Home » News » Interview: ‘Many HR depts don’t know enough about their organisations’

Interview: ‘Many HR depts don’t know enough about their organisations’

Many HR departments fail to add real value because they don’t know enough about their own organisations, according to a leading HR and leadership expert.

Chris Roebuck, professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School, says that only a fraction of HR teams know key information about what their organisation has to do to deliver top quality to customers. He says this lack of knowledge is ruining HR’s chances of making a real impact.

“In my experience, in virtually every HR function that I have come across, if you were to ask them exactly what it is their business needs to deliver to its customers, who its main competitors are, what its market share is – all the stuff that people in the business will know – virtually nobody in HR has the answer. Sometimes even the HR director doesn’t know.

“HR cannot fully support the business unless HR understands the business in depth. It’s like someone who knows a little about cars saying they are a motor mechanic. They can recognise a car, drive one and put fuel in but have no idea about how it really works under the surface and thus how to make it perform better.”

Chris is a founder member of HR Business Network and sits on the new advisory panel currently being set up that will lead discussions about the issues that matter most in the profession.

He was speaking exclusively to HR Business Network this week, and said HR functions are often operating with “out-of-date assumptions about what businesses want, what they should be doing, and how they should be doing it. Many use assumptions from before the financial crisis, but as the world has changed, organisations and HR must do the same.”

He said that although HR teams say they are proactive by running development programmes and coaching, the vast majority of these initiatives are not proactively supporting the business. They aren’t really aligned to what the business needs and so can’t add much business benefit.

“They are either aligned with what the business needed in the past, or with what HR thinks the business needs, or even more frighteningly, they are operating in an environment where the organisation itself hasn’t worked out what its own key objectives are; the blind in the business leading the blind in HR.”

But he added that in these situations, HR has significant potential to make a huge difference, because the only people really capable of helping an organisation identify its key objectives and develop strategy are top quality HR people who can help the leadership team work out what’s important.

“The marketing director can’t do that, the finance director can’t, the chief executive probably isn’t going to do it themselves. The only people who can are the HR team led by the HR director. By doing this HR can dramatically increase its capability to proactively drive forward initiatives that improve organisational performance. This must be based on a deep understanding of what the business does and how it does it. It’s about HR not being just partners in the business, but being business transformers.”

And he doesn’t think such a change is all that difficult, and certainly won’t break the bank.

“People say it’s complicated and time-consuming getting a real understanding of the business, but I’m sorry that’s garbage. How difficult is it to get the finance director, the marketing director, the production director or the chief executive to stand up in front of the HR team in a lunchtime session and say ‘this is who I am, this is what I do, this is what my team does, this is what our challenges are, this is where I think we’re going, this is how you can help us’?

“That takes about an hour and it costs nothing. Yet how many organisations do it? Less than 10 per cent I’d say.”

He added that HR staff should be given the chance to become more than partners, and to achieve this it is critical that the HR diretor and other senior leaders give them the knowledge they need to do their jobs properly. What they need, he says, is effectively “re-onboarding”; giving them a version of the formal introduction to the organisation that all new employees should get (but often don’t) when they join. Even if that means treating the HR function as if they’ve only just started work there.

Not because they’re inexperienced, but because they need to be given the critical knowledge about the organisation so they can proactively add real value and transform performance, rather than being just reactive partners. *As always, HR Business Network wants to hear from you. What do you think about Chris’s view? Does your HR department fall into the 10 per cent that do have a deep understanding of the organisation, or the 90 per cent that don’t? Is it a fair criticism? Tell us in the comments.

Chris will also be chairing a series of events about the future of the public sector exclusively for HR Business Network, and details will be announced next week.