Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Way

Are you questioning if HR should take the lead or wait until HR leaders develop new and nontraditional competencies? Or, should HR invite non-HR professionals from other disciplines to take the lead, drawing immediately on their expertise? The second option is faster, but may risk reducing HR’s professional authority on key workplace trends.

Research at the Center for Effective Organizations suggests that more forward-thinking HR organizations are more likely to let other disciplines take the lead on emerging trends, but have HR lead on more established trends.
Our research convened a consortium of 11 leading companies, each of which nominated about 20 HR leaders to respond to surveys on the following emerging trends: globalization, sustainability, personal technology, open innovation, gamification, generational diversity, social media, mass customization and big data (Figure 1).
We uncovered examples of groundbreaking HR innovations, but the broad pattern described a profession with lofty ambitions but a less-elevated reality.

Participants rated HR’s current role and what they thought it should be on a five-point rating scale: 1 = no role, 2 = an occasional role, 3 = active support, 4 = primary input, and 5 = leader and key expert.
For every trend, HR leaders believe they should be a primary input or a key leader. Yet for none of the trends is that the case. Even for gamification, where HR is now playing an occasional role, our sample felt HR should play a primary-input role.

To close the gap, forward-thinking HR organizations differentiate between established and emergent trends.

We created an index of forward-thinking HR by combining questions where HR leaders rated how much their HR organization embraces advanced practices, such as customized employment value proposition, using analytics, crowdsourcing and social media, and nontraditional disciplines, such as consumer behavior, engineering, storytelling, finance and marketing. We correlated that with answers to the question “To what extent do other functions take the lead in applying this trend inside of HR?”

For more established trends, forward-thinking HR organizations are less likely to have other disciplines take the lead. For the more emergent trends, forward-thinking HR organizations are more likely to have other disciplines take the lead. Forward-thinking HR organizations choose their leadership arenas carefully, letting others take the lead when trends are new to HR, and taking a leadership role as HR becomes more involved.

This has implications for how HR defines its profession. One approach would be for HR to avoid involving other disciplines to preserve the purity of the function and reduce the impression that anyone can do HR. In that case, HR must wait to address emerging trends until the profession develops the expertise to tackle them. A different approach would be for HR to be inclusive, incorporating other disciplines, and encouraging them to take leadership where they have expertise and educate the HR profession eventually to take the lead.

John Boudreau is professor and research director at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business and Center for Effective Organizations and author of “Retooling HR: Using Proven Business Tools to Make Better Decisions About Talent.” Ian Ziskin is president of EXcel Group and executive in residence at USC’s Center for Effective Organizations. They can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.