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Here's a telling question: Do you believe HR is more than just a cost center?

In order to transform HR into a strategic arm of an organization, executives and HR leaders alike need to see talent management as part of the business strategy, not just an overhead department. And like most businesses, we in HR need to understand how to serve our customers in order to thrive — which means putting the customers' needs before compliance.

But whom do I mean by HR's "customers"? At first thought, employees and company leaders likely come to mind. However, if you take a hard look at the organizational universe, I think you’ll find that our list of customers is much bigger. This is important, because in order to focus on meeting our customers' needs, we need to be clear about what defines a customer and what his or her needs are, exactly.

This may all sound like semantics, but bear with me — after carefully exploring our broad customer base, I think you'll understand why each type of customer is important and the value that HR can provide to them.

1) The Organization

If you take a 30,000-foot view of employees and leaders, the organization's needs are not necessarily the sum of its parts. The organization looks to HR to ensure a highly skilled and productive workforce. This means that every organization-wide program we sponsor should aim to achieve that goal. Programs or processes that are simply risk avoidance and create busy-work rather than drive performance are not valuable to the organization.

2) The Executive Leadership

The executive leadership team sets the vision for the organization — a moral compass that guides decision-making, the process of accountability and, overall, the culture of the organization.

Culture cannot exist separately of the larger employee base, and HR is the only unit in an organization, besides the CEO, that has a broad and deep view of the people — what they do, how they feel and how they perform. In order to align culture and business systems, HR should provide information about the workforce to the executive team and collaborate with them as a trusted advisor.

3) The Managers

I use the term “manager" somewhat differently than “leader." Anyone can lead; people don't need a formal role to do so. A manager, however, is someone entrusted by the organization to develop talent and drive performance through a productive workforce. It is a role that carries a heavy burden, with overwhelming tasks to accomplish and a demanding schedule.

Most of time, managers will see HR programs as just more busy-work. Myriad “programs" like performance management, engagement surveys, succession planning and salary reviews that each have different criteria and processes are too cumbersome to be helpful for managers.

The most important thing for HR is that leaders have meaningful conversations with their employees. So, in order to serve this type of customer, HR should focus on providing tools and resources to ensure that everything the managers are assigned helps drives performance.

If you can find a way to make managers' jobs easier by streamlining or consolidating their work, I suspect that would be like Nirvana for most of them.

4) The Organization's Customers

Don't forget about your business' actual customers — yes, they count as your customers, too. Every organization is designed to ultimately serve a customer, so it makes sense that those customers benefit from a workforce that is skilled, efficient and trustworthy.

5) The Shareholders

Like customers, the shareholders benefit from the work of the people; the more productive the workforce, the better the return for investors.

6) The Community

In our connected and global society, organizations are a major part of a thriving economy and community. HR has the chance to give back to the community by developing a skilled workforce that can learn and grow.

For example, an up-and-coming leader can learn so much by volunteering for a local non-profit board. Why not make such opportunities part of your talent development program — a benefit to the individuals, the organization and the community?

Keeping Customers Front of Mind

Nice big list of customers, isn't it? In order to bring value to each group, HR leaders must understand each customer's needs and how to address them. Of course, that doesn't mean giving them everything they want, but it does mean considering what will make their jobs easier and more productive.

To start, ask yourself how many managers in your organization today would say your performance management program drives performance and productivity for business results? Why would any dissent? The answer to those two questions could very well be the first step to changing the reputation of your team and bringing strategic value to HR.

Photo: Creative Commons