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Can HR break free from its past?


When cutting edge HR leaders get together to discuss the future they often end up saying something like “the future of HR…or whatever will replace HR”. It’s that latter phrase that should capture your attention. The sense is not just that HR needs to get better, or that it needs to evolve, but that maybe it needs to become something else altogether.

HR does have a problem with its reputation. A consultant who works will small firms said “HR is where people go to complain that their co-worker has smelly feet.” Other professionals have told me “I don’t really know what HR does, it’s the department behind that locked door.” And HR has long suffered in its unpopular role as compliance police.

HR professionals dream of flying away from that reputation. Furthermore, HR leaders who are envisioning new forms of organization are losing interest in the traditional work of posting jobs and running training programs. They no longer dream of adding new capabilities, they dream of breaking free of the old HR.

Perhaps the best route for HR leaders who want to break free of the past is to abandon the notion of a normal job. A job, by its nature, is about doing routine things. If HR leaders hunger to push their skills and insights to the limit then they should be looking for project work as a kind of internal consultant. I suspect that forward looking HR leaders are not so much wanting to be the head of say, a “work engineering” department. They want to be the inventor of work engineering. They want to figure out how it would fit into their organization, and once that was done, they’d want to move on to something new.

CEOs should recognize that their best HR leaders may be feeling that the big opportunities to make a difference lie outside their traditional work. Some HR leaders would love to play a role in helping the organization tap into the on-demand workforce; or in re-inventing the physical office; or in using analytics to uncover the true nature of knowledge worker productivity. If the CEO wants that as well, then it’s best to move that HR professional out of a traditional job and unleash them on a grand project.

Letting one of your best people out of an important job, and allowing them tackle a project that sits well outside-the-box has risks. But if they are telling you that they are getting a glimpse of a future that sits beyond traditional HR, perhaps you should trust them to run with it.

In the end it may be that it is not the HR department that needs to break free; but that individuals need an opportunity to go beyond doing a job; to finding a way to do something really new and important.


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