HR strategy: Control + Alt + HR function ?

snale - HR Strategy

HR strategy, the discussion.

I’ve been in HR now for more than 15 years. In all these years the “strategic” role of HR has not been out of the debate.
Through the years I’ve noticed that this strategic role is complex and intangible. I will not try to define and describe the word strategic in this blog. You could check other literature for that. I am looking for what defines the strategic role. And I would like to answer the question how HR could become more strategic in the future.  I am aware it’s not perceived as strategic today.

The management team

There’s a perception that being a part of the management team is the most important indicator for the strategic nature of an HR manager. Only when you’re on the team, you are strategic.
But this is nothing more than a perception. I’ve known HR managers who are member of that team but who were not strategic at all and vice versa. So it’s not that. So it’s not team membership. Could the strategic role depend on the person?

The person

If an HR manager is not perceived as being strategic, surely it’s due to his or her own behaviour. There is one key question. Does the HR Manager have enough power to influence the strategic decision-making ?
Being able to influence is always an advantage. Sometimes it might be necessary. But it’s absurd to limit the strategic power of the HR function to the personal impact of the HR Manager.
So it’s not team membership or the HR Manager’s behaviour. What then is the determining factor for  HR to become strategic?

The functions and roles

Dave Ulrich has introduced one of the most influential models in HR. He clearly described 4 roles for HR. HR was to become next to the administrative expert also a champion for the employees, a change agent, and a strategic partner.

The 4 HR roles, inclusive the HR strategy role.
Dave Ulrich’s model of HR

This offered a framework that helped HR departments to develop into what they are  now. Various people fulfill the different roles within the department. Those people need to collaborate with one another and with the internal client.
The focus on the internal client cleared the way for the HR business partner. This is a generalist who functions as a single point of contact for the internal clients. This function also integrates a change driving and strategic dimension.
So here we were and are.
HR finally became a full function, covering the four roles. And the people in  HR departments started integrating the strategic dimension in their roles. The strategic HR role was born.
Was it ?
If all of this were true, why hasn’t the discussion about the strategic role of HR not stopped? Why have certain HR functions dramatically felt the crisis? Why have they been hit by serious cost cutting? Why was HR unable to turn the continuous “noise” about its HR strategy into satisfaction ?
Could it be that we have forgotten the people?

The people

Employees and their managers do not benefit a lot from the fact that the HR function is strategically positioned. That’s because there’s a long way between the definition of a strategy and the experience in the field.
Suppose your manager:

  • is a member of the management team.
  • supports and communicates the HR decisions to the own department.
  • is actively participating in the HR decision-making process.
  • has the active support of an HR business partner.

Then chances are that

  • the implementation of the HR strategy will go ahead smoothly
  • you will effectively feel “something” of what the HR strategy is all about.

But even then. Interpretations, convictions, emotions and misunderstandings about roles and responsibilities between the business and HR could spoil the party.
Should we conclude that an HR department can be as strategic as it wants, but that at the end of the day it’s the people who mess up ?
Absolutely not.
If people perceive the collaboration between HR and their department negatively, there is a problem. People do not experience the  HR strategy as intended. In that case HR has seriously messed up.
HR and the company face a huge challenge here. An HR strategy can only be successful if there’s a good collaboration between HR and the line managers. And I’d take it a step further. The line manager should become the real owner and executor of the HR strategy in his/her department. The HR business partner can give support and not drive the HR agenda. It’s about coaching business people towards HR (strategic) decisions. The HRBP should not take this decision him/herself.

The people processes

So the line manager is responsible for HR. And the HR business partner has a supporting and coaching role. We cannot expect our line manager to set up a “mini HR team”. That would not work. That would only lead to ineffective fragmentation of the HR function.
But line managers manage a lot of processes. So they can also manage HR-processes if they’re supported by experts and coaches. Some examples are:

  • Recruitment
  • Performance management
  • Outflow of weak performers
  • People Development
  • Team building

Let me introduce a new process the business could perfectly drive: the HR strategy process.

Control + Alt + HR function

HR Strategy is about the continuous improvement of people processes. It’s driven by the business. HR is no longer a function. It’s a process, driven by the business.
How do we have to understand these processes?
Some examples. Improvement of:

  • Hiring. How and where to attract our future talents ? Business people  know the market better than HR people.
  • Talent acquisition and development processes. Which competencies will we need within 5 to 10 years? Business people  know the future needs of the customers better than HR people.
  • Industrial relations. How can we convince the unions better than by telling them how the business is working ?
  • Internal communication. How can we integrate social media in the existing employee communication platforms?
  • Retention. How can we use the output of exit interviews more appropriately?
  • Team building and collaboration. How can we better deal with conflicts in our teams?
  • Leadership development. How will our own leadership have to evolve if we want to stay successful ?

Imagine managers becoming responsible for driving and managing these people processes. They are not only responsible for driving existing people processes but also for co-creating new ones. Of course, they are supported by colleagues and HR.
Screen Shot 2014-06-07 at 20.13.24
I think these managers will be much more willing and able to:

  • see the HR strategy as their HR strategy
  • make it much more concrete for their people.
  • transform employee’s negative perceptions about HR into transparent understanding of it.

That is the real meaning of strategic HR.
Read also:

The 5 future roles of HR


HR is under pressure. Most HR-managers feel this. Budgets are cut and processes are criticized. HR needs to reinvent itself. It needs to find ways to shape its own future. In the past we have lamented about the lack of strategic “weight” within the company. I have worked for 2 decades in HR and I was always puzzled by this. Lamentation is never the right option. We need to do things. And we can only gain influence by doing well the things we are doing. But were we any good? Let’s face some brutal facts.

  • According to a Gallup Survey, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged. They are outnumbered by the actively disengaged employees.
  • 20% of workers in Europe report a poor mental well-being (5th European Working Conditions Survey). In Belgium half of the employees experience a too high mental workload (Securex Whitepaper) –
  • The ILO world of work 2013 survey reports a degradation of job quality between 2007-2011. The change of Job quality is determined by the change in the percentage of temporary employees, the change in social benefits expenditure as share of total public expenditure and the growth in the average hourly wages between 2007 and 2011 were used.
  • Long-term absenteeism is on the rise according to a Securex Research and the increase of long-term absenteeism is accelerating.
  • Research on Karaseks Job quality model, consistently report low figures.

And I could go on. Of course, HR professionals should not take the blame. But still, these facts have to make us think about our own profession.

Wasted time

And the question is how we can do better. This situation has been predicted 4 decades ago by Alvin Toffler in his monumental book “Futureshock“. We are now where he predicted us we would be. McGregor has defined in the 60ies human-centric style of leadership and organisation in “the Human Side of Enterprise” and Shumacher pleaded for economics as if people mattered in his book “Small is Beautiful“. These and other books from the past, have predicted our present and future state.
It seems we have been wasting 4 decades to find ourselves in a difficult situation. So it’s time to act. If people in HR really want, they can shape their own future.

The Future

Thinking about the future of how employers will manage the employees should make us humble. Indeed we know the past and the present, but are ignorant about the future. There are two answers to the question about that future. We can think about the future content: what will be the tasks? And we can think about the process: what will be our role?
The first question is in my opinion not the most important one. To answer it you can review many surveus that have asked the question. A research by Boston Consulting Group revealed 6 tasks for the future:

  • Managing Talent: assessing quantitative and qualitative needs for talent, managing the talent pipe-line.
  • Managing Demographics: managing the loss of capacity and knowledge, managing the ageing workforce
  • Becoming a learning organisation: choosing a learning strategy, boosting the number of on-the-job development programs, measuring the return on investment.
  • Managing work-life balance: determining what people need, building programs that afford flexible working hours, enhancing corporate social responsibility
  • Managing Change and cultural transformation: determining and shaping desired behaviours, ensuring top-management support.
  • Getting the fundamentals right: mastering people processes, delivering on recruiting and staffing, transforming HR into a strategic partner.

The second question is much more interesting and challenges us more. What role can HR play in organisations? I see 5 determining roles for HR in the future.

Role 1: The Architect

HR no longer owns the people processes. Instead, HR becomes a facilitator or even an architect. By creating the right context in which people can be successful, HR will deliver its greatest contribution. In that sense HR is working on culture, organisation, processes and environment. The processes are not HR’s, they belong to the company. Let’s also not ignore the CEO’s increasing interest in people, leadership and culture. The CEO (or the board) is the owner of people processes. HR takes on the role of architect. HR will create organisations in which leadership, cooperation, innovation, entrepreneurship, … can develop.

Role 2: The Artisanal and Digital Expert

But to be able to take on the role of architect, HR needs know-how. In the recent past HR became a generalist, but in future we will become experts, or craftsmen. Instead of being a generalist, HR will offer top-notch expertise about the people side of the company. Apart from the more traditional, artisanal know-how, HR will have to master the digital know-how: Social Media, HRIS, Employee Self Service, … HR will need to incorporate knowledge and practices from other disciplines into its own discipline: marketing, finance, service management, … Learning from others is a great opportunity for HR.

Role 3: The Coach

But HR should be aware of reification of people. In the quest for a spot at the board table we might have lost the contact to people. HR needs to be(come) more empathic. Empathy means to listen, try to understand and act upon that understanding. And why should HR not introduce kindness, compassion and humanity into the corporate DNA? It’s like we need to rediscover the human being behind the employee ID again. This is not an appeal for meaningless softness. Business needs to be human in order to help people to be successful. HR becomes a coach of the organisation, its management and its employees. In the future it will be the employee that will determine and evaluate a company’s people strategy. Coaching is a way of individualization of the people strategy.

Role 4: The Data-Strategist

Like any other discipline, HR is oriented towards results. HR will work on becoming evidence-based. That entails not only looking for data to assess HR interventions, but also planning interventions based on available scientific insights. There is not much big data in HR today. However, by analyzing the data we have, we might be able to shape the future of our profession.

Role 5: The advocate

HR leaves the backbench and becomes an advocate of the importance of people processes and results. The people strategy is a part of the company strategy. HR people are gaining influence through their know-how, there fact-based approach and their proactive contribution to the business results. Any business decision has an impact on people and any business strategy depends on the quality of the people who execute it.


If HR is able to design organisations, based on its profound knowledge of human behaviour, with the necessary coaching presence it has a bright future. We need to take on 5 roles, all at once. When I presented this to a group of HR professionals, it was clear that the role of coach and expert were seen as the most important and developed roles. This is good starting point for any profession. But HR can expand its influence by trying to look for evidence. And this evidence can be used to build an HR strategy through which HR can become the advocate and the architect of the people side of business. When we can do this, there will be no lamentation needed.
Future roles of HR

Related Blogs

This blog post is based on a presentation I have done for the Antwerp Management School. The Slides (in Dutch) are available here:

The "h" in HR stands for humble

In the two decades that I have been working in HR, I have heard HR professionals regret the limited influence HR has. They often lament the absence of an HR-seat at the board table or the lack of advocacy. I have never understood this lamentation. For me HR is not a function and it’s not a matter of holding a position at a certain level. HR is a process, not a function. In principle you do not need a separate HR-function to make sure that the management of people within companies is well done.
Many people do realise that it’s the human factor that makes the difference between excellence and mediocrity, success and failure. But a company does not need a savvy HR director to put this point on the agenda of the company. In smaller companies there is no HR-function and the task is done by the owner of the company. Of course this is not a guarantee for success, just as much as having an HR-function within a company does not automatically leads to success.
It all depends on the vision of a company about the role of their people and the way this vision is implemented in day-to-day practices within a company. The link between HR and the corporate strategy is made through the creation of a leadership brand. The title of this blog could suggest that I underestimate the value of HR. I don’t think so. HR plays a fundamental role in the success of a company. The focus of HR should not be HR in itself, but rather the success of employees, managers and of the company as a whole. The success of HR is the success of the company and vice versa. Humility in combination with this focus on success is key.
* someone asked if having humble resources is a good thing. Of course I refer to the people holding an HR-function being humble.

Internal Communication: its changing strategic Role

Internal communication as a function has been looking for its place within a company for years. Traditionally it has been seen as an extension of external communication. And sometimes it was reporting directly into the CEO. There are good arguments for both positions. It is indeed important that external and internal communication are aligned. The golden rule is not to tell outside what is not understood inside. On the other hand, internal communication can also function as the ‘spokes person’ towards employees.
The importance of internal communication is changing. This requires companies to rethink its role and therefore also its position within a company. But I must admit that the decision where to put a ‘department’ is the last and least important decision. More important is that the role and objectives are clear and well accepted within the company.

What is changing ?

First of all the broadcasting approach to internal communications is rapidly becoming obsolete. The broadcasting approach is basically a one-to-many approach to communication, just like the radio or a newspaper. The content is pushed from a single point to many readers and listeners. This approach is not very interactive and there is a central point of decision about what is communicated to whom. The broadcasting approach might be useful in some occasions to inform people about certain events, but in itself it’s not sufficient. Broadcasting creates bottlenecks and is not very flexible.
Secondly the audience is changing. In a world that becomes interactive, opinionated, fragmented and beautified, audiences do not longer take information for granted. People do not trust the corporate version of the Pravda. Audiences produce their own information, have their own opinion and want to voice it. Internal communication becomes a conversation. Where the broadcasting approach is mainly one-directional, the conversational approach allows for multi-directional (top-down, bottom-up, lateral, many-to-many….) exchange.
Thirdly, technology allows for easier access to data and information and facilitates interactions. The technological distance between employees is almost naught. What is left, is power distance that is also rapidly decreasing. Communication is synchronous and multidirectional and people can react immediately through their mobile devices. In all this violence we should not forget that face-to-face interaction remains powerful. So internal communication needs to balance all the media at its disposal, not forgetting line managers as one of the main channels for inspirational conversations.
Next, the objective of internal communication is changing. The target of internal communication is no longer to disseminate information or to make sure that people know the values of the company by heart. Internal communication should focus on creating a community of engaged people. That means that it must create a set of experiences that confirm the decision made by people to join a company and remain there. People know what’s at stake and are engaged to contribute. They have a strong feeling of belonging to a culture that enables them to be competent and have personal successes. Internal communication is a leverage for cultural development.

HR and internal communication

Employee engagement is one of the most decisive factors in the success of a company. Companies are recognizing the role of internal communication in the engagement process. So if the objective of Internal Communication is to create that engaged community – and you might not agree with it – than it becomes a strategic process. Another conclusion is that we should strive for a closer alignment between the process of internal communication and people management. So HR and internal communication need to integrate more. Technically it’s in the field of employer branding that both come together. The employer brand holds a promise towards future candidates, but also towards current employees.

Territorialism or realism ?

One might accuse me of territorialism or expansionism. However, I am a true believer that HR is not a function, but more a process that is depending on the alignment of all leaders within a company (cfr blog on this topic). The same goes for Internal Communication. Both professions (if I may call them that) have people as focal point. Both processes need to work through the leadership functions to be effective.
I have witnessed internal communication in many places within the company : as a part of marketing, as a part of external communication, depending from the CEO, integrated with HR, … But based on my experience I am convinced that the integration with HR is the best decision. Realism, not territorialism.
see also
The Conversation Company from steven van belleghem

Put the H back into HR – the case for personalized HR

HRM should enable people to be successful, whatever that success may be. But to to that we need to evolve towards  “personalized” HR. Personalization stands for adapting certain practices to personal needs and strengths of employees.  I am not talking about ideosyncratic deals about salary but rather on finding ways that help people to have personal success in their careers, their lives, … depending on their own priorities. Personalization means that there is no judgment whatsoever about the goals one should be pursuing. There are no normative expectations about how to fulfill one’s life even though HR might still be inclined to call upon people to “unleash their full potential” and make it available to the company and to society. This missionary man approach is counterproductive because it starts from an external and normative point of view. HR should start at the individual level.
What sort of HR is “personalized HR”? Shall companies have to give in on every wish and desire an individual employee has? Is it the end of collective bargaining? Shall there be no regulations at all? What is the future of an HR that no longer focuses on compliance and control but rather on enabling people to lead their lives and structure their careers in a way that they see fit?


A personalized way of doing HR is in the first place an empathic HR. There are three aspects to empathy. First, it means that you can understand the motives, feelings and desires of another person. Second, it means that you can show that you understand and act upon that understanding.
Imagine that your employee enters the room and you already know what he’s going to ask. More, you’ve prepared your answer and you are able to come up with a solution that is exactly what the employee wants. He did not even have to ask the question and he leaves the conversation with an answer. This is not about telepathy; it’s about knowing what drives your employees, what they need. Imagine an employee that has a loved one that is ill and needs special care. If that is the priority of the day, you should enable him or her to do just that. There are laws in many European countries that allow people to take leave of absence for care taking purposes, but you should not allow someone to take leave of absence because of a law. Imagine that your answer would be “I understand your problem, but anayway, I cannot stop you from taking leave of absence because there is the law”. Or that you’d say : “I’m sorry, but your demand comes at a bad time. I’d rather you’d finish your work”. You would have ruined the day, you would have ruined the relationship. Instead, if you would answer “I’m sorry to hear it and I feel for you. If there’s anything we can do to help you, just say it” you might have given an answer that creates connection.


Now is that so special? Isn’t that the decent thing to say? Yes it is. It is mere kindness. A personalised way of HR is a humane HR. It puts the “H” back into the equation. Is this a new form of paternalism? I don’t think so. Philips and Taylor (2009) have stated in their essay “on kindness” that over the past centuries, human kindness has been banned from society (and also from business) and has been reserved as a feminine trait that is reserved to the mother-child relation. In a masculine and competitive  world kindness did not have its place. Nevertheless, as a person you can feel your impact when you are kind to someone else. It shows that you can make a difference and it even makes you feel good. But you can only be kind if you have empathy.


Personalized HR is not only humane and empathic. It’s also reciprocal. It would be paternalistic to think you know what’s best for the other. You simply don’t. Even if you think the person is taking the wrong decision, you should not judge. Of course you can offer advice or you can create conditions for someone to take the best decision possible, but you cannot decide. And therefore a personalized HR is a mature HR, built on partnership and trust. The reciprocity is also about the contribution you expect from other people. People are working in your company to contribute, perform. That is an essential part of personalized HR.


Help! HR is growing soft? Talking about kindness is not something you do a lot in a business context. So are we losing our business acumen ? Have we gone totally soft? Are we as hrchitects condemned to the periphery if we talk about kindness instead of about costs, process efficiency, KPIs ?
First, it’s not because you base your actions upon your empathic understanding of an individual employee’s situation that you will do literally anything without limits for that person. Second, maturity of the relation means that there is balance and equality. And that balance is constructed around the idea of contribution. Equality means that the contribution of all has the same intrinsic value, everyone plays his or her part. You will provide personalized solutions as long as there is a return, not in order to have a return. Third, even if you are looking for personalized answers, you will do this in a collective context. Because apart from empathy, humanity and reciprocity, there is a fourth more collective element that is still missing. And that element is justice.


Following Rawls’s (1990) Theory of Justice, you can define justice as fairness. Being fair is the cornerstone of a personalized HR. You will not adapt your system of justice to a personal grievance or preference. It’s justice that makes sure that the personalization of HR does not lead to centrifugal forces. If people feel that they are treated fairly, even when treated differently, then people will understand and accept. Why? Because justice reassures, creates predictability (procedural justice) and creates trust.
Justice in itself is value-based. And by providing values you give people guidelines for behavior. It’s not the law that makes you behave, it’s the values behind the laws that are important. So the values express a collective understanding on how someone should behave and what is expected as contribution. And those values are the basis of any culture and any system of justice. And finally, justice is one of the preconditions for engagement.


So there are 4 criteria for a personalized HR : empathy, reciprocity, humanity and justice. If we can integrate these elements in our “H ” approach we can create a company where people really come first. People will feel treated as a person and they will be convinced that they can realize their “mission” within your company.
Would love to hear other ideas on this.
See also these blogs
I-Deals: you deal for I-deals
I-deals a risky deal ?
On Kindness

Performance Management revisited

One could say that a performance management system covers all practices a company develops to steer the performance of its employees. Traditionally this covered the process of setting objectives, monitoring performance, evaluating achievement. HR departments typically design comprehensive processes, supported by IT-tools, that support the execution and administration of all required conversations. I plead guilty to having been there and having done that.
But more and more I realize something is lacking. Engaged people do not need this to perform well. They see it as a hassle, a sorry investment of their precious time. They argue that should they focus on their objectives alone, they wouldn’t feel they were doing the right thing. Sometimes they are insulted by the inflexibility that this process is showing. Putting everyone through this process seems to have a negative impact on the very objective of such a system: enhancing engagement and performance through focus and motivation.
One might argue that even when the 20-30% of employees that are engaged do not need it, it is valid for the rest of the employees who rely on the system. But is it so that people that are less engaged or extrinsically motivated become all of a sudden more (intrinsically) motivated? I don’t think so.

What’s the problem?

We need to acknowledge the educational impact any system has. It’s incredible how fast people adapt their behavior to a system even when this means to perform sub-optimally. We all know stories about people fabricating results just to comply to whatever objective that has been formulated. Do you remember the last time that you have worked long hours in December just to be able to show your manager that you have done the job within the year? And what about the efforts that are put in finding smart objectives for people that have a more qualitative job?
Add the link to pay systems and you will be confronted with the ever so strong impact of greed, which has led to very peculiar behavior in companies like Enron, Worldcom, Parmalat, Lernout & Hauspie, Leeman Brothers, Fortis, … They probably had state-of-the-art systems in place that steered the performance of people in a certain direction. Look where this has brought them (and us). Maybe we should think about this and stop for a minute. The behavior that I have described was not intended by any Performance Management System, yet it is recognizable.
How to avoid those adverse effects?
First, The most important part of Performance is usually neglected by the architects that design a Performance Management System: the context. As long as we keep building systems that focus on the management of performance instead of on the inspirational aspect of the context of work, we will always have this.
Second, we need to acknowledge that the driver of performance is not a system, but (inner) motivation. If employees feel that their work is valuable, they will be willing to do it. Let me give an example. Has it ever crossed your mind why on earth we are paying e.g. a social media expert more than a primary school teacher ? Why are we paying people who do such an important job salaries that are lower than we pay people who have less impact on the lives of others? And why do people keep on choosing for those jobs? The answer is simple, because they see their jobs as meaningful, intrinsically rewarding. So we need to start from there and any Performance Management System needs to reinforce the autonomous motivation people have.
Third, we have to accept that people do not come to work only to perform. They come to work to earn a living, to have meaningful relationships, to develop themselves, to grow, to make a difference, … in any combination. They join your company because they think it can provide all that. And if you are able to provide all that, they are willing to contribute. So Performance Management should integrate those elements.
Fourth, and this one is tricky. Not all relevant targets are smart and easily translated in an objective that fits in to a Performance Management System. We need to keep room for qualitative objectives. The core question is how something I do contributes to the overall result of the company.
Create the context

So a Performance Management System is more than a process. It’s about creating a context in which people can perform, thrive, and be successful. It’s about creating an environment that fosters people’s motivation. If you can create this context, you can easily reduce the Performance Management System to setting collective meaningful targets and leading people towards that target. People will be engaged if they have a context that leverages them.
Do we need the traditional Performance Management System? There are many peripheral reasons to have one. One of them is to reduce the administrative burden by implementing a kind of self-service process. Another one is that a process like that guarantees that everyone is included. Another one is that the Performance Management System introduces objectivity. To me the most central part of a Performance Management System is its integration with the business strategy. All of these reasons are valid, but very few performance management systems have provided that.
Final advice: Have a meaningful and appealing plan with objectives that are SMART : simple, meaningful, attractive, relevant and teasing supported by a lean process in a rich context. You’ll have a ball.

Performance Management