Start Collaborating, Stop Commanding

This is part of a special advertising section on the Outlook for 2012.

Sunday, October 2, 2011
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In many ways, the challenge for HR today is the same as it always was: to engage talented employees who work productively to achieve the organization's goals. HR programs, from recruiting to development and from benefits to balanced lifestyle initiatives, have always been key to finding, developing, rewarding and keeping employees who are committed to the same ends as the organization.

What's changing in organizations around the world is a significant shift in the paradigm from "We do it for them" to "We do it with them." If this new model is to succeed, the underlying theme of effective HR initiatives will have to be "collaboration" rather than "command."

At first, we saw employers shift increased decision-making to the employees. But employees were, more often than not, woefully underequipped and understandably overwhelmed with this sudden thrust of responsibility. Organizations learned very quickly that a partnership with employees would be far more effective.

Employees now need to make their own personal decisions in developing their careers, staying healthy and being financially secure. But that doesn't mean "throwing them to the wolves." Employers shouldn't shift responsibility without helping employees build the necessary knowledge, skills and capabilities, and without providing information and tools. In addition, employees have to take responsibility for mastering and using the tools, information, training and decision support that their employers offer.

To help employees adapt to new levels of responsibility and accountability for their personal choices and behaviors, HR must provide four necessary "levers":

* Information ("I understand") that educates and promotes, and leads to informed choices. Examples for career, health and wealth decisions, respectively, include business strategies and plans, performance feedback and learning curricula; communication, branding and employer data on attitudes and behaviors; and financial education, total-rewards statements and modeling tools.

* Incentives ("I want to") that encourage greater responsibility. Examples include pay for performance, career advancement and tuition reimbursement; prizes, cost and premium differentials, and social and behavioral techniques related to encouraging healthy behaviors; and employer-matching contributions and time off for financial education activities.

* Infrastructure ("I'm able to"), comprising the resources, services and tools that enable action. Examples include competency models, flexible work arrangements and online course catalogs to help in career development; health portals, coaching help, decision support and on-site resources related to health; and automatic enrollment, baseline DB or DC benefit, and retirement-planning tools that enable effective retirement saving.

* Imperatives ("I must") that enforce accountability for behavior and actions. They include things such as demanding excellence and integrity in work performance, leading by example, developing others and exceeding performance goals; becoming tobacco-free, undergoing mandatory screenings and skills training, and providing healthy foods/snacks on-site; and saving in order to earn a match, knowing all available sources of retirement income, and longevity risk.

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The goal is a workforce filled with employees who are willing and prepared to make decisions about their careers, their health and their financial security -- decisions made in their own best interests, aligned with the best interests of their employers.

Savvy HR executives understand that supporting tools and resources are necessary to help employees make this transition. For example, our clients are providing some creative applications such as portals, second-world environments and customizable avatars that not only "get the job done," but make it very personalized and human, breaking down formal barriers that have been characteristic of the business world for decades. This, in turn, enables the organization to forge a stronger, more meaningful employment experience for its people.

Most organizations care about increasing productivity, attracting and retaining the best employees, controlling absence, enhancing safety, boosting morale and developing careers. Although these programs are critical to maintaining a competitive, high-performing organization, actually demonstrating the impact to senior leadership is essential to justifying continued investments. To be seen as strategic partners, HR executives will need the skill to convince the CFO -- in the CFO's language of assets, returns-on-investment and so on -- that "soft" programs are vital to building an effective workforce and strengthening the bottom line.

That's going to be difficult, with senior leaders focused on short-term cost control and risk mitigation in a sluggish and unpredictable economy. No dollar is going to be spent without a clear contribution to the organization's profitability.

But with a targeted strategy and persuasive business case, HR can influence the business toward understanding that a collaborative partnership with employees is a sound long-term investment.

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