HR becoming strategic business partner

“A constant learning process” – that is what Tammara Tippel called the human resources (HR) field. Tippel is director of HR at Custom Interface Inc., a custom electronics assembly company with about 75 employees in Bingen.

Tippel, who has 20 years of experience in HR, said that there has been a “huge transition” for the HR role in the last two years – mostly around improving the way HR communicates with the rest of the company.

“HR is ever dynamically changing,” said Elaine Lees, an HR consultant who has worked with Vancouver companies such as New Edge Networks and the Audigy Group. “We have to be attached at the hip with the strategies of the business.”

Jessica Wardell, principal at Camas-based Strategic HR Consulting LLC agreed that companies need HR as a strategic partner.

“If that’s not the mindset,” said Wardell, “you lose the opportunity to align your workforce with the company goals.”

As an example, Wardell explained, the marketing director of a company couldn’t execute a successful campaign if the only thing he or she knew was how many brochures to print – a thorough knowledge of the company, its product and its customers is required. Similarly, the HR director needs to know more than how many seats to fill.

Quoting well-known HR researcher and author Dave Ulrich, Wardell said HR has four roles to fulfill – only the first of which is stereotypically thought of as “HR”:

  • Administrative expert – managing the firm’s HR infrastructure
  • Strategic partner – taking an active role in aligning HR and business strategy
  • Change agent – managing transformation and change
  • Employee champion – creating a motivated and competent workforce

Wardell admitted that the “comfort zone” for HR is administration, and that it can be challenging to start conversations that support the other roles. For example, an HR person might have to ask the finance department for more information on budgeting or strategic planning.

Also, she said that when she attends monthly meetings of the Southwest Washington Human Resource Management Association (SWHRMA), she sees some members “roll their eyes” when people talk about HR becoming a strategic partner, essentially saying “yeah, right – try to pull that off at MY company…”

The reason for this reaction, said Wardell, is that HR is often pigeon-holed in a company’s philosophy and culture.

“It will take a lot of transformational thinking to get it accomplished. We have to identify culture, build value and build cross-functional partnerships,” Wardell said.

The key to achieving this, said Tippel, is to be proactive.

“Don’t worry about being the ‘dummy in the room,’” said Tippel. “Take the initiative to start educating yourself.”

She suggested approaching other departments with the statement, “I’d be more useful to the company if I understood…” When other managers and executives see that HR is asking the right questions, said Tippel, they will begin to serve as mentors and provide key knowledge that HR needs. Also, said Wardell, this approach helps other managers understand that HR is not playing “big brother,” but instead is playing a supportive role.

When HR becomes a strategic partner, said Wardell, the benefits to the company are significant, both in terms of cost efficiency and company performance.

“You have a whole new knowledge set that will help you identify effective staffing strategies,” said Wardell, “and there’s a huge long-term benefit for the company to retain human capital. These people remember stories, create a motivational culture, don’t need to be led, are more productive and encourage other employees to stay longer as well.”

To achieve these benefits, HR professionals need to build relationship with key players in the organization. Wardell stressed that these players include new employees all the way up to the C-suite.

“You need to know names, individual skill levels, trends in the workforce and whether performance management is working,” said Wardell.

This is a big change, said Lees, from when HR was called “personnel” back in the 1980s.

“Back then,” Lees said, “the department was typically staffed by the ex-secretary of the CEO and party planning was a big part of the job.” 

Today, she continued, HR works on significant issues that impact the business in big ways.

“The next generation of HR professionals needs to be business savvy as well as compliance/legal savvy.”

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