Press 3 if you are still waiting for a straight answer….

In the future of HR a robotic Celine Dion will answer questions on the working time regulations.

In the future of HR a robotic Celine Dion will answer questions on the working time regulations.

It sounds like the start of a bad xmas cracker joke – what do you get when you combine our nations’ ongoing inability to deliver decent customer service and the eternal organisational whipping girls of Human Resources ?

But not everybody is laughing. Since 1995 and the invention of the three legged stool of big modern corporate HR that Ulrich gave us, it can be argued that there has been a succession of business-speak presented to the good people of HR about the nature of reinventing the internal function. Given the overwhelmingly insular perspective of many of these HR folk, it’s been a roaring success too. I’m not talking about the brash business partnering types or even the ivory tower dwelling HR expertise types but the poor folk earmarked for the world inhabited by R2D2 programmed and scripted responses to the legacy, yet mundane, world of old Personnel. I’m talking about shared services, where the savings for the HRD will be made and transactional, repeatable, script based worlds will dominate.

What do you mean you didn’t get the memo ?

If you’re currently on the journey then reignite your inner curiosity, follow the money and watch out for the following underlying meanings to modern HR change speak :

Number 1After a long period of not doing so, we are investing in HR to the tune of tens of millions – means “Our old HR computer, having been endlessly tinkered with down the years and which has all the functionality of an old typewriter and the user experience of an etch a sketch has finally fallen over and passed it’s shelflife. If we don’t replace it soon we don’t have even a basic understanding of our workforce. Nowadays, we also get a free Applicant Tracking System thrown in with it if it comes from the exact same stable as the HRIS owner. Now don’t say we don’t invest in HR”.

Number 2 – Our end game is to provide a truly differentiated HR offering for our business – “We are currently clinically obese in size and must reduce by a half. I, as your Global Head of HR, sitting in a mahogony filled office in a European city have no idea what 85% of you actually do but finance has called me out and I’ve got to deliver swingeing cuts. I hope the business appreciate it but I guess they’ll continue to keep giving the sexy transformational bits to the non-HR bits of the business.”

And finally, number 3 – This service-y bit of the HR model is definitely not a call centre. No way. No siree bob –  means “Not quite now but soon we are building a call centre complete with a Percentage of Calls Answered board and it’ll ultimately be in a city where the average daily wage is just above the price of a frappucino.  Or in Warrington beside a pound shop. It’ll be a slow burner and we’ll make it work in our corporate corridors first but that’s where we are going because the case for doing so is compelling.”

In simple terms the leadership challenge at hand is to transition from a position of ridiculously expensive HR concierge (i.e the old HR generalist world) to one of abstract separation under a cost-cutting banner.

The paradox that the customer service industry discovered, of course, is that service and cost-cutting are contradiction in terms. The finance guys are as happy as proverbial pigs now that the spreadsheets reflect a reduction in a unit cost but if there is one elephant in the room that is the danger we face when sucking the intimacy of business relationship for the majority of the old HR organisation. Press 1 if you are a new joiner, press 2 if you are a new leaver. Press 3 and find someone who doesn’t have the wit or the script to help for either, unlike in the old days when Mary from HR could be the one stop shop.

I’ve watched the profession struggle with the switcheroo for a generation. I understand the difficulties of moving an old model based on high-touch relationships to one where most of its historic activities are done remotely but we have to assess the price of the distracting dance we create currently. What harm does the continuation of the white glove service to those who are paid the most and who retain the most concierge, regardless of the cost of the service to the organisation. Equally, the repeatable process element has meant that talent has been scooped up in the bathwater given the fact you can allegedly track it in transactions. Not really a war for talent going on there more of a TA weekend in the Shetlands firing blanks. Good luck fellas snaring the good guys on the back of your RPO-dominated, reactive, order-taking recruitment machine.

So as the model expands into places that have resisted change since 1995 when ancient, ship-sinking crooner Celine Dion ruled the world, perhaps the fudges will become eroded and we should concentrate on a central, honest compelling message – HR is undergoing a tipping point that will see it lose its historical legacy where huge swathes will become part of a wider business services organisation that is both technology and people intensive. It’ll rub shoulders with finance, IT and facilities queries and reinvest savings into simple technology enablement to forego employing humans. Replacing it in the future will be a smaller HR profession rooted in greater level of technical knowledge and business insight, coupled with a greater look of consultancy driving differentiated solutions in a co-sourced business model that enlightened organisations are willing to a pay a premium for. They will probably call it something that doesn’t have a H or an R in it and that’ll just confuse the CIPD chasing its cash cow. The risk is we lose intimacy but the blunt truth is that if we are honest with those in the developing HR services switcheroo they are being cut adrift from the differentiated future of a people-oriented, knowledge-based internal consultancy arm. Finance know it. The transformation teams devising it know it and the CEOs worrying about margins expect it. Will HR functions wait until the call centre board goes up and the interactions get measured before it calls a team meeting to tell its people ?  Probably. It beats conflict.

Celine Dion was ultimately replaced by a robot and it has been singing to packed houses in Vegas for 5 years. If it can happen to her then Mary from HR will soon be an unwaged droid dealing with the average Joe workers’ employment needs in an old disused branch of a high street bank that’s been closed down due to a proliferation of on-line services. The worrying thing is what will all those people who like to “work with people” do then ?

Until next time, I’m putting you on hold to the dulcid tones of Celine’s robotic double. 🙂


5 thoughts on “Press 3 if you are still waiting for a straight answer….

  1. So what do we do?
    a. Sort out the CIPD – they should be defining the role of HR and setting the standards (and I am happy to advise them, for a fee, as to what the role should be and the standards should be). The structures would not include HRBPs, shared service etc, RPOs, or Org Devt units (surely Org Dev is the overall purpose of HR?).
    b. To support this (or just ignore the CIPD and set up a self help group) produce really compelling business cases for HR – how using HR properly will bring longer term and sustainable business advantage. To be honest, the evidence is there already but it seems to me that HR has been focused on pleasuring the CxO in a craven bid to become a CxO themselves.
    c. Now we can insist on investment in HR, ethical standards (goodbye senior pay packets and unpaid internships etc) and create great organisations for the future.
    d. Sit back and wait for a share price to rise because a great HRD (CPO) has just been appointed.

    PS – an organisation you once worked for contacted me last week. They have a significant cultural change programme rolling through the org (yes they have been very naughty). However, rich though this organisation is, they want to do some tactical cost cutting – re-organisation – sort of outside the transformation programme. Ninja style. Now, what are the chances of winning the hearts and minds of the employees if all they see is black clad Org Design people cutting their jobs? Double think. And it was an Org Dev person who contacted me – working on the transformation programme. Am I being naive?

    • Cheers Julia. The CIPD are not interested in open dialogue. They have a diminishing number of people to milk as a cashcow and whilst there have been material improvements to content and channels they are still wedded to a limited role within the profession, despite it being at a tipping point. They are not leadership material.

      You are anything but naive young lady. There are reprehensible fools in profession motivated by things that they shouldn’t and you’ve flagged a few. BigCo tends to get the HR functions they deserve. Must get that date in the diary for March by the way.

  2. Each era, each industry each geography have throughout the times had its ‘voices’ and those that with thought, insight and analysis take the pulse on what is going on (and not going on) providing their own take and conclusions. The very best of those are those that do not shy away from speaking their mind, are afraid of what they say, what consequences it may have, and most importantly challenge and push and shout about what is wrong and what that means and does. Very few in our often bland world do that, has the guts and energy to do so.
    You have again Barry come up with the in my opinion sharp, witty and critical piece and as before I salute you for being the voice you continue to be, it is fresh, it is bold and it is great, do not stop, the wider HR and TA world need good people like you.
    As for what you describe and refer to. Isn’t it strange that we live in a world where on one side there are forces that are driven by Excel spreadsheets, by making things and their businesses more effective and efficient, streamlining, outsourcing, rationalizing and lean, while on the other side we have insight, knowledge, evidence and statistics and much else that show that some of these pulls in one direction actually have a detrimental effect. Is it not strange that people who by their function ought to be more intelligent, better educated and have a better overall understanding seem oblivious to the finer details that make things function well and be efficient and effective, and add that intangible value and glue that ensure that things do not fall apart.
    I have seen my share of outsourced solutions and the ‘replacement of the Mary’s in HR and personnel with large multinational centralised bland impersonal and process led functions in a low cost country and I tell you that it may look pretty on the surface and nice in terms of numbers on the spread sheet, but it sure h… also causes disruption and tear down and destroy the very intricate and efficient fine elements that make a workplace one of human element, one of personal interest and one of employees feeling that some cares, someone knows and someone doing something about it.
    What is being missed in the subtleties of all this is what it does, what it enables of informal insight and ability to deal with matters there and then and efficiently/effectively and not least the fact that HR and the H standing for the human part of a function.
    We as people and companies sacrifice unbelievable amounts of values and the very things that form the reason for why something works, is a success and why people wish to be there, you could with a dramatized expression say that you rip out some of the very soul that makes up the very place!.

    • Big thanks Jacob once again for the kind words and taking the time out to comment. Finance still rules the corporate world in many of our established organisations and unfortunately HR falls in line to the point where the debate becomes so ingrained and compliant nobody spots the double speak anymore. I appreciate that reforming these companies is complex and a starting point is hard to find for too many with a will to try. For others, they are compliant, they are safe and they are part of the problem but are so wedded into the fabric that failure as an enterprise will only surface their plan all along.

  3. Hello my friend! I wish to say that this post is amazing, nice written and include almost all important infos. I’d like to see more posts like this .

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