HR: What do customers want from us?

There has been a lot of discussion in the HR press over recent weeks about whether HR is recruiting the right people and indeed whether current recruits to the profession are up to the job. The recent “Raising the bar in HR recruitment” report was commissioned by the Oakleaf Partnership, an independent specialist HR recruitment firm. Arguably then, the report may well have set out with the aim of encouraging organisations to make more informed recruitment decisions through the use of specialist agencies.

My attention was caught though by the comments of Linda Kennedy (group HR director at Yell) at the launch of the report, Ms Kennedy felt that HR should reduce its focus on strategy and what she called “navel gazing” and “existential angst”. In her words:

"It's not about strategic HR - HR should be figuring out what the business needs to do and then figuring out what it can do to support that. If you have that bit right, the rest should follow."

But if we take the definition of strategic HR as being "the strategic management of human resources aligned with the organisation’s intended future direction. It is concerned with longer-term people issues and macro-concerns about structure, quality, culture, values, commitment and matching resources to future need.” (CIPD website)

Then, surely this is just what Linda Kennedy suggests that HR needs to be doing – figuring out what the business needs to do & what it can do to support that. In the words of Karl Albrecht (founder of Aldi) “If you’re not serving the customer, you’d better be serving someone who is”.

This raises an interesting question though, just who are HR’s customers & do we know what they want from us? For the answer to this I turned to The Institute for Employment Studies who carried out some research into this subject “What customers want from HR”. Now this report was published back in September 2008, but there seems to be a continuing resonance with the current position of HR even in 2012.

The IES study found that the customers of HR (line managers, senior managers & employees) want a function that is independent minded, in close touch with the workforce & able to challenge managers when necessary. They also want support from HR people with real professional expertise, who can help them address people issues in a business context.

Both managers & non managers believe that HR has a unique role to play in balancing the needs of the business with the needs of the workforce. Of course, this can be a difficult role to play – HR is often perceived with mistrust by both parties, who often feel that HR is “on the other’s side”.At the same time HR can help managers understand what is really going on in the business. As one manager commented:

“HR needs to be like the jester to the king. It has to tell him what everyone knows but no one else dares to say”.

So, what do senior managers expect from HR? Well, they are looking for HR to balance the needs of the business & its workforce at a corporate level. HR can only deliver this if it has its finger on the pulse of what employees are feeling & how well they are working. So HR needs to be out & about in the business working with its customers to understand what they all need & how this can best be delivered.

This takes us neatly back to the point about whether HR is really up to the job (& not just the new recruits). Because what customers really want is a HR function that knows about HR. They do need to understand the business, of course they do, but fundamentally they need to be the people experts. And maybe this is HR’s problem – that too often we are seen as designing systems, policies, processes, & even names for ourselves such as “Business Partner”, for our own ends, rather than for the business’ needs.

So, where are we now? How can HR demonstrate its value? As Anita Lettink asks: “What is the added value of HR when managers lead employees?”

Senior managers stress the need for HR to understand the challenges facing line managers and their business needs. HR must be able to identify the people behaviours & skills that will drive organisational success & focus on business priorities rather than on policies & procedures that don’t add value to the business. Finally, HR should be able to support the business in reducing inefficiencies through the use of appropriate data & metrics that will drive organisational effectiveness.

The world of work is changing & HR is going to have to reinvent itself in order to keep pace with this. In a world where people expect to use technology to work & learn, HR is going to have to use these tools in order to reach & engage with both managers & employees. We need to demonstrate business awareness & have the ability to understand & interpret data that give real insight into performance. And fundamentally, we have to know what our customers want from us & must set about delivering on it.

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