowing and the HR profession is being buffeted by global forces which influence us all no matter what our HR role, size or context of our organizations. Yet, it is a time of opportunity for all of us, and an exciting time. I am proud to be involved in the HR profession and optimistic about its future.

An Inquiry Into the State of Labour Relations in Canada: Executive Summary

 Executive SummaryIn November 2011, Queen’s IRC launched a 37-question survey, “An Inquiry into the State of LR in Canada.” The purpose of this survey was to describe the state of the labour relations (LR) profession in Canada, based on the perspectives of practitioners. When the survey closed on December 16, 2011, a total of 184 responses were collected.

This practitioner-focused research complements our 2011 exploration of the state of the human resources profession in Canada, and builds on the our 2009 labour relations survey.

This survey was comprised of two sections. In the first section, we explored the varied roles, responsibilities, and credentials of LR professionals. We also probed some of the characteristics of the organizations in which LR professionals are employed. In the second section, we inquired about the level of knowledge, skills, and abilities required for a successful LR professional. We also sought perspectives on the future of the LR profession, including the challenges and opportunities facing the profession and changes that have, and are anticipated to occur, to jobs held by LR professionals. The survey included both closed- and open-ended questions.

This Executive Summary presents an overview of the aggregated survey data.

Ontario experts pessimistic about the future: Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast

Ontario 2020 Delphi forecastLast year, OPSEU brought together business, labour, government, and community agencies for an in-depth exploration of the possible futures for Ontario with Ontario 2020. The Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast has now been released, which shows that experts are concerned and pessimistic about the future of the province.

Queen’s IRC Director Paul Juniper was a member of the steering committee for the Ontario 2020 project, which included a two-day conference in Toronto. Experts in four areas – community services, the economy, education and health care – were invited to evaluate how the province will develop in the next decade. Four possible scenarios of the future were assessed for each of the key areas.

The practical objective of the Ontario 2020 project was to make Ontario organizations more effective by focusing on the need to anticipate a wholly different province in 2020. The steering committee was founded by OPSEU President Warren (Smokey) Thomas. Thomas said it’s important to stop the finger-pointing and blame over the past, and focus on the challenges and opportunities in the future. “No one else is doing this important work. To succeed as organizations and a province we must begin to take it on.”

One of the panelists summed up their view of Ontario in 2020: “I believe that we can imagine a great future, but many are pessimistic about what lies before us.”

To obtain a copy of Ontario 2020 Delphi forecast on the future of the economy, community agencies, education and health care in Ontario, please contact Heino Nielsen at hnielsen@opseu.org.

An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada in 2011: Executive Summary

 Executive SummaryIn February 2011, Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) launched a 53-question survey, “An Inquiry into the State of HR in Canada.” The purpose of the survey was to describe the HR profession in Canada, based on the perspectives of practitioners. When the survey closed on February 28, 2011, a total of 451 complete responses were collected.

We divided the survey into two sections. In the first section, we asked demographic questions that addressed respondents’ professional backgrounds, role(s) in their organization, and the structure of their organizations. In the second section, we asked for individual perspectives on the HR profession. The survey included a mixture of open and close-ended questions.

This Executive Summary presents an overview of some of the survey data. In the first section, we outline some of the key demographic trends that were revealed in our survey data. In the second section, we discuss the involvement of respondents in HR activities, the perceived challenges and priorities for HR departments, and the skills and knowledge that are required by HR professionals. Then, we discuss the future of HR in Canada. We conclude the report with a discussion on our findings and our next steps.

Running in Place, Staying One Step Ahead

The modern HR professional looks a lot like poor Alice in Through the Looking-Glass, running feverishly with the Red Queen only to be staying in the same place, says Queen’s IRC Director Paul Juniper.

In a keynote address to the Association of Ontario University HR Professionals (AOUHRP) 2009 Conference, Mr. Juniper offered a sweeping perspective on the new roles of the modern HR professional.

“It’s all HR people can do to keep pace with the changing demands and expectations that are being placed on them,” he told attendees. “But they are going to have to run even harder to if they hope to stay relevant in their organizations.”

Running harder means honing skills that are outside the traditional HR silos. Of late the case was made most convincingly by academic Dave Ulrich and colleagues, who listed six competencies required for high-performing HR professionals of the future. The first three are foundational: credible activist, business ally, and operational executor. The higher order competencies address organizational capabilities: strategy architect, culture and change steward, and talent manager and organization designer.

This maps well onto research by the U.S.-based Society for Human Resource Management, Mr. Juniper said. Its survey asked HR professionals to identify the most important factors in attaining their next HR job. The top three were strategic/critical thinking skills, leadership skills, and interpersonal communication skills.

“If you’ll notice, for these higher order roles not much depends on your technical ability in compensation, benefits, or recruitment,” Mr. Juniper said. “The minimum price of admission is to be operationally excellent because no one will trust you to talk about strategy if you can’t get people paid on time. It’s necessary but not sufficient.”

Many HR professionals will have to leave their comfort zones of managing HR processes and take on entirely new portfolios. Mr. Juniper cited the results of a recent survey by the B.C. Human Resources Management Association on the new focus areas for HR. They included organizational restructuring, employer branding, measurement, strategic workforce planning, corporate social responsibility, and risk management.

“These roles are open to HR people if they want them,” he said. “It’s like corporate communications; many HR professionals don’t want to have anything to do with it because they think it’s boring. But control over corporate communications gives you control over the corporate agenda. It is not a traditional role but there are real synergies and opportunities.”

When is a Carrot not a Carrot?

You would think, in this money-mad society, that most people make their big work-related decisions on the basis of maximizing their compensation. And you would be wrong. In fact, social scientists will tell you that most people satisfice; that is, they choose an action that is merely “good enough” rather than optimal.

For example, when it comes to deciding whether or not to stay in a job that does not meet all of their needs, people satisfice. Sure, they may not be happy with their pay – who is? – but compensation is usually “good enough”. It is rarely the prime reason why employees opt to trade in their job. More significant are lack of growth opportunities, deadening work, or unethical behaviour by supervisors or colleagues.

Compensation, however, is a significant factor in employee retention. Poor or inequitable pay is often the trigger that will get an already dissatisfied employee to return that call from a headhunter or start trolling the job boards. So if you are a talent manager who wants to reduce your turnover rate, compensation is certainly one useful lever.

To tighten the link between compensation and retention, here are three modest proposals to consider.

Make Compensation More Transparent

At the risk of attracting a flame thrower or two, I would suggest that your organization make its compensation policies and assumptions much more transparent. I admit this is a controversial idea. Many people assume transparency means that everyone knows what everyone else earns. They say Jack may want to know what Jill earns but Jack certainly doesn’t want Jill to know what he himself earns.

That is not what compensation transparency means. It means posting salary grades so that people know what jobs – as opposed to individual employees – are worth. It means explaining why some jobs are valued at a higher level than others.

Greater transparency should lead to more candid conversations about what it takes to move up in the organization. It puts the onus on management to provide incentives (yes, incentives still have a place in the transparent organization) to develop skills and realistic pathways and career ladders to advancement. And it makes it much more difficult for rogue managers to cut side deals with favoured employees that are not based on performance.

If you are still unsure, consider that technology may force your hand. Employees can now go to websites such as PayScale.com to learn what workers with similar jobs in other organizations earn. Position yourself ahead of the curve and reap the benefits of engaged employees.

Make Compensation More Meaningful

In all but very few sectors, today’s workforce is highly diverse in terms of demographics and ethnic composition. What drives under-30s, for example, is very different than what stokes 35-year-olds or the over-40s. Unfortunately, compensation plans too often fail to reflect this diversity and consequently fall flat.

It is worth assessing how well your organization’s compensation practices reflect the needs and wishes of your workforce. Here are a few questions to get you started:

  • Does it offer generous daycare benefits when your workforce is much older and would prefer eldercare?
  • Are most of your benefits of greater interest to families when your workforce is young and single?
  • What sorts of educational assistance opportunities are available? Are they tied solely to organizational functional interests or do employees have incentives to follow their personal interests?
  • Are sabbaticals available to retain employees who want to slow down or refresh yet still contribute to the organization?

In short, what do your valued employees really value?

Make Compensation More Strategic

When it comes to compensation and retention, no organization is an island. But how vulnerable are you to poaching from a competitor?

As a rough guide, it takes a lure of a 15 percent increase in base pay before a typical employee will consider bolting from an organization. This, of course, depends on the intensity of competition in your sector, among other factors. It does suggest that organizations generally have a fair amount of wiggle room if compensation is the driving reason for employee attrition.

The most important implication, though, is that organizations must have a good handle on the competitive positioning of their compensation strategy. SMEs are particularly weak in this area. They do not establish salary lines, have little knowledge of internal turnover rates and external market rates, and are dimly aware of how to position themselves. For example, if you choose to pay below prevailing rates in your community or industry, prepare for greater recruitment and training costs and higher turnover. Compensate above the market area and the opposite will occur.

Thinking and acting strategically requires solid data. Does your organization participate in annual remuneration surveys? Does it track supply and demand issues that may affect the market rates?

It was Churchill who said: “However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” So too with compensation strategy: Is your organization happy with its turnover rate or level of engagement? If not, it is time to take a critical look into the pay packet.

Paul Juniper, CHRP, SPHR, is Director of Queen’s University IRC, a management development unit for human resources, organization development, and labour relations professionals. A senior HR leader for a number of organizations, Mr. Juniper has some 30 years of practical experience in the field.

Alan Morantz is a communications consultant with Queen’s IRC.

He’s Seen HR From All Sides

Paul Juniper has seen a lot of change in his 25 years in human resources leadership. We asked him why he likes HR, and where he sees the field – and Queen’s IRC – heading in the coming years.

Given your long experience in senior HR positions and as a very active association volunteer, you strike me as someone who is utterly comfortable in the HR practitioner world. What about this field appeals to you?

I’m a broad generalist, and I like the variety. I started out being a specialist in training – that’s how I got into HR. The company where I worked decided they wanted to merge the training function and what they then called ‘the personnel function.’ They were in different divisions, and they gave me the opportunity to put two areas together.

I like the breadth, the growth, and the changes I’ve seen in the past 25 years in HR have been exciting ones. I’ve never had any reason to leave the field. What’s most appealing to me is the strategic connection with the business – being able to help the business develop, or go in the direction it needs to go, by seeing the systemic connection with HR functions.

For example, if a company has low wages, that has certain implications for turnover. There will likely be high turnover, so you will need to train people and have a lot of orientation, meaning you are going to need more people in that area. So you may save on paying low wages, but you are going to have additional costs in other areas.

It is this ‘knee-bone is connected to the thigh-bone’ part that interests me: understanding how that’s connected, and articulating it to employees and to management.

HR folks are kept up at night by outsourcing, by feeling they are on the outside looking in, by fairly rapid changes to the profession. When all the dust settles, where do you see the people management practitioner sitting within the modern organization? What should be his or her mission?

I think it is right HR people are kept up by outsourcing – though many companies which did it in haste have regretted it at their leisure. If they did it to save money, often in the long run, they didn’t necessarily. The real issue for me with outsourcing is that it’s a low-value function and takes up time. So what’s the better value-add for the HR function? Do we want to spend our time doing admin and clerical information? Or do we want to spend our time adding to the value of the business?

Rapid changes are taking place in the profession, as described in studies from University of Michigan and the Society of Human Resources Management in the United States.*

There’s been lot of change in what’s expected of HR people. It used to be that we were asked to manage change; then we were asked to lead change; now we are being asked to design change. It is good for our profession that these things are happening. We used to be asked to do an employee satisfaction survey; now we are being asked if we can design a culture that fits with the direction the organization wants to go strategically. That’s quite a different set of skills and abilities that are needed to do what management is now asking us to do.

In terms of where people management practitioners should sit within the organization, I think there are opportunities for us to expand beyond our historic place. A lot of HR people are getting additional responsibilities as companies downsize and collapse functions and collapse levels. It is not uncommon for HR departments to manage payroll, where it might have been done by the finance department in the past. And I know of one HR VP who wanted to have control of internal communications because he felt it gave him the opportunity to influence the agenda of the corporation and the employees, and ensure HR got its position out.

It makes good sense to have the ability to influence the communications to employees. It is more than just doing an employee newsletter; it is about positioning the human assets of the organization in order to meet the needs of that organization, whether it is corporate, non-profit, or government.

What should be the mission of today’s HR practitioner?

This is subjective, my opinion only, because if you ask 10 different HR people you will get 10 different answers. There will be those who say we have to advocate for those who cannot advocate for themselves. Others will say it’s our role to make sure that the law is applied, that we have a judicial role; or that we have a fiduciary role around things like ethics, the board of directors’ role and responsibilities.

Then there will be those like me who would say that our role is to help the organization to fulfil its direction in an effective and efficient way; help the employees be all they can be while we are doing that; and hopefully, have some fun along the way. Ultimately, we spend more time at work than we do with our families. We should be able to respect and enjoy the people we work with, learn things from them.

What do you see as IRC’s role in preparing practitioners for future roles?

What’s unique about the IRC, and what I love about it, is the leading – edge work that’s done, the experiential approach to involving practitioners, the linking in with live research, and the connection between both the IR side and the organizational design and organizational effectiveness side.

That is unique, and no one else does it, especially not the way we do it. It gives HR practitioners the opportunity to try and experiment with new things in a safe environment, helps them form an immediate network of people doing the same thing. And as we go forward – watch for more on this later this year – we will develop an alumni group for people who have graduated from our programs, which will strengthen that networking link.

The IRC is a storied and well-established unit, celebrating its 70th anniversary in 2007. In your wildest dreams, how do you see the IRC looking in five years?

I think we will see additional programming in IR at the senior level. We definitely have a pool of people who have completed our programs who are asking us on a regular basis for more programming, so that will happen.

We want to be offering existing programs in more places, giving greater numbers of professionals the opportunity to experience Queen’s IRC programs. And we’re looking at providing more public offerings. A large part of our business has always been providing custom programs on-demand, so we’ll travel across the country when necessary and where necessary.

What the IRC can be is a catalyst in some of the smaller communities for learning communities to start up. So in smaller communities where there may not be a university providing this kind of learning, we can facilitate bringing programs to them.

So what do I think the IRC will look like in five years? We’ll be on the ground in more places, we’ll be more flexible, faster to respond perhaps, and we will have some interesting new programs already released. I think that our programs in Regina are a great example of what I mean.

References

Brockbank, Wayne and Dave Ulrich. 2003. Competencies for the new HR. Washington, DC: University of Michigan Business School, Society for Human Resource Management, and Global Consulting Alliance.

Society for Human Resource Management. 2004. The maturing profession of human resources worldwide. Summary report for Canada. Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resource Management.

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