By Walker, James W. | Human Resource Planning, December 1999 | Go to article overview
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Walker, James W., Human Resource Planning

This column addresses emerging trends and issues in the development and implementation of human resource strategies. Please respond with your views and experiences to or

Are We Business Leaders?

While many HR leaders today envision themselves as strategic business partners, sitting at the table and building organizational capabilities, many are finding it difficult to fulfill this role. Managers value HR's functional expertise, quick response to their problems and crises, and personal rapport and relationships; however, they do not always see HR leaders as fully contributing members of a management team. Further, they do not perceive people-related business issues and initiatives to be as important as financial, sales, and other business concerns.

HR leaders often accept a supporting role and concentrate on HR initiatives aligned with vaguely defined organizational capabilities, e.g., becoming an employer of choice (best place to work), improving employee retention, building a more collaborative and knowledge-sharing culture, becoming a more adaptive and flexible organization. Strengthening leadership, building and valuing diversity, improving productivity, increasing employee satisfaction, or building high performance work organizations are also common priorities.

Such initiatives may be important, but do we position them as critical actions for implementing specific business strategies? As business leaders we make a specific, clear, and convincing business case for sustained business attention to each people-related business issue. To do this, we address HR initiatives from a business point of view, instead of continually trying to add value to the business from an HR functional point of view. We set priorities for investing time and resources according to business requirements and measure effectiveness in terms of results achieved and business impact.

A Business Point of View

Major forces drive business strategies, and establish people as a critical factor in business success. A flood of studies, books, and articles describe how the competitive environment is changing. Customers are more demanding (e.g., service quality, product innovation, lower cost, brand loyalty); technological advances are driving rapid innovation (e.g., quantum business speed, e-business, information access, knowledge sharing); markets are global (e.g., products, brands, distribution, sourcing); industries are consolidating (e.g., mergers, acquisitions, joint ventures).

Effective business leaders anticipate these forces (or at least react to them) by making investment choices that address threats and seize opportunities. The time frame for implementing strategies has shrunk from three to five years to 11 to 18 months. Strategies focus on product or service innovations, market share growth (building customer loyalty, segmenting markets), penetration of new markets (e.g., global markets, untapped market segments), or business restructuring (organizational alignment, cost reduction, process and system changes). Every strategic choice is a commitment to action and of resources. Today's strategies are less about future vision and long-range plans and more about the future impact of today's decisions and actions.

Putting People into Strategy

How did Dell make its business profitable in China in only one year? How were the many mergers resulting in today's Chase Manhattan or Tyco so effectively achieved? How have Microsoft, Sun Microsystems, and Qualcomm sustained their entrepreneurial, innovative, high-performance cultures as they grew and changed rapidly? How have IBM, Texas Instruments, Hewlett-Packard, and many other leading companies re-invented themselves when it became necessary? Conversely, why have so many companies failed in their charted directions--losing the potential value of acquisitions, withdrawing from targeted markets, or losing market share to more innovative competitors?

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