It’s Not Easy, But Here’s Where HR Can Add Value to the Business

We want a seat at the table? We want to add value? We want to positively influence the success of the business?

OK, then let’s stop giving away one of our best tools – the art and science of performance improvement!

No, not performance management, where managers spend as little time as possible each year providing feedback to employees that is as bland as possible.

I mean real performance improvement; the sort of improvement that gets the attention of executives and builds the bottom line. Performance improvement that brings together the social sciences to examine and adjust human behavior through assessment, action and evaluation.

HR is losing an opportunity to add value

HR is all about the people, right? OK, so when the IT department is implementing a new technology platform, do they turn to HR for support in change leadership, or do they hire the consultant recommended by the software vendor who is an “expert” in this people process?

When the organization is acquiring a new company whose product is different from the parent organization (perhaps in the spirit of diversification), do they ask HR to help understand how the new relationship will impact performance because of cultural differences? Probably they don’t even think of that.

When a department is performing poorly, do operational leaders invite HR to help them diagnose the problem? I think many HR professionals would say “no, they just ask us for team building.”

I contend that HR is losing an opportunity to truly add value to their organizations by not having or being perceived as having the knowledge and skill to step in?

The body of knowledge that can help in change leadership, cultural assessment, and performance diagnosis is the “D” side of HR — Human Resources Development. Sometimes it is called Organizational Development, sometimes Organizational Efficiency, sometimes Learning and Development. It’s all built on research and theory from the likes of Kurt Lewin, Peter Senge, Margaret Wheatley, Warner Burke, and Edgar Schein.

This kind of work is not easy

I have watched each of those scenarios I described play out in more than one organization as operational leaders don’t think about HR as having either the role or the skills to be an active partner in performance improvement, and I have watched new disciplines emerge to fill this gap. Project Management, Lean, Six Sigma, quality and performance improvement methodologies are growing, standardizing and leading organizations in the human elements of process and change.

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But this is exactly the role and skills that will offer the opportunity for Human Resources to add real value to an organization. It facilitates the proactive development of knowledge, understanding and commitment, rather than the reactive role of compliance that we so often face.

But here’s the catch: This kind of work is not easy, and in this age of information overload, doing more with less, and a slowly recovering economy, organizations are looking for “easy.” Not only must Human Resource Development have the skills to intervene, but they must also have the skills to influence a systematic approach to looking at the systems and processes that often get in the way of performance.

Knowledge that is critical for success

From my perspective, here are five bodies of knowledge that are critical for successful HR teams:

  1. Organizational culture. I often hear leaders talk about “changing the culture.” A student of organizational culture recognizes that you don’t change the culture. You change the behavior; behavior is the tangible and visible sign of organizational health, and can be carefully shifted.
  2. Performance and Process Improvement. The content and tools offered by Project Management, Lean and Six Sigma should be part of every HR leader’s toolbox, as they facilitate a systematic diagnosis of the problem, leading to some action that ideally fixes the problem, and then evaluating the effectiveness of the fix.
  3. Organizational Change. As John Kotter’s research indicated, 70 percent of change efforts fail. The science of organizational change focuses on all facets of the organization – the people, the processes, the systems, the politics, and the engagement and commitment of the workforce. Like any highly complex system, you move one lever, and something unexpected happens to another level. Having the tools and knowledge to predict and address a holistic approach raises the odds of success.
  4. Learning and Development. Too often we continue the myth of training classes to develop leaders and our workforce. Lombardo and Eichinger propose that only 10 percent of learning comes from reading and classes. Adults learn and develop skills by having the opportunity to practice. HR leaders need a healthy dose of adult learning theory in order to help operational leaders understand that a class is rarely going to effect change.
  5. Data and Information. The field of human resource development is formed by the “Assess-Do-Evaluate” method. In order to effectively asses — to find the root cause of the problem — HR must have credible data.

For a little light reading, here is my favorite reading list, and it is very worthwhile for those HR practitioners who see the opportunity in the “D.”

These are my thoughts. I would love to hear yours.

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


8 Comments on “It’s Not Easy, But Here’s Where HR Can Add Value to the Business

    1. Hi Elizabeth – I really think that the whole emerging area of performance improvement is a competency that HR cannot afford to be without. Thanks for commenting.

  1. Carol,
    It is refreshing to see many of the greats in OD mentioned in relation to development ie. Lewin, Schein etc. As an OD practitioner I am often one of those “consultants” HR is told by leadership to call in and help in the situations you mention. I make it a point in my work to transfer knowledge and collaborate. I’ve found all to often c-level discourages such collaboration as they want HR doing “HR” things. This can be frustrating as it is prohibitive in helping HR folks learn the skills you mention to increase their value and focus more on development.

    1. You are so right Scott. I started as HR, shifted to OD and am also now one of those consultants. OD, as a practice, is not for the shy or untrained and consultants bring competence that may not be necessary on a day-to-day basis, but I truly believe that HR should know the basics – one of which is don’t throw solutions at unknown problems. We’ve let the “HR” things, as you so aptly put it, override the “things” that add value. Thanks for commenting.

  2. You spoke to me at the core! This article basically summarized my exact situation and provided the tangibility I’ve been looking for around HR Development/OD. Performance Improvement is something that is so vital to the health and sustainability of any business, and I like that you differentiate it from Performance Management which is perceived to be a burden for many people managers, especially when they reach the point of having to discipline on performance. You nailed the “What” and you touched on the “How”. The HR world could use more “How To”. Thank you for this!

  3. I absolutely agree, Carol. Better utilizing the bodies of knowledge above, along with a more strategic view of the business, would enable HR leaders to have a much greater impact. Along with having this knowledge, they need to be wiling to present or pitch themselves and their ideas on performance improvement instead of waiting to be asked. Many execs simply aren’t aware that their HR partners have these capabilities. It’s true that some execs still won’t go for it, as it’s not ‘easy’ work that can simply be ‘rolled out’ or ‘cascaded’ through the organization via PowerPoint. And Scott, your point that some execs just want their HR teams to do ‘HR’ things is well taken. This is where HR needs to step up and influence their leadership, to help them see that performance improvement and org change are ‘HR’ things. Great conversation guys!

  4. In my view the real challenge is HR leadership being ill prepared for high impact projects. There is a capability gap. All the things you mention as critical to success require knowledge and expertise.

  5. This was really helpful. I’m looking to implement an HR dept. at my current job after I graduate from college in the spring. I’m researching key reasons why HR dept. are important so I can draw up a report to share with the executive. I plan on using some of these points.

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