Speaking the Language of Business for Strategic HR Professionals

AdobeStock_101865782This week I’m returning to discussing strategic HR and am going to define some important business terminology Strategic HR Professionals must know in order to be taken seriously by their organization’s leadership.

This is not a comprehensive list but simply some basic business terms that relate to developing an effective HR strategic plan.

The first term is Business Strategy.  Business strategy as defined by Michael Watkins of the Harvard Business Review is the following:

A business strategy is a set of guiding principles that, when communicated and adopted in the organization, generates a desired pattern of decision making. A strategy is therefore about how people throughout the organization should make decisions and allocate resources in order accomplish key objectives. A good strategy provides a clear roadmap, consisting of a set of guiding principles or rules, that defines the actions people in the business should take (and not take) and the things they should prioritize (and not prioritize) to achieve desired goals.

The definition implies that a business strategy can be looked at from the perspective of creating shareholder value, competitive market position, and creating a strategic advantage within the constantly changing business environment.  

This constantly changing business environment is influenced by things such as national and local politics, regulatory agencies, the economy, customers, suppliers, competitors, technology, economic trends and current and potential markets.

The second term is Strategic Intent. The business strategy, described above, is built upon the strategic intent and is defined by the website Simply Strategic Planning as the following:

Strategic intent is a statement of the course that the management of an organization plans to take the enterprise in the future. As many people as possible should understand these intentions. Then everyone can work consistently to achieve the corporate purpose.

Statements of intent aim to be more explicit than the usual directional statements. Most mission and vision statements point the way forward only in general terms. Sharp statements of intent can provide more clarity about what to do in the near future to achieve the vision and/or mission. Such statements convey the flavor of the strategic decisions taken through the planning process

In order to determine an organization’s strategic intent, the following questions must be answered: who we are and what we are trying to accomplish, what business are we in, what is our mission, what is our vision, what are our core values, how do we compete, and how do we add value to the marketplace.

The third term is Strategic Focus. A good description of strategic focus comes from Ann Latham at Forbes where she writes the following:

A good strategic framework provides focus by limiting the number of directions the organization runs. You’d be foolish to try to extend all your products while simultaneously expanding all your markets while also ramping up capacity or shifting your business model to include new types of production, sourcing, sales, delivery, and partnerships. This isn’t just an issue of capacity. It is also an issue of risk, learning, complexity, and credibility.

A great way to identify an organization’s strategic focus is to take a close look to the classic Generic Strategies by Michael Porter where he identified three strategies that address the question of how value is added by an organization.

These three approaches are cost leadership, differentiation, and focus as described in this article by the Institute for Manufacturing:

Cost Leadership

In cost leadership, a firm sets out to become the low cost producer in its industry. The sources of cost advantage are varied and depend on the structure of the industry. They may include the pursuit of economies of scale, proprietary technology, preferential access to raw materials and other factors. A low cost producer must find and exploit all sources of cost advantage. if a firm can achieve and sustain overall cost leadership, then it will be an above average performer in its industry, provided it can command prices at or near the industry average.

Differentiation
In a differentiation strategy a firm seeks to be unique in its industry along some dimensions that are widely valued by buyers. It selects one or more attributes that many buyers in an industry perceive as important, and uniquely positions itself to meet those needs. It is rewarded for its uniqueness with a premium price.

Focus
The generic strategy of focus rests on the choice of a narrow competitive scope within an industry. The focuser selects a segment or group of segments in the industry and tailors its strategy to serving them to the exclusion of others.

The focus strategy has two variants.

(a) In cost focus a firm seeks a cost advantage in its target segment, while in (b) differentiation focus a firm seeks differentiation in its target segment. Both variants of the focus strategy rest on differences between a focuser’s target segment and other segments in the industry. The target segments must either have buyers with unusual needs or else the production and delivery system that best serves the target segment must differ from that of other industry segments. Cost focus exploits differences in cost behaviour in some segments, while differentiation focus exploits the special needs of buyers in certain segments

In order for an organization to be successful and grow, it must have a business strategy that excels in all three of these strategies, not just one or two.  All of the organization’s operating and management systems, which include HR, must support all three of these approaches.

Bottom line, for an HR pro to be seen as an effective business partner, they must fully understand such important basic business elements such as the operations of the organization, its sales/revenue LY and YTD, its profit margin, how those margins compare with competitors and industry, its cash flow, its growth rate, the metrics leadership tracks, and the top initiatives of each of the members of the leadership team.

Jeeps, Tires, and an HR Foundation

I’m taking a break from my series on strategic HR and pushing out a post about a recent purchase I made that ended up inspiring me to write a post that equates to HR.

This morning I had to buy new tires for my Jeep Wrangler – my dream car and one I was finally able to buy (with my wife’s consent, of course!) after pining for one since High School. I’m not an off-roader but have always loved the look of the CJ-5 and CJ-7 and then the Wrangler through all its iterations.

I also had to buy new tires for my wife’s car a couple weeks ago so it’s been an expensive couple of weeks but one I’m OK with it now that winter is here. I’m OK with spending money on important safety and foundational things.

As I was driving from Les Schwab Tires to Starbucks this morning, I noticed how much better the ride was compared to my old tires. I hadn’t noticed my old tires were worn down to the point where I needed new ones until it had snowed a little the other evening and I was slipping around more than usual. This being the rig I’d always wanted, I take very good care of it, religiously washing, getting my oil changed, and rotating my tires every 5,000 miles.  I was hoping I could squeeze out another winter on my old tires

And by just looking at them, they looked fine, the treads were all evenly worn and there were no bald spots (something I used to use as a guide when I was much younger and poorer!) But having slipped around more than usual the night before, I did the “penny test” and discovered that it was time to get new tires.

As I said earlier, I immediately noticed how much better the ride was compared to my old tires. My wife also commented how much nicer her ride was after getting her new tires. Of course, we always notice this whenever we get new tires because it’s a drastic change going from worn out to new tires. We never notice our new tires being slowly worn down because it happens over a long period of time. 

Now that I can afford it, I always buy the highest quality tires I can. I do this because the tires on my vehicles are the foundation of the car. They are the only piece of equipment that has contact with the ground.  Whether the surface is smooth dry pavement, a rough dirt road, a wet surface, or a snowy icy road.

The tires we have on our vehicle are what allows us to safely, or unsafely, navigate the different road conditions to get where we need to go.  If we have poor quality or worn out tires, we can usually survive for a while on the dry smooth roads but they may eventually blow out and leave us stranded. Ultimately, we will have trouble on the other types of road conditions. Its very important to have a solid and safe foundation.

So yes, I’m equating the quality of the tires on my Jeep to building and maintaining a solid HR foundation. Is that a stretch? Maybe, but let me tell you why and explore further as I equate the parts of my Jeep to the functions of an organization. All are equally important.   

So let’s break it down like this:

  1. The financing of the loan for my Jeep is the Finance organization. (Boom. Easy)
  2. The engine and drive train are the Operations organization. This function is what actually propels the Jeep and organization forward and makes everything in the Jeep and organization run. Like the tires, this function has to be regularly  well maintained.
  3. The body of the Jeep is the Marketing organization. This is what things look like to the outside observers and potential employees.  Just as my Jeep looks so darn cool, Marketing is responsible for making the organization look appealing to their customers.    
  4. The driver is the Leadership of the organization. Of course, like the driver of the Jeep, leadership is responsible for steering the organization to where, and at what speed, it needs to go and essentially sets the tone of everything that happens in the organization.
  5. The passengers are the Employees of the organization. The employees are not always just passive passengers but can assist Leadership with the direction they are going and can help drive and offer advice on where to go and how to get there.
  6. The tires are HR.  As are the tires, HR is not the most exciting part of an organization but the function that should always be in constant contact with the culture of the of the organization just as the tires are always in constant contact with the road. Good tires and good HR help the Jeeper and Organization safely navigate through difficult terrain/culture and weather/business environment conditions.  

The next two items are things that a Jeeper and organization have much less control over.  

  1. The climate and weather is the business environment the organization is in.  Jeepers have no control over the weather and Leadership has no control over the business environment. On any given day the weather/business environment can be clear and sunny, overcast, windy, gloomy, stormy – you get the picture.
  2. The road is the organization’s culture. Similar to an organization’s culture, the roads we drive can be smooth and dry, rough and rocky, slick and icy, and even flooded and impassable. Sometimes we even go off-road to experience something new and unusual.

And when we are talking about these last two items, where we have little to no control, it depends mostly on the skill of the driver/Leadership, the health of the engine/Operations, and quality of the tires/HR foundation that you have on your Jeep/organization that determines how well an organization navigates through challenging conditions as they reach their ultimate destination.

Since this is an HR blog and podcast I’ll close with this.  When the organization invests in a high quality HR organization and takes good care of it, just like me investing in and taking care of the high quality tires on my Jeep, the organization will be able to effectively and safely travel to it’s desired destination, weather all the storms, and navigate the different and often dangerous road conditions along the way.

What is a Strategic Plan?

This week I’m going to talk about what exactly a strategic plan is.

A strategic plan is a written statement about the future direction and goals of an organization or HR department based on an analysis of the organization’s current status, strategy, strengths, limitations, threats, and opportunities in the current and future business environment.  

An effective strategic plan helps the organization understand where it is now, where it would like to be in the future, and how it’s going to close the gap between its current reality and the desired future status in order to get to where it wants to be.

All good strategic plans support the organization’s vision, mission, and values as well as identify its strategic goals and needed resources.

Since I brought it up, let’s take a minute to define vision, mission and values even though most readers probably already know but it never hurts to revisit the definitions.

An organization’s vision statement provides a clear perspective of what it wants to have happen in the future. It includes a description of its operations as well as a compelling explanation of how the organization will look and function once the strategic plan has been implemented.

The organization’s mission statement is a clear description of it’s overall purpose. It identifies the essential reasons the organization exists and the principal products and services it provides to the marketplace.

Finally, the values of an organization represent the key core priorities of it’s culture. It’s what drives the organization’s priorities and how employees honestly behave.  An organization’s values typically remain the same over time.

A complete business strategy is made up of three parts – an operations strategy, a financial strategy, and most importantly IMO a people strategy.  I’m focusing on the people strategy, or HR Strategic Plan, as it provides the foundation of all the other strategies with the ability to identify, build, and reinforce the organization’s capabilities.  

The justifications for creating an HR Strategic Plan are that it provides a solid framework for value-added action, helps establish priorities, allows for the all important measurement of results, and creates a way for reallocating resources from the organization’s low producing activities to its high producing activities.

In addition, it helps increase and improve HR’s credibility within the organization by showing its positive impact on the organization’s bottom line. Which is always a good thing especially since, as I recently mentioned in a previous post, HR is still thought by many business leaders as pretty much an administrative function that operates separately from the rest of the other functions in the organization

In order for HR to take on a strategic role and be a strong strategic business partner, it must be represented in the leadership of an organization and be involved in defining the organizational issues before the strategic decision are made.  HR must be involved in turning those decisions into a set of organizational actions.  

According to my favorite HR thought leader, Dave Ulrich, there are several things an HR professional must do in order to be an effective Strategic HR Business Partner:

  • Understand and communicate that improvements are typically very difficult and complex and will take time to accomplish so watch out for quick fixes as they are typically very seductive but rarely work.
  • Align the HR Strategic Plan with the Business Strategic Plan which will ensure HR being seen as adding value to the organization.
  • Keep the strategic plan top of mind instead of shelving it and forgetting it.  The plan must be executed and managed in order to be effective.
  • Create a Capabilities Focus within the organization.

I want to focus a little more on that last bullet, Capabilities Focus, since the first three bullets are fairly self explanatory.

Capabilities are an organization’s ability to effectively manage its resources in order to gain a competitive advantage in the marketplace. They are anything the organization does well that improves business and creates a competitive advantage in the organization’s marketplace.  

Strategic HR Professionals are able to effectively identify and improve an organization’s capabilities that will help execute the organization’s strategy and leverage new products and services.

Some examples of organizational capabilities include knowledge, innovative designs, adaptability, cost competitiveness, and strong leadership.

Defining deliverables and showing how they can be measured and what actions need to be taken is critical in the strategic planning process. The Strategic HR Professional must focus on the deliverables which are, in other words, value added results.

The HR strategic plan is developed from looking, listening, questioning, clarifying and knowing what needs to be done.

The plan must include ways that HR can help the organization add value to its key stakeholders (employees, customers, and investors), improve organizational capabilities, improve employee competence, fulfill regulatory compliance, determine processes and activities that can be retained or outsourced, and align HR programs with organizational goals.

My next post in this series will discuss how the strategic HR Professional must be able to speak the language of business and define a few important strategic business terms that will need to be understood. Then after that, I’ll get into the steps of how to actually develop an HR Strategic Plan.

Change Champions and the HR Certification Battle

HR leaders, as Change Champions, must practice what we preach and embrace the significant change that is happening before us in the HR certification space.  As HR leaders, we are expected to be the Change Champions in our organizations.

In fact, the top HR thought leaders, Dave Ulrich and Wayne Brockbank spend a significant amount of time discussing the importance of change and HR as Change Champions in their two most recent books, HR From the Outside-In, Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources and Global HR Competencies, Mastering Competitive Value from the Outside In.

HR as a Change Champion is one of the six competencies they discuss.  Their context is that of HR being a Change Champion in their organization but it can just as easily be applied to the HR certification space.

In their book, HR From the Outside In, Six Competencies for the Future of Human Resources, they discuss how organizations go through dramatic change.  To emphasize their point, they cite the startling statistic that only 70 organizations from the 1955 Fortune 500 list are still in existence independently today.  In other words, 430 big and powerful organizations no longer independently exist.

In the book, they emphasize HR’s role in the change process and state the following:

HR professionals should help their companies face, accept, and be open to the pressures of change rather than hide from them.

 

They also state this:

If an organization cannot change as fast as the pace of change in its environment, the organization will fall behind, decline, and disappear.  Change in an organization should at least match the pace of change in the environment.

HR professionals conceptualize and design organizational agility, flexibility, and responsiveness to external changes.

Our profession is rapidly changing and evolving.  If our certifications don’t keep up with this change, they will become obsolete.   I commend SHRM for recognizing this and introducing a significant change to the HR certification space in response.  They are shaking up the status quo and taking a huge leap forward.

Prior to SHRM’s announced entry into the HR certification space, I never saw HRCI doing anything significant in response to the changes happening in our profession.  I expect they will now.

As I stated here in a previous blog post, our profession will end up better when one certification ends up winning the battle.  The competition will ultimately be good for the profession.

Again, I am not taking sides.  I am very proud of my SPHR and will also go through the steps to earn my SHRM-SCP as soon as it’s available in 2015.  I simply want the best for the HR profession and if this battle that takes us to the next level makes us uncomfortable, so be it.