To Usher in the Age of HR, We Need to Start By Tearing It Apart

By Ron Mester

We are at the dawn of the Age of Talent. But will this also be the Age of HR?

I believe the answer can and 
should be yes. Organizations, workers, and even the broader economy will be better off if the answer is yes. But, it’s an open question.

The power to make the answer “yes” lies with HR leaders—but exercising that power will be very difficult and likely very painful as well. It will require challenging and uprooting some of the longest-held assumptions about the human resource function, including assumptions about the focus on employees, the definition of “HR expertise,” HR’s status as a “support function,” and the very competencies it takes to be an effective human resource professional.

 In short, making this the Age of HR requires that HR leaders do nothing less than rearrange the HR function’s DNA—and quickly. It’s the ultimate version of HR transformation, well beyond reengineering HR processes or creating centers of excellence.

If this seems a little overdramatic, consider this: Our business environment is radically changing. The way people work is radically changing. And, as many others have pointed out (and something I won’t belabor), we’re in the Age of Talent, where people’s impact on organizations is at unprecedented levels.

"Making this the Age of HR requires that HR leaders do nothing less than rearrange the HR function’s DNA—and quickly"

These radical changes are fundamentally altering the relationships between work activities, people, and organizations. Given this, it’s nearly impossible to imagine that HR can be effective, much less bring about the Age of HR, under the same basic assumptions and DNA largely formed more than 50 years ago.

The radically changing business environment

The context in which all of us do business is undergoing massive change. We all know this. But I’d like to highlight a few examples (not an exhaustive list) that have big implications for the relationship between work activities, people, and organizations.

  • From stability to volatility. We used to talk about five- and 10-year business plans, but rarely do anymore. That’s because almost every element of the business world has shifted from largely stable to consistently volatile. New competitors rise and fall in months, sometimes weeks. New products are released and promoted or killed in quick bursts. Customer spending and needs are harder than ever to forecast. All of this means that predicting the work that will need to be done next quarter (much less next year), and the type of talent needed to do it, is impossible—or at least increasingly complex. It’s not surprising that we’re seeing a shift from organizing work around “jobs” to “projects.”
  • From confidentiality to transparency. It’s becoming easier to learn just about anything about organizations and individuals, even (or perhaps especially!) about information that used to be considered “private” or “confidential.” Not only is technology creating and forcing transparency, but being transparent is increasingly viewed as a desirable characteristic. This means companies can learn almost anything they want about workers, and vice versa. And workers can also learn much about their fellow workers. As formerly private and confidential information becomes readily available, this new knowledge will change relationships between people and organizations, and workers and their colleagues. 
  • From standardization to mass customization. Just as the Industrial Revolution brought us standardization to drive down costs and make more products accessible to more people, our current technology revolution is bringing us mass customization. More now than even five or 10 years ago, consumers expect websites, products, and services to be tailored to their specific and individual wants and needs. It’s also reasonable to assume that we’ll see this expectation carry over to the world of work, meaning that people will increasingly expect their work to be tailored to their personal wants and needs. These new expectations could impact every aspect of work—hours, schedule, job location, pay, benefits, reporting relationships, professional development, tenure, title, work assignments, etc.

The radical changes in how people work

Of course, our work environments are also changing radically. Again, I’d like to share few examples that are fundamentally altering the relationship between work activities, people, and organizations. You can undoubtedly think of many more.

To continue reading this article, see page 399 in Rise of HR

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