How to Be Strategic in HR (Part 1)

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The role of HR is constantly evolving and changing. Its roots are firmly planted in administrative duties, but the industry looks vastly different today than it has in the past. One of the most obvious ways that it has changed is that in many organizations, it is shifting from administrative HR to strategic HR. Wherever your company is in making this transition, both strategic HR and administrative HR have winning qualities. When you think back to what HR began as and where its roots lie, administrative HR is an enormous part of the history of compliance, employment law and administrative duties. However, there may have been more strategic HR at play even in the beginning than what first comes to mind. For that reason, you may have a difficult time answering the question of how strategic or administrative your HR department is.

In reality, most organizations are complicated. They may focus on compliance and administrative duties, but they’re probably also looking at talent management, succession planning and achieving business objectives. It would be easy to say that strategic HR is more important or more valuable than administrative HR, but that’s short-sighted. Both focuses have their place and are vital to an organization’s success.

Laying the foundation with Administrative HR

For every new-school HR professional saying that it’s all about the strategic focus, I could show you a reason why it can’t be. Administrative HR is the foundation of all good HR departments, and you don’t build a beautiful new home on a cracked and damaged foundation. Imagine a company that struggles with administrative HR suddenly dedicating half their time to strategic HR – both would suffer and neither effort would go very far in the organization. When you put strategic HR in the mix without a solid administrative HR base, it’s like daydreaming before your real work is finished.

One of my favorite charts I use to explain the differences between strategic and administrative HR is Paul Kearns HR ROI Scale which is displayed below. Administrative HR is important in any business including things like employee files, compliance and the housing and processing of HR-related documents including new hire paperwork, promotions, pay increases and terminations. Kearns’ chart demonstrates the importance of administrative HR as the minimum and most critical part of the human resources function without it, you can’t build upon human resources and let it grow with the larger business.

Talent as a focus and catalyst for companies

For companies who are ready to take the strategic HR plunge or are already putting it to work in their business, it can be difficult to even know where to start. The Conference Board released a study of global CEOs that identified human capital strategies as one of the top five global challenges CEOs are concerned about in 2015. Within this area were five strategies that any HR department would be well served to put in place:

Improve performance management processes and accountability

Provide employee training and development

Enhance effectiveness of the senior management team

Raise employee engagement

Improve leadership development programs

For myself, I think the Conference Board study missed the mark a bit. HR isn’t just about performance management, employee training and engagement but about staying ahead of the trends and information when it comes to its people. And that means truly strategic HR should be focused on data, its interpretation and the ways in which we can stay an employer of choice for the best talent for our organization. That’s why I’m adding a sixth bullet of my own to support the Conference Board list.

Gather and interpret data to expand, evolve and support business programs focused on people

HR strategy starts and ends with talent management, so make sure this is a significant part of your plan. The challenge is determining how your HR organization is built and what key HR positions and job titles should it include. And for many progressive organizations, it might mean leveraging a data scientist to help make sense of all the reports, information and data that strategic HR truly has access to. 

A focus on technology

As HR becomes more strategic to meet the increasingly complicated need for talent, so does our technology. HR technologies help elevate both strategic and administrative HR duties, providing us with valuable insights, information, data and improved processes. Technology also increases efficiencies and enhances the experience for candidates, employees and executives alike. If strategic HR is becoming an important part of your business, HR technology has to be as well.

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Jessica Miller-Merrell

Learn more about Jessica Miller-Merrell, SPHR, SHRM-SCP, the founder of Workology, a workplace HR resource, and the host of the Workology Podcast. More of her blogs can be found here.


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