The Future of HR? It’s Getting Back Into the People Business

I often get asked what are the big trends I see today in HR, and I found myself getting asked that question a lot at the 65th SHRM Annual Conference & Exhibition in Chicago.

So, I’ll tell you what I told all of them.

Here are three big trends I’m seeing right now:

Back to the past for HR

It’s this last point that I’m the most interested in, because the future of HR may actually be found in its past, as former HR executive Liz Ryan points out.

I’ve written here before about how much I appreciate the incredibly smart advice that Liz regularly dispenses in her management column at Bloomberg Businessweek, but it is when she focuses on HR that she is at her very best.

So, it was appropriate that just last week, as we were getting ready for SHRM 2013 in Chicago, that Liz addressed the future of HR in an article titled Getting HR Back Into the People Business. Here’s how she spun it, and it certainly grabbed my attention:

When I started in HR, it was understood that you were going to work with people. You expected to get good at calming angry people down, listening to them share their problems, and untangling thorny interpersonal issues. That sort of thing went with the territory in the quaint 1980s. After all, the HR department has “human” in its name. How could anyone be an HR person without wading right into the deepest part of the people-at-work mosh pit?”

THAT’S the HR I know, love, and fondly remember — the HR focused on people, who were there to help you solve your problems, who helped walk you through whatever it was you were dealing with, and, who acted as a great sounding board you could bounce talent management issues off at any time.

Whatever happened to those kinds of HR people?

Where HR has gone wrong

Yes, those HR pros played such a huge role in my career that I still remember the best of them by name today even though I can’t hardly remember most of my former bosses I actually reported to. I’m thinking of people like Bev Johnk, the HR director at The Orange County Register, or Keith Bulling, my compadre and HR leader at the Great Falls Tribune in Montana, and the late Carole Medeiros, the Vice President for Human Resources at the Hawaii Newspaper Agency.

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Of the three, I think Keith is the only one still working — he’s currently the VP of Human Resources at the Cincinnati Enquirer — but all three still percolate in my memory when I think of how HR used to be and how we desperately need to get back to that now.

That’s what Liz Ryan’s column really focused on, and she’s on the right track when she writes:

Nowadays, HR people tell me that the process parts of their jobs are the only kind of work they’re allowed time for and the only kind their leadership values. What we are left with is amassive engine that’s called HR, with parts and pieces to process job seekers, new employees, benefit plan members, compensation plan subjects, and other categories and file folders of people. That’s people processing. That’s not HR, not in my book.

We’re taking the HR function, particularly in large organizations, down a deadly spiral that can only lead to one outcome: the commoditization and outsourcing of HR, a sure sign that the era of people-focused HR is dead.”

Wanted: a greater focus on people and business

That’s the big gripe about HR today — it’s too much about process and paperwork, and not nearly enough about people and business development. This is the primary focus when so many talk about “the future of HR.”

But, Liz has an answer (as you knew she would), and it is one we all should be thinking about:

It’s time to bring the people function back into HR and let the benefits administrators and on-call sales compensation specialists oversee the bits and bytes and processes. HR people are needed desperately on the front lines, where customer relationships are made or broken, new products get launched or get waylaid, and trust grows on a team (or doesn’t). HR people are needed on the scene, where managers struggle with their own tug-of-wars between duty to the organization and duty to themselves and their colleagues. This is where HR people can add value.”

After the better part of a week in Chicago at SHRM 2013, I can’t help but think that the future of HR is in going back to the future, to recapture that essential role as trusted adviser, counselor, and consigliori about all things talent.

Yes, THAT’S the real future of HR, and it’s the only way to get the mojo back.

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.


3 Comments on “The Future of HR? It’s Getting Back Into the People Business

  1. Thank you for the great article. I agree that the people function should be brought back into HR, but with a shift toward more rules and regulations, how does HR find a balance between policy (paperwork, procedures, etc.) and action?

  2. I agree with most of the content. I’d add the following ideas after 10 years of Country/Regional and International HR Senior Mgmt experience:
    1. Engagement starts with setting the rules of the game for the entire organization.
    Fewer and fewer companies make the effort to make the overall company goal and individual/departmental KPIs relevant and inspiring.
    2. HR can play a HUGE role here, HUGE. One of very important roles here is for HR to link individual/team KPIs to sizeable rewards and facilitate cross functional alignment.
    3. Last but not least communicating, providing support to the people, YES, people is what HR does best and this can be done informally (water cooler talks) or formally via emails or meetings.

  3. John – I appreciate your thoughts about the future of HR. As an old HR pro I remember those days when 80+% of my time was dealing with ER issues. Early in my career I was an HR manager at a R&D facility, and spent an enormous amount of time holding the hand of a key technology executive, who had too much responsibility for his experience and was struggling to figure it all out. I actually received a promotion because I was given credit for keeping him in the company.

    Strategic HR means different things to different people. In the old days that mostly manifested itself by acting as a conduit between employees and senior management, providing a degree of insight that supported the maximization of the skills and abilities of both. Staffing levels were more generous back then, allowing HR to provide specialized services across the various functional components such as compensation, benefits, and training, where transactions ruled the day.

    Its a different business world today, and it will be even more different in the not too distant future. Unfortunately, HR has not kept up with the times. As staffing levels went down, and HR was forced to wear more and different hats, the function became confused as to what it was really supposed to do. So too, did senior management. That confusion continues to exist today.

    With great respect, I don’t believe ‘going back to the future’ is the right answer, because ‘going back to the future’ requires resources not available in today’s economy, and it won’t scale. In today’s, and tomorrow’s, business world the ‘HR business’ is all about leverage. Where can HR make the most meaningful impact to move the organization, and its people, forward? It is not, in my opinion, running around dealing with ER issues. Management is a tough job, and it ain’t getting any easier. But HR simply does not have the bandwidth to effectively respond the way it used to.

    Consistent with the organizational Vision/Mission/Values (assuming they exist), HR needs to choose one or two macro issues that can deliver the most value, put a plan together, sell it to the line, and execute smartly. Easy to say; hard to do. Those that figure it out, however, and deliver what they say they’ll deliver, won’t have to worry about a ‘seat at the table’.

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