Anita Lettink: What is the future of HR?

AnitaLettink2012.jpgIf HR didn’t exist, would we feel the need to invent it?

What does the future hold for HR? Is the HR department of today appropriate for the needs of the organisations and the workforce of tomorrow?

These and other fascinating questions are raised in a new white paper from Anita Lettink, entitled The Consumerization of HR. Anita is the Managing Director of NorthgateArinso in the Netherlands. She is the author of the Visions for HR blog, and also contributed a post to XpertHR’s “If I could change one thing about HR…” series. You can follow Anita on Twitter, or on Google+, and connect with her via LinkedIn.

In this guest blog post for XpertHR, Anita sets out some of the key themes to emerge from the white paper, including her theories regarding the “consumerisation” of HR. I would urge all readers of XpertHR not only to read what Anita has to say below, but also to download the full text of her white paper, and take the time to absorb everything she has to say on this topic.

I’m also extremely interested to hear about what you make of Anita’s theories as regards the future of HR, and your own answers to the compelling questions she raises about the “consumerisation” of HR. Please do get in touch and share your thoughts via the comments box below, or contact me via Twitter, LinkedIn or Google+.

Anita Lettink: What is the future of HR?

Imagine, if you will, your company without an HR function.

Now suppose you’re asked to set up HR: What would you do?

Would you create something similar or radically different? Would you create it at all?

The ‘new normal’ will vastly different

We’ve arrived at a turning point in history where new technology is profoundly changing people’s way of life as well as methods of manufacturing, distributing and selling goods. The changes brought about by the Digital Revolution will have a deep impact on the way businesses are organized and people look at work.

And though we expect to return to “normal” after we’ve overcome the financial crises, the “new normal” will be vastly different.

The recovery will be jobless, as advancements in technology allow companies to replace manual labor with automation, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The future workforce and the career lattice

The workforce, HR’s primary focus, is changing: the future workforce will be smaller, as companies rely more on technology.

The future workforce, encompassing 5 generations, wants a career lattice that caters to individual needs. They will move fluidly between companies and assignments, while the lines between their work and personal lives will become blurred.

Workers will bring their own devices (BYOD) and expect to use them in the enterprise. They will bring their own apps (BYOA) allowing them to complete assignments as they see fit. The future workforce will be placed all over the world, with people from different cultural and economic backgrounds working together in virtual teams.

HR and the future workforce

What will the future workforce expect from HR?

Let’s start with accepting they don’t need anything at all! They expect that they will be paid properly and on time, and that their benefits are taken care of. But any HR service provider can handle that.

The future workforce will be used to doing things for themselves, as the ongoing automation has cut out the middleman. Just think about how they listen to music, sign up for classes, buy insurance, book travel: they do it all online. They rely on their business leaders to coach them and help them achieve results, but they don’t expect any help from HR.

The consumerization of HR

That means that the Human Resources function will have to change too: going forward, HR will be remote, mobile, social, automated, specialized and smaller than in the past. This ‘consumerization’ of HR means that managers and employees expect direct access to HR on their smart devices, thereby cutting out HR as the middleman.

HR must focus on how to get the best results from people while eliminating anything non-essential from their schedule.

Their main focus must be on designing leadership support programs that bring tangible results.

HR must drive the business forward

I expect to see corporate HR develop into an organization which is increasingly centralized, organized at the global level with local involvement where necessary.

HR must think of itself as a function that drives the business forward.

Study after study confirms that people issues are at the forefront of CEOs’ minds.

In the future, dealing with people must be owned by the business as a whole, not exclusively by HR.

The HR function of the future will consist of an HR Service Center (insourced or outsourced) and an HR Consultancy team (combining the former Business Partners and Centers of Excellence) that delivers HR services using a project-based approach quickly to respond to changing circumstances that have an effect on the workforce.

Agility and flexibility are key requirements in response to evolving business needs.

The future of HR: Evolution, not revolution

The future of HR is not radically different from what it is today. The changes can’t compare to the big shifts that are happening in our society. Instead of a revolution, it’s an evolution. But just because it’s an evolution that does not mean the changes are small.

One thing is clear: The future of HR lies outside the HR department.

And if HR professionals don’t grasp that concept very soon, the future of HR will lie outside the company.

In my new white paper “The Consumerization of HR” you’ll find some of my thoughts on what this all means for the future of HR. Download the white paper or the SlideShare.

UPDATE 1 (Monday 27 February 2012): The Tragedy of HR

I’m very pleased to reply that we’ve had two extremely interesting responses to what Anita’s written in her post above. Both @flipchartrick and @stefanstern have been in touch to highlight articles they have written over recent years, which explore similar themes. Here are links to the two artices:

  • Stefan Stern: HR is unloved but not unnecessary (FT.com subscription required) Writing in the FT in 2006, Stefan subjects HR to what he terms “the George Bailey test” (i.e. imagine the subject had never existed, as in the film It’s A Wonderful Life, from which George Bailey comes). In Stefan’s view: “The tragedy of HR is that it is, potentially, the most significant and rewarding work any manager could want to get involved in. Helping people to build a career and find work more fulfilling is a serious and worthwhile task.” It is well worth signing in to FT.com to read the article in full.

  • Rick: The truth about the HR department In this 2008 post from the outstanding Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog, pseudonymous HR blogger Rick analyses critical comments about HR from then-Chairman of Channel 4 Luke Johnson. Johnson had stated in the FT that “senior executives understand that HR is powerful – a bit like Mossad or the CIA.” Rick’s conclusion is as follows: “The real truth is that senior managers have colluded, and continue to collude, with the growth of large HR functions. At their best, HR functions provide crucial support to executives but, in many organisations, they also act as a convenient scapegoat and as somewhere for managers to pass the buck. For this reason alone, they will be with us for a long time yet.”

UPDATE 2 (Monday 27 February 2012): What if HR never becomes strategic?

Rick has unearthed another post from the Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog, this time one which resonates with themes in the penultimate paragraph of Anita’s post: What if HR never becomes strategic? In this post from 2007, Rick argues:

If HR people don’t learn to stand up for themselves, someone else will come along and steal that strategic HR role that the profession has had its eye on for so long. If the SAS motto ‘Who Dares Wins’ holds true, the corollary must also hold true, that who doesn’t dare loses. That could so easily be the HR profession’s fate.

UPDATE 3 (Tuesday 28 February 2012): Is HR doomed to be ‘distracted from the bigger picture’?

In a related discussion on LinkedIn, Karin Wills has posted  her initial reactions to what Anita has to say here.

Here’s some of what Karin has to say:

[W]hen I read that HR is no longer needed to cover off what are essentially administrative tasks run via technology my thought takes a little different track. I believe that is means that administering such tasks is now covered by HR people with tech backgrounds, simply another specialty within the overall profession. I have long felt that HR practitioners need to develop the skills required to predict the what next factor. The “what is happening right now” factor should to a large degree be self-sustaining. What the future holds that will create change and how those changes need to be adapted for need some fortune telling. As long as HR practitioners are worrying about whether they are seen as strategic or have a seat at the table (could we retire that old term?) they will be distracted from the bigger picture. If we consider just the potential for change that social networks and the backlash against the practices that precipitated the economic crises have on organizations-the future can be exciting and scary-the most fun place for an HR person to leap into. :-)

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One Response to Anita Lettink: What is the future of HR?

  1. Noel O'Reilly
    Noel O'Reilly 3 July 2012 at 11:04 am #

    I may be missing something but the description of the future of HR is the model for delivering HR services that has been around for at least a decade – with administrivia delivered locally, and largely automated, and strategy centralised. The mysterious thing about this vision is it misses out what HR people mostly seem to be doing (when they are not involved in admin), which is intervening when there is conflict and dispute in the workplace. This can be driven by change or by poor management but either way it seems to be a priority, at least judging by the amount of web traffic related to employment law compliance and managing problems with workplace relationships.

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