The World Has Changed — So Why Isn’t HR Able to Change With It?

Howard Risher’s recent TLNT article (HR Should Focus on Confirming Its Value, Not on Cost-Per-Hire) touched one of my hot buttons. Not what he said, but the issue of “strategic” HR in general.

I don’t know how active you are on LinkedIn, but I have been a member for the past four years. In that time there have been literally dozens of discussions on HR groups that have to do with:

  • Do you think we should change our name from HR or Human Capital to something else to give more credibility to our function?
  • What does HR need to do to get a “seat at the table?
  • What can we do to get top management to realize our value?
  • Why won’t top management back us on the people programs we are trying to implement?

Why are these HR hang-ups?

Just the same questions, over and over and over.

After about 200 comments recently on one of these LinkedIn discussions, one woman commented — and I swear I’m not making this up — “As long as HR insists on turning very simple questions into week-long, unbelievably complicated debates using terminology that no one outside of this profession would neither understand nor wish to, then it is no surprise if people struggle to find their true place in the business or in the boardroom.”


It is not as though these questions have just started appearing. They have been around for 30 plus years.

Why? Why does HR have so much trouble with its function? Why would changing the name of HR help? Why does HR get so “hung up” on things like this?

You don’t see that happening in Sales, Marketing, Engineering, Manufacturing, Finance, etc. Is HR so insecure that it believes changing its name every three or four years will somehow make top management think of them in a whole new light?

A national HR professional organization is working on some standards that will define everything in the HR function. They will become the global standard. As Howard Risher said in his article, the first one to be completed is the metric on cost-per-hire.

7 things HR needs to start doing

A person associated with this organization said: “If we can develop a standard, it’s no longer whether we should have a seat at the table. We are there.”

Really? I doubt it.

My beliefs:

  • HR needs to quit talking to HR. It does nothing but reinforce old habits and make us cling to processes/practices that make us feel comfortable
  • HR needs to stop listening to HR vendors that are constantly touting the latest flavor of the month. Vendors are the ones that are the guiltiest (in my opinion) of coming up with new words and catchy phrases. Remember when talent acquisition was “recruiting?” Pray tell me — what’s changed?
  • HR needs to quit trying to implement “best practices” in their company. The only best practice that exists is what works in your company — not other companies.
  • HR needs to quit reading HR material and start reading business publications: The Economist, The New York Times, Forbes, Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, and others.
  • HR needs to take courses in business – they exist for non-business people
  • HR needs to talk to the CEO and all the other members of top management to understand the business strategy. EVERYTHING, including HR strategy, flows from that.
  • Take everything off the current “HR program” table. Nothing is sacred. Then pick each program or practice up and examine it in an unbiased fashion. If it fits the business strategy put it back on the table. If it doesn’t throw it away. HR has gotten too invested in traditional programs/practices.

The world has changed. Read Peter Cappelli’s Talent Management for the Twenty-First Century. Send me your email address and I’ll send you a copy of a PepsiCo Vice President of HR’s comments on why HR should eliminate high-potential programs. (Sorry there is no link. His comments are from LinkedIn.)

Are you equipped for doing business?

Dr. Ed Holton in The Talent Doctor says it best:

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In my experience the REAL key is this – YOU HAVE TO LOVE THE BUSINESS AS MUCH AS YOU LOVE HR. HR professionals rightly love their profession with all its myriad tools and tactics. But that only leads to “transactional” human resources.

He goes on to say:

If you want to make the move to strategic HR, you have to fall in love with the ‘business’ of your organization. Only then will you get as excited about studying the business plans and strategic goals of your organization as you do about HR.”

The truth? Most human resources managers aren’t particularly interested in, or equipped for, doing business. And in a business, that’s sort of a problem. As guardians of a company’s talent, HR has to understand how people serve corporate objectives.

To quote Ed Holton again:

As disappointing as it may seem to some, HR is just a means to an end. So is Sales, Marketing, Engineering, Manufacturing, etc. The real end goal is to make the company more successful. The ONLY tools and tactics we should be implementing are those that drive the company toward its strategic goals.”

Anthony J. Rucci, EVP of HR at Cardinal Health Inc., a big health-care supply distributor, says, “Business acumen is the single biggest factor that HR professionals in the U.S. lack today.” (He’s quoted Fast Company‘s famous in Why We Hate HR).

Questions HR should be able to answer

Rucci is consistently mentioned by academics, consultants, and other HR leaders as an executive who actually does know business. As far as Rucci is concerned, there are three questions that any decent HR person in the world should be able to answer.

  • First, who is your company’s core customer? Have you talked to one lately? Do you know what challenges they face?
  • Second, who is the (company) competition? What do they do well and not well?
  • And most important, who are we (as a company)? What is a realistic assessment of what we do well and not so well vis a vis the customer and the competition?

Wake up — it’s the “new normal” for both business and HR. The pace of change and complexity in the business world is accelerating. Visibility about the future is unclear. Predicting what will happen next has become increasingly difficult. Executives and boardrooms struggle with questions about business strategy.

Is HR able to adapt and change?

When a company searches for the right forecast, there is no clear answer. Ambiguity is at a high point. Trying to replicate what worked yesterday does not work — EITHER FOR BUSINESS OR HR. Executives truly need an HR that is strategic — that can let go of the past, roll up its sleeves and struggle through the unknown future with them.

As Charles Darwin once said: “It is not the strongest of the species that survives; nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

Please do not think I am arrogant or have all the answers. I truly don’t. But … why still doesn’t HR “get it?”

Jacque Vilet, president of Vilet International, has more than 20 years’ experience in international human resources with major multinationals such as Intel, National Semiconductor, and Seagate Technology. She has managed both local/ in-country national and expatriate programs and has been an expat twice during her career. She has also been a speaker in the U.S., Asia, and Europe, and is a regular contributor to various HR and talent management publications. Contact her at


10 Comments on “The World Has Changed — So Why Isn’t HR Able to Change With It?

  1. I always get so excited when I read articles like this!  I swear I feel at times like I’m the only one who feels this way and trying to influence change in HR is more difficult than with our clients!  I’ve often said we have to work to be business people first and HR people second.  Utilize our partners in marketing and advertizing to give us a new look, but more importantly, change internally to fit and meet that image.  We have to meet the company’s goals and business needs, not our own ‘flavor of the moment’ HR idea.  If you do not understand what the business challenges are then our clients will never look at us as anything other than a problem solver for when employees act up and we have to help clean it up, or just a staffing agency for them. 
    Again good article

  2. Why would changing the name of HR help? It will not if you do not reinforce the name change with action. This is the same as any other branding attempt (and by the way sales is the worst at the verbiage game.) Yet, a name that properly represents the department can be a powerful thing.

    Overall, I agree with your analysis of things we should be doing. These are things I have spent 10 plus years doing as an HR leader and consultant. The first one on your list is the most important. HR people should be listening to leadership about the issues you list in number six.

    One last thing…do not pick on vendors. We can be your best friend if you pick the right ones.

    Thanks for the post.

  3. We can discuss every of these points’ pro and con, now I’ll just comment on one point. 

    If you’d like HR to be more business-minded, why do you (so often) insist on them having a degree in psychology?  (Q not meant for the author of this article, but employers in general)

    1. I believe that understanding the employees within an organization is a key asset that all HR professionals should possess, what motivates them, how they like to communicate and be communicated to and how to deal with and understanding conflict management.

      I agree with your inquiry regarding the requirement of a Psychology Degree, but why not simply insert the requirement of possessing all the skills that I had mentioned as a required competency (specific job qualification requirement)?

      Conflict management is a huge part of HR but it’s important to remember that it is one of MANY functions that HR performs and takes on.

      1. That’s fine with me Sam. Functions and skills you mention are precious for all managers, and we should not leave it all to HR only (motivation, communication, understanding, conflict management etc.). I know that’s not what you meant, just wanted to make sure we are all accountable. Maybe we can expect HR to support us additionally in all mentioned functions, but responsibility is shared, right?

  4. Hi —- thanks for the comments.   Liliana I haven’t heard of anyone talking about a degree in Psychology —- but I have heard of people having a  degree in HRM and then seeking a degree in MSHR.  They miss a great opportunity in getting an MBA instead so they will learn about business.   IMHO they don’t need more HR education —they need to learn business and the MBA is a nice qual to have.

    1. Hi and thanks Jacque.

      Degree in psychology is very common requirement in some countries I lived or worked in. (you don’t see it in the US?) More often than not they are stating ”psychology” degree is mandatory not only for HR, but for HR trainers, consultants, coaches and similar.
      I am not so convinced how much (any) degree itself will ensure doing a great job as HR, but it would be nice to have people there who are at least interested and excited by business, and probably there are few.

  5. I’m a recent graduate from a business program at a university in Canada. I could not agree more with this article. 
    It’s difficult to “get a seat at the table” when HR simply acts like HR by doing the traditional transactional administrative functions. This is what earns it the title of simply being a cost centre and takes it away from being a partner.
    Taking the next step requires HR to think in terms of contributing and adding value to the business, that’s what will earn HR the title of Human Capital management and finally be considered as a partner as opposed to being simply labelled as an outsource-able cost centre.

  6. Ah, here we go again. Here is the scoop-humans are humans and HR, regardless of what silly titles they go by or where the seats they sit in are located,or who they report to, deal with messy, messy humans. And all this ‘metrics’ stuff-yes, you have to do some of that but do not get so wrapped up in metrics that you forget that humans can not be neatly boxed and labelled. It is a guarantee that as soon as you think all the people stuff can be managed by someone elses best practice, or fall neatly into a metric, or that they don’t mind being referred to as ‘capital, assets or resources” they will be sure to let you know how far off course you have veered.

    You know what HR people really to to figure out first? Be adaptable, agile, collaborative. And no matter how much education and experience you have, the minute you think “I have seen it all” -is the precise time you should also say-I still have so much to learn. And that is the best part of HR-all those people things keep your brain so active, it keeps you from descending into mediocrity-unless you decide mediocre is where you wish to be.

    And I am only 70% tongue in cheek here.

  7. I wrote an article that is analogous to this article published in ERE on Recruiters needing to adapt.

    I agreed with aspects of this article but also found some comments to be missing the mark:
    * HR wants to be strategic but rarely is and many don’t understand the business
    * HR rarely talks strategic metrics important to the business – it doesn’t know how to influence, manage and measure people to serve corporate objectives
    * HR in general, hasn’t seemed to change much and today, with changing complexity in business – it not likely they’ll be extinct but are in danger
    There are a lot of articles recently on why HR is irrelevant, an obstacle or plainly sucks.
    * Picking on HR vendors like they created this problem. That’s naïve. I’ve spent most of my career in corporate TA & HR and now, on vendor side. Listen to the right ones
    * Best practices can work but they need to be right for the company
    * Name changing isn’t bad in itself. I’d prefer Human Capital or Talent Management to Personnel. Of all corporate functions, our view of the employee has changed
    I agreed with most of the article though. I’d add:
    * HR should become irrelevant unless it can move away from just compliance based risk reduction focus
    * HR and more specifically, Recruitment/TA should become a profit center
    * HR has to fight hard to influence the C-suite, and especially the CFO – that #1 priority for the CFO should be to enable leaders to hire the best talent. Being a cost-center
    * Find a way to make the workplace a welcoming place to be…political correctness, lack of humor and political games (which HR is good at) are the basis of most environments.
    You can make money and still have fun.

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