Headcount manager to business partner: HR's next growth track

by Mark Deayton 06 November 2019

We are seeing today a growing realisation that customer experience is only ever as good as employee experience. That makes the HR function far more influential than we tend to think of it as being: driving digital and business strategy, instead of just going along for the ride. The question is, how ready are we as HR professionals to adopt new responsibilities and opportunities to take the wheel?

In my time at Ricoh, I have witnessed HR’s leadership role expand over traditional borders into other territory, ranging from technology to operations. That evolution makes sense because the capabilities of our people, and their willingness to collaborate and meet shared goals, defines how well we do in a market where change and disruption are constant, and competition is acute. In the process, we have seen how HR itself needs to transform if it wants to better serve the broader business.

Expanding the conversation

For a start, HR leaders need to broaden the conversations they hold with the rest of the organisation, into areas like change management and innovation that are fundamentally all about people. Globally, 43% of organisations expect 60% or more of their workforce to enter new roles in the next 3 years - and 17% expect that proportion to be 80% or above. 62% of all Australian organisations expect people management costs to rise due to skills availability, compared to a global average of 52%. Addressing issues like these involves strategic workforce planning to account for widely varying needs across complex organisations.

HR is well placed to support this disruption, but only if we challenge our existing ways of thinking about talent and resourcing. At Ricoh, we have been embracing what I call “frontline fluidity”: giving our people greater autonomy in both how they develop their skills and where they apply them within the organisation. As I’ve written about before, we’ve done away with the traditional “9 box” approach to leadership development in favour of an active application process where only those with real commitment to growth get through. We are also helping those applicants to identify where they can best apply their new skills to benefit Ricoh – allowing them to select their own projects based on their own judgement.

The more fluently HR learns to speak “business language” – commercial strategy, ROI, customer experience (the latter, incidentally, is intrinsically linked to the employee experience), and so on – the better it can understand the broader needs across the organisation, and develop capability frameworks and strategies that recognise and meet those needs.

Change the goals, change the room

How can HR adjust to lead these broader conversations? It’s not an easy process. At Ricoh, it started with us being one of the earliest business units to digitally transform – adopting SaaS platforms that are mobile-friendly, replacing traditional paper based processes with digital workflow, utilising video content, and using analytics to identify key focus items in different areas of the business. However, although HR can make substantial contributions to digital transformation, technology shouldn’t be its primary focus.

Instead, HR’s new goals should revolve as much as possible around experience: of the employee, and also the customer. Customer-centric goals shift HR’s priorities away from management and towards engagement: building the right environment where people can perform as effectively as they can. At Ricoh, we’ve been increasingly focused on designing workspaces for “flow”, that optimal state where individuals and teams are working at the height of their abilities without being overstressed or distracted. Often, that means doing away with more hierarchical team structures and encouraging new methods, like design thinking, that emphasise problem-solving rather than work for its own sake.

When we change the goals, we change the room. Goals that focus on the customer naturally align with those of the larger organisation. HR, however, understands that success with the customer requires success with the employee – and knows how to design an environment which achieves the latter. Adding that to the broader business conversation improves everyone’s readiness for constant, ongoing transformation, not just in digital but in every aspect of how we work.