Changing the role of human resources

Google “HR” and “seat at the table” and you’ll find articles from nearly ten years ago lamenting why the human resources function does not have such a seat—in other words, it has little voice in the executive suite. Part of the reason may be how HR practitioners view themselves. The 2013 State of Talent Managers Report from New Talent Management Network found that “the modest and siloed career ambitions among those in HR suggests that we must either meaningfully shift how we grow HR talent or become comfortable having marginal impact…[as a result] talent leaders will likely develop more myopic and less strategic solutions.”

There is great potential if companies can change how they view HR—and how HR views itself. Commenting on President Obama’s plans to improve the economy by strengthening the manufacturing sector, Tom Kochan, Professor of Work and Employment Research and Engineering Systems at MIT Sloan, told HR Executive Online, “One of the most important factors in [the manufacturing industry’s] success is HR.”

According to Kochan, HR “must play a lead role in not only ensuring that workers are properly trained and that processes are well-designed, but also that workers are empowered to share their ideas for improving how things are done.” Unfortunately, Kochan points out that “many HR departments lack the bench strength necessary for designing work systems and tapping workers’ knowledge for improving processes.”

Perhaps HR departments should take a cue from the evolving role of finance departments. Not long ago, finance was relegated to “just doing the numbers,” ensconced in budgets and billing. Now, many finance departments and finance executives play a much more strategic role, analyzing the data behind the numbers, making strategic recommendations on operations, and ultimately, having a “seat at the table.”

Every role on an executive board has a function and reason for existing. If HR plays a more strategic role, one that enables them to empower employees, they will be an equal player in the executive suite—and one that brings great potential for overall company success. “If we’ve learned anything over the past 20 years, it’s that technology alone is not the solution to our competitiveness challenge—it’s integrating the workforce and the work systems right from the beginning, managing these technologies and these advanced workers in ways that get the full benefits out of the work—and that goes right to the HR profession,” said Kochan.

Tom Kochan

 is the George Maverick Bunker Professor of Management and
Professor of Work and Employment Research and Engineering Systems at MIT. He is also the Co-Director of MIT Sloan Institute for Work Employment Research.

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