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What is the role of human resources? And no, that's not a rhetorical question.

Human Resources is a big topic in business media right now—decades old "administrative" HR roles are being swapped out for "strategic partnership" roles. But if you ask an HR leader to make a pie chart of the time he or she spends on administration and strategy work, it would probably look like this:

The truth is, administrative work takes time and resources—both of which are typically rare on HR teams. Even strategic work becomes administrative when we struggle with the technology that supports talent management programs, and don't have time for crucial conversations that assess and develop talent.

So, how can HR executives move from doing mostly administrative tasks to becoming a strategic advisor?

Focus on What Managers Need

First, don't take the human element out of the equation.

Let's take technology, for example. Technology is "administrative" work when we configure systems, obtain data, figure out why the data is wrong and spend our time fixing the data. I'm willing to bet that a significant amount of the data HR produces is not used by the client—either because they don't have time to review it, they don't know what to do with it or it isn't actually credible.

But if HR focused on using technology to not just find "data," but start conversations, the work can shift to "strategy."

To do this, engage management in dialogue. Ask them about their team's performance and productivity. Be genuinely interested and listen carefully, because they might not be able to articulate their concerns in your HR language: They may not immediately observe that "turnover is high"; but they might tell you productivity is down and they aren't sure why.

Once you get a sense of their needs, it's time to bring out the data and help them make the connection between the problem and the data.

Understand the State of the Business

You can't just offer managers HR data—you need to connect it to business data, too. Is business up or down? How are product lines doing? What's happening with the competition?

Once you have a picture of your organization's performance, you can connect the people data. For example, what personnel changes or shifts in hiring could have changed productivity (and therefore impacted sales)? How many employers have left? How difficult is it to hire and train new team members? If team members are leaving, are they seasoned team members or new hires?

Last but not least, think twice before shooting off an email with your discoveries. An email with a report on turnover can get lost in the inbox of a busy manager—instead, schedule a meeting and talk through your findings. By talking, your data becomes inherently meaningful because you have made it relevant to the manager.

Use Data as a Conversation Catalyst

Data is nothing more than a starting point for good dialogue, research and discovery, so consider using the "five whys" method as a way to start a conversation: Ask "why" five times to identify the true "root" of the problem. Start with the business, and transition to questions about the people.

Every technology solution offers canned reports. If you spend time configuring, correcting and “sharing" canned reports, you are doing administrative work. But if you spend time talking to your management team, identifying their needs, understanding the "state of the union" in your organization, and crafting relevant and meaningful data, you are doing strategic work.

Photo: Creative Commons