State of the service

Professionalising human resources

2014-15 State of the Service Report – Professionalising human resources

The case has been made, including in previous State of the Service reports, for defining the capability requirements of Human Resources (HR) professionals in the public sector. Unlike other professional occupations for example accountants and lawyers, there are no accreditation requirements for those advising managers on people-related issues. This can limit the attraction of HR as a career and, more importantly, reinforces a perception that the engagement of experienced and competent HR professionals does not rate as a business objective. Competent and experienced HR professionals are important in the APS where labour costs can account for 70% of agencies’ expenditure.

A good HR leader is someone who has the capabilities to create effective business partnerships at all levels, source and use relevant business intelligence, competently outsource transactional services and improve the skills of managers to enable them to better manage their people.

  • “Experienced HR professionals are important in the APS where labour costs can account for 70% of agencies’ expenditure.”

Lyn Goodear, Chief Executive Officer of the Australian Human Resources Institute (AHRI), sets out the case for professionalising HR across all industries. An excerpt was included in the 2014-15 State of the Service Report. The full piece is presented below.

Why HR certification?

In July 2015, US adviser to CEOs and corporate boards, Ram Charan, wrote a Harvard Business Review article in association with McKinsey’s Dominic Barton and Korn Ferry’s Dennis Carey1.

The authors alluded to McKinsey and Conference Board research that found CEOs worldwide see human capital as a top challenge, yet they consistently rank HR as the eighth or ninth most important function in the organisation.

That finding echoes research that AHRI has published this year in association with survey partner, Insync. We asked 821 chief executives, agency heads and senior HR executives from private and public sector organisations to rank seven key capabilities and ten vital behaviours that benchmarked studies have revealed as attributes required to perform competently as a HR business partner.

The seven HR capabilities are culture and change leader, stakeholder mentor and coach, strategic architect, business driven, workforce and workplace designer, expert practitioner, and ethical and credible activist.

The ten HR behaviours are future oriented, credible, influencer, resolver of issues, collaborative, courageous, solutions driven, professional, critical and enquiring thinker, and understand and care.

The chief executives and agency heads assigned each of these attributes a high level of importance: high 5s or 6s on a 1-7 point scale. So did the HR practitioners. Yet both groups assigned HR performance lower ratings on each and every attribute.

If a common element emerged from AHRI’s Insync research and the Harvard Business Review article it could be summed up in the word ‘disappointment’. Chief executives and agency heads have high expectations of what HR could be doing for their business, and HR practitioners agree with those expectations.

But HR worldwide does not live up to the promise entailed in those expectations.

Why is that?

The central reason goes to standards. In a world that is fast changing and requires organisations to be fleet-footed and agile, the bar has been set too low for HR.

I hasten to add that it’s not just HR practitioners who are responsible for accepting a low bar setting. In the end, chief executives and agency heads need to demand that the business partners responsible for human capital must be clear about what they promise and be able to do what they promise.

The business leaders need to get beyond the thinking that sees HR merely as the repository of soft skills in an organisation. Where work is enabled through people, soft skills are plainly vital. But of the 17 HR attributes listed, only ‘understand and care’ could accurately be described as ‘soft’.

If an organisation requires a workforce plan, a talent strategy or a better performance framework, it needs HR people who can do hard things. If the work structure is flawed, productivity is down or the culture is toxic, soft skills alone won’t remedy the malaise.

High-level HR expertise is required, and it’s an expertise that must be comfortable working with uncertainty, ambiguity, complexity and often paradox. The public service knows about paradox: it hears only too often the demand to do more and to do it with less.

HR business partners need to know what is behind that demand and, more critically, they need to be able to do what’s required to play a central role in making it happen.

For their part, chief executives and agency heads need to stop bringing people in from outside HR in the desperate pursuit for good HR. Rather they need to find HR business partners who bring, through their endeavour, the requisite skill-set of capabilities and behaviours.

AHRI’s response to that challenge in 2015 has been to set the bar high and to invite HR practitioners to straddle it. That means they must demonstrate, through taking on a robust certification program, not just what they know but what they can actually do.

That done, AHRI’s National Certification Council will assess their readiness for certification and award to successful candidates the post-nominal CAHRI-CP, with CP signifying ‘certified practitioner’.

Lyn Goodear
Chief Executive Officer
Australian Human Resources Institute

[1] Charan, R., Barton, B, and Carey, D. (2015). People before strategy: A new role for the CHRO. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2015/07/people-before-strategy-a-new-role-for-the-chro.