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HR needs to listen well and talk louder

Katrina Pritchard, Senior Lecturer in Organisation Studies at The Open University Business School,​ examines whether the HR function has changed.

Picture of Katrina Pritchard

Has the HR function changed?  Perhaps this is a more fundamental question to ask than how it has changed. Reading reviews from both academic and practitioner perspectives over the last ten years it seems possible to suggest that not much has changed after all.  The HR professionals I talk to, and perhaps most importantly, the students working towards a career in HR, still seem to struggle with a ‘caught in the middle’ positioning between employees and employers. 

Despite the promise of mutual benefit from so many HR practices, the day to day reality seems to be rather different, much more of a juggling act.  Much discussion about the HR profession focuses on the need for a strategic voice.  Yet what this strategic voice should say, on whose behalf it should speak, needs more debate within our HR departments, between HR professionals and between the HR profession and senior leaders.

We have seen a decade of great technological, economic and environmental change.  These changes will continue apace.  Add into that mix the fragile political climate, demographic shifts and the HR challenges for professionals working in all forms of organisations will intensify.

It is essential that the HR profession do not find themselves as the shoeless ‘cobbler’s children’. Much more work is needed to understand key HR practices and how these can shape and be shaped in the workplace.  HR needs the expertise to advise both employers and employees in the future.  This expertise will not come from deploying buzz words but from developing a better understanding of work and working life in the organisations in which they work.

Thankfully it is less common these days to meet a HR professional who has not spent at least some time on their organisation’s (equivalent of the) shop floor, but too few visit it regularly to see how work is changing.

This is where HR needs to be to understand the challenges that their organisation will face in the future.  Of course they should be joined by other organisational professionals too, and work with them in planning for the future.  Undoubtedly different industries and sectors will face different challenges over the next decade.  Some will soar and some will struggle.

HR professionals in both expanding and shrinking organisations will face difficult decisions; the outcomes of which may well be judged here in ten years’ time.

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