From administrator to leader, over the decades our perception of the HR professional has undergone a major shift. With new technologies coming into play, how has the HR function changed, and is it finally being recognised for its strategic potential?
The changing face of HR
Human resources – as we know it – found its roots in the early 1900s. In 1911 Frederick W. Taylor brought the scientific ideals of the Industrial Revolution to people management with his monograph The Principles of Scientific Management. His approach, often referred to as Taylorism, focused on improving the economic efficiency and labour productivity of the workforce. His teachings placed importance on the training and development of employees so that they could to carry out their roles in the most effective ways. Formal management was needed, which led to the emergence of Personnel.
After the First World War, the personnel role persisted, supervising other massive labour changes through the General Strike, World War Two and post-war reconstruction. Despite the important work being done, personnel was very much a reactive role which revolved around tasks such as admin, payroll and reprimanding wrongdoers. Strategy didn’t play a huge part, despite the fact that the personnel team typically manages one of an organisation’s biggest budgets.
From the backroom to the boardroom
What changed? In the USA in the 1970s, people began talking about “human asset management”. A shift was happening, as shown by the plethora of organisational psychology studies that emerged. In 1981, Harvard Business School gave Human Resource Management the seal of approval by including HRM in its MBA programme. The strategic potential of the HR manager was starting to be established.
It was often a struggle to maintain an overview of activities and evidence their impact on the business.
The new role developed alongside the realisation that recruiting the right talent, then nurturing, developing and motivating that talent gave an organisation competitive advantage. This modern view of the employee as an asset elevated those who managed employment to a similar level as the financial leaders. The HR manager was now at the centre of organisational goal setting: for example, any business looking at successful expansion and growth has to have a robust staff forecasting, recruitment and induction strategy.
However, this change was blighted by mission creep. With an increased understanding of the importance of HR came the ambitious attempt to achieve as much as possible. New initiatives in employee development, job enrichment and engagement were created in order to support the overall strategy, and they needed large HR teams to carry them out. It was often a struggle to maintain an overview of activities and evidence their impact on the business – that is until the technology became available.
The technological HR revolution
Recently, we’ve experienced several influential technological ‘disruptions’ in HR. One example is the use of Artificial Intelligence (AI). It may seem contradictory to bring AI into a human-focused department, but in many ways it is proving beneficial. Algorithms can help sift candidates and identify potentially successful characteristics, leaving your desk clear of hundreds of application forms. This form of ‘invisible recruitment’ by a chatbot also removes any risk of bias.
The HR manager becomes a curator.
Psychologist William Kahn’s work in the 1990s identified the importance of employee engagement as a motivational force. Over the last decades we have learned a great deal about how feedback, measuring and monitoring can increase engagement. The data analytics tools we create at Peakon are a tech-driven response to this, providing organisations with meaningful information that support business planning.
Online social learning has changed the traditional training course. Employees share skills via portals, shifting the approach from top-down to collaborative. The HR manager becomes a curator, guiding but not actively managing. From an admin point of view, cloud-based solutions for functions such as payroll and recruitment are also becoming less time-consuming. So, with technology taking care of core functions, where does that leave today’s HR manager?
The aim of today’s HR leader remains the same as it was for the business manager that emerged in the 1970s: to lead the organisation’s people-focused strategies. However, the increasing focus is on engagement strategy, not just recruitment and training. Technological advances in the HR department help bring organisation and individual together by gathering engagement insights through feedback analysis, and using this to inform organisational growth.
The intelligence-led HR manager now arrives at the board meeting with statistics that can predict successful recruitment and development strategies. Real-time data allows high and poor-performing areas to be identified, giving a clear organisational overview. With technology helping them out, today’s HR managers are free to be both strategy and engagement custodians.