No hiding place in the office

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The Independent Online
IT HAS become a truism that there are few, if any, hiding places in the modern world of work. Every employee at every level feels under the cosh.

But when it comes to departments, the position of human resources - personnel - is particularly unenviable. The finance function, for instance, has in most organisations adapted so that it lives up to the current management mantra of adding value, while processes and policies in such areas as manufacturing and research and development have largely been overhauled.

Human resources is a special case; it is caught in a pincer movement. On one hand, HR departments are under pressure to do more, faster and at less cost. On the other, flatter management structures are pushing responsibility for such traditional HR roles as hiring and firing and assessment to junior executives. Some HR directors have responded to this with zeal as it provides the opportunity to become involved in strategy development and implementation rather than mere administration. If people really are an organisation's greatest asset, the executive in charge should see the potential importance of what he or she is doing, even if they find it hard to achieve results.

However, many HR professionals seem trapped in the past. A new book published out of Canada should act as a wake-up call. Re-Inventing HR, edited by Margaret Butteriss and published by John Wiley & Sons (C$49.95), leaves the reader in little doubt that the profession is at a critical juncture.

The point is clearly made in the first chapter, written by the editor herself. "The equation of human resources with the processing of personnel forms - payroll, benefits, evaluation, etc - no longer makes sense to companies driven by global markets, global competition, and new technology," she writes. "While management still expects human resources to perform its transactional role - at reduced cost, HR is also being called on for new contributions in its traditional area of expertise, dealing with people."

Ms Butteriss, an experienced consultant in the area, says HR needs to deliver in two key areas if it is to help companies to meet the challenge of global expansion. The first is creating a common company-wide "value system" and the second is providing leadership development and assessment to ensure the communication of that system and company continuity by providing for executive succession.

Different organisations will have different approaches to achieving these aims. The current trend is to have small corporate HR departments, whose role is to provide overall HR strategy, with other aspects of the job devolved to line managers.

Specialist HR assistance will be provided either by a cadre of troubleshooters or by external consultants. The idea is that this gives the business the expertise it needs in a cost-effective way. In the more extreme cases, the HR department is almost entirely outsourced.

With contributions from established HR practitioners, academics and the senior executives who are demanding changes in the way the profession operates, this book goes a long way towards providing vital assistance for that makeover as well as demonstrating the extent to which more forward- thinking specialists are already re-inventing themselves.