HR of the Future: Looking Back on Predictions from 1997

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I was cleaning out my materials from my Masters program because I am totally out of room in my office and something had to give.

As I was looking at what I collected over six years (yes, it took that long to finish), I found an article that grabbed my attention (again): The Transformation of the Human Resource Function: Resolving the Tension Between a Traditional Administrative and a New Strategic Role.

I thought, wow – how timely. I long to see Human Resource be the force that I think they can be.

So I leafed through the article and was amazed to find that it was authored by a professor from the Harvard Business School. Huh? It’s unusual to find HR as a topic of the Harvard Business School. Then I looked at the date … The article was published in Human Resource Management in Spring 1997! That got my attention, as I thought the topic would have been more contemporary. Then I started to read.

Making a mid-90s case for more strategic HR

The author makes a case for the needed paradigm shift to a more strategic HR:

  • “Competition, globalization and continuous change in markets and technology;”
  • “A flatter, less bureaucratic, less hierarchical, faster and more responsive organization is emerging as the model for the future;”
  • The need for “far higher levels of (1) coordination across functions, business units, and borders; (2) employee commitment to continuous improvement; (3) general management and leadership competence; (4) creativity and entrepreneurship; and (5) open communication.”
  • Pressures for cost reduction within Human Resources.

The author goes on to describe an organization where the CEO found that his HR Director was not “up to the task” of driving the strategic change in organizing and managing people. What is particularly interesting is that the HR Director had been hired five years before because of his excellent record, and had created nationally award-winning HR programs for the organization. But line executives “saw an expensive HR organization adding negligible value.“

How many times have we bemoaned that we weren’t getting the “seat at the table” or being listened to?

A 1997 vision for the “new” HR

The author describes his vision of the “new” HR function (remember, this was 1997):

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  • HR will have shed the admin, compliance and service role;
  • HR will focus on developing the capabilities of the organization and the leaders;
  • Admin functions, enabled by technology, will be centralized, allowing time for strategic work;
  • HR will question traditional programs that don’t add value (he cites performance appraisal and pay structures);
  • HR will become evidence-based in determining value-add;
  • HR will develop leaders to do leadership work;
  • HR will provide expertise in “organization design, organization change, and intervention methods;” and,
  • Corporate HR will be small, and focused on compensation, management development, diversity and organization effectiveness.”

And finally, the author describes the obstacles including the skill and competence of existing HR practitioners, and the lack of understanding on the part of the CEO about what HR should contribute.

So, the two things that strike me about this article:

  1. First, it doesn’t feel like we’ve progressed very far in 16 years.
  2. Second, when will this profession that has so much opportunity to really drive business success take steps to grow?

Just as a lark, I recently looked at the front page. The “most popular” topics were benefits/health care (4), Payroll/taxes (1), Job descriptions (1), EEOC (1), Engagement surveys (1), Interviewing (1), Training (1).

Is this the work that will position HR in a place of influence on the business?

This originally appeared on the ….@ the intersection of learning & performance blog.

Carol Anderson is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in February 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications. Contact Carol at


7 Comments on “HR of the Future: Looking Back on Predictions from 1997

  1. Sometimes I agree with you Crystal, but then I look at how many HR folks really do “get” it, and feel like there has to be a way to reinvent!

  2. Crystal nothing much has changed. The “seat at the table” discussion has been going on for years —- long before 1997. Thought leaders say like John Boudreau, Ed Lawler, John Sullivan, etc. all say that if HR doesn’t become strategic the whole function will be outsourced.

    Your surprise about Harvard having an article on HR? HR people need to stop reading HR online mags, blogs, articles and stop talking to consultants that are only interested in touting their wares —-and start reading biz mags —- Harvard Business Review, Time, The Economist, Fortune, Forbes. That’s where you will find what the business world is engaged in/interested in/concerned about.

    Listening to business people including CEOs is infinitely more helpful than reading HR articles and attending SHRM conferences.

    I tried to get my local SHRM chapter to have a CEO attend one of the monthly meetings and talk about what CEOs want from HR. No response.

    1. Jacque, we are at a pretty critical crossroads, if we haven’t already headed across the tracks. The first thing I think we need to do is to stop talking about strategy and tactics, and focus on what the business needs from the people. Outsourcing the “tactical” doesn’t work – we all tried that in the 1990s. Breaking up HR risks not seeing a holistic picture of the people. I have watched HR professionals talk about being strategic, but the strategy isn’t in HR, it’s in the business.

      I’ve had the same conversations about what CEOs want from HR, but in truth, CEOs may know what they want, but they most likely don’t know what they need. We have to figure out a way to create that need.

      1. I agree Carol that CEOs don’t always know what they need from the workforce —- but the first thing that needs to happen is to have a discussion with him/her. The company business strategy is — like or not —- the goal. So HR needs to know and understand that. No “I don’t like it — the company needs another goal”, etc. Get with the program. Other functions —- mfg, engineering,marketing, etc. may not agree either. If they all refused to participate that’s a problem.

        The business comes first — again like it or not. Use that business strategy to figure out how HR can build their plans/programs, etc. to get the workforce aligned to it. That’s a must. HR doesn’t create a strategy in a vacuum. It all starts with the business.

        Take people where they are and build from that. If a CEO wants X and it would best to do Y, take him where he is and do X. If it works fine — if it doesn’t, then explain why and suggest Y. Can’t expect to change CEOs overnight. Take them in baby steps.

        1. Jacque, that concept – if he wants X give it to him – is sort of what I was trying to say in the post. HR, at least in my experience, keeps saying “we don’t do that” because they want to be strategic. So in essence, they have no invitation to BE strategic AND they aren’t doing what is expected. Double whammy.

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