HR Leadership Column

A Silver Anniversary

For all of the sea changes in business, science, technology and public policy over the past 25 years, the challenge for HR has essentially remained the same: to help people and organizations survive and thrive in these constantly changing environments.

Monday, March 19, 2012
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Editor's note: Leading up to HRE's 25th anniversary in May, each of our online columnists were asked to address the changes they've seen affecting their areas of expertise over the past 25 years and what those changes might mean to HR leaders going forward.

I recently spent time going through files I'd accumulated over the years, trying to make room for newer materials. If you've ever done this, you know it can be a mind-numbing process.


While tedious, the process gave me a trip down memory lane, since many of the materials were collected during my 20-plus years at the Society for Human Resource Management. I started with SHRM in 1987 -- when it was still the American Society for Personnel Administration -- and the same year that Human Resource Executive® was launched.

While the world has certainly changed around us in the past 25 years, what struck me most as I went through these materials wasn't how much the HR profession has changed (indeed it has changed a lot); what struck me was how much the challenge of HR -- to help workforces navigate those changes -- has remained the same.

Clearly, there have been sea changes in business, science, technology and public policy -- all with implications for the workplace and the HR profession.

Where businesses once worried about competitors down the street or across the country, they now have global worries.

Companies source talent from around the world just to remain competitive. Free trade has increased, as has global arbitrage for low-cost labor. Countries are more interdependent, a fact underscored by the recent global economic downturn.

Advances in medicine -- which have led to new drugs and therapies that have extended lives -- have resulted in dramatic increases in the costs of healthcare. Those costs are compounded by the large demographic impact of aging baby boomers across the developed world.

Technology, as well, has evolved immensely, allowing for automation and/or outsourcing of much of the transactional aspects of HR, from applicant tracking, timekeeping and payroll to benefits enrollment and administration.

It has also changed the way work is done and, thus, how people are managed and productivity is measured.

Where 25 years ago employees were tethered to the workplace to do their jobs, those same employees today can use technology to be located anywhere. Now, it's as much about what gets done as how long it takes to do it.

Twenty-five years ago, a prompt business response meant using a fax. PCs were becoming more common, Internet service providers were just coming online and email was just emerging.

Today, communication is global, instantaneous and frequently by video.

Shifts in public policy during the past 25 years have imposed lots of acronyms and additional compliance obligations on U.S. employers -- from the ADA, FMLA and IRCA to SOX and PPACA.

The focus on affirmative action has also changed and, while regulatory red tape remains, organizations now often view affirmative action as a narrow subset of a much broader issue of diversity management -- one that includes educational, background, learning styles, etc.

HR leaders now focus on ways to leverage this diversity to drive culture, processes and productivity in the workplace. And just as importantly, they focus on the ways diversity impacts customer preferences.

But perhaps the most important change has been the distance traveled by the HR profession itself, journeying from a purely transactional role toward an integral role in developing and executing business strategies.

A prescient view of HR leadership came 25 years ago from Cornell University Professor Lee Dyer and corporate executive Gerald W. Holder, when they wrote:

"The field, for better or for worse, has discovered, and indeed begun to embrace, a strategic perspective. The intellectual energy currently being invested in discussions of the nature, extent, and desirability of this development is a clear indication that something of significance is afoot. Understand it or not, believe in it or not, like it or not, strategy is well on its way to becoming an important paradigm behind much of what HR professionals do and think." (Toward a Strategic Perspective of Human Resource Management, 1987.)

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Over these past 25 years -- in part, with the help of HRE -- most HR leaders have learned how to incorporate "decision science" into their profession, using research to help inform what practices are most -- and least -- effective in driving organizational results.

CEOs and non-HR executives of the most successful companies are now much more likely to appreciate and welcome the contributions of business-savvy HR professionals. They work with HR professionals who have never "asked for a seat at the table" -- because they don't need to. The nature and extent of their contributions dictate their inclusion in any strategic business conversation.

So, with all of these changes and with so many HR executives being recognized for their contributions amidst these changes, isn't it interesting that the most pressing HR challenge has actually remained constant over the last 25 years?

The HR profession has always operated in the center of change -- changes in business, science, technology, public policy, etc., and these changes have always impacted the workplace. And they always will.

As I sorted through my files, I found an amazing consistency over the years -- research on the need for a more skilled workforce, on new HRM technologies, on the challenges of managing work/life, on demographic changes and globalization, on compensation and benefits design, on performance management, on working and managing across borders, on outsourcing, insourcing, new legal and regulatory requirements, changes in board governance, to name but a few.

And it made me realize that, while HR professionals may apply different strategies and tactics to absorb, address and leverage these issues over time, their primary challenge will always be to help people and organizations survive and thrive in an environment of constant change.

Susan R. Meisinger, former president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, is an author, speaker and consultant on human resource management. She is on the board of directors of the National Academy of Human Resources.

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