I know what I want & I know how to get it?

A common cry among HR people is that they are ignored or dismissed within their business. It’s something that in my 30 years in HR has never gone away, and forms a staple of many an HR conference. The “how do we get a seat at the table” discussion has outlasted almost every topic or fad that the profession has debated.

For me, one of the problems is that, while HR people moan to each other about not being taken ‘seriously’, we rarely ask our colleagues, who are after all our customers, what it is they want. But, after 18 years, working with a wide variety of organisations in widely diverging industries and sectors, I’ve come to the conclusion that what most want from HR is

·         To keep them legal – that means having a good knowledge of Employment Law and related regulation.

·         An understanding the business and its objectives, and the ability to devise solutions to problems that achieve this.

·         Good professional skills that no-one else in the business can provide – whether this is recruitment, employee development, handling a complex union negotiation, or an individual issue.

·         Someone who will remind them that they are dealing with other people. It’s very easy for managers to become focused on the task and forget that other human beings are involved. Pointing out the human consequences of a business decision isn’t being a “bleeding heart” – it allows better long-term decision making and planning.

·         Looking at ways things can be done, not reasons why they can’t

·         Someone who brings in expertise and knowledge from outside that can ‘add value’ to the business they are working for.

Now, I’ve never conducted a formal survey among the 125+ organisations I’ve worked with, and this view is purely based on my perceptions. So I’d welcome comments from businesses – and other HR people. Perhaps if we better understood what business wants, we might finally know how to earn the mythical seat at the table.

One Way or Another

I went to see Blondie this week, and about 3 songs in Debbie Harry said the words that send a chill through most concert-goers’ hearts: “We’ve got a new album out, and we’re going to do some songs from it”. It’s not surprising that after 35 years the band don’t just want to play “Atomic” and “Heart of Glass” all the time, but that’s what the audience want. It set me thinking that it demonstrates one of the fundamental work dilemmas – as managers we want our employees to be creative, innovative and adaptable, yet in many cases our customers are quite happy with the existing product and don’t want change.

So what’s the solution? It seems to me that there are three approaches

Firstly, there is the Scott Walker approach. He famously walked away from being one of the biggest stars of the 60s and now produces music that satisfies him creatively but which provokes some extreme reactions. Essentially it’s about abandoning the mass market and instead do something where the employees are fully satisfied. Lots of customers may be lost but those that remain are loyal and “buy into” the exclusivity.

Secondly, there is the Dexys Midnight Runners approach. They still perform their old songs but in a different style to their heyday (here’s their biggest hit) and market carefully (their last tour was billed very explicitly and repeatedly as “performing their new album, followed by some old hits”). This is a much more evolutionary approach – it keeps the employees creatively satisfied but also keeps the customers happy.

Finally, there’s the Squeeze approach. This is to reform periodically to play the Greatest Hits, and then with the income generated the two main songwriters are able to develop their own music (often separately). In this case, it’s about protecting the core brand while diversifying into (hopefully profitable) other markets.

What it all means of course is that the way that we run and manage the people in our organisations depends very much on what our business strategy is. From an HR perspective, it shows why it’s essential that we know and understand business objectives while from the management side it demonstrates why involving your staff is integral to business success.

Oh, and the new Blondie songs? They’re ok, but I wish they’d played “Sunday Girl