Article: Building 9 key business competencies for HR

Strategic HR

Building 9 key business competencies for HR

Brian K. Dickson, Sr VP-Professional Development and Global Ops, SHRM, talks about critical business competencies for HR
Building 9 key business competencies for HR

HR professionals are reluctant to take up other roles and that’s why the first step has to be about changing the mindset


There’s a growing appreciation for the role of culture and engagement in driving organizational performance and hence HR has a huge opportunity to systematize better and create a more effective business culture


Being a part of one of the largest communities of HR professionals across the globe, how have you seen the HR function evolve?

I believe the HR function has become increasingly strategic. Early in my consulting career, a lot of my projects in the HR space were focused on automating the transactional components of HR. However, in the past few years, there has been a lot of focus on the strategic potential of HR. People are coming to realize that the true value of an organization lies in creating, mobilizing and engaging talent and HR is now trying to create structures, processes, tools and methods to do that more effectively. This enables HR to function on a more scientific basis, and expands opportunities for HR professionals to profoundly impact their ?organizations?.

Business needs are pushing the HR function to constantly scale-up. How do you see the readiness of HR for the same?

I think the readiness is not as high as it should be. Although a few HR leaders are going beyond HR to serve in leadership positions in other business functions that require strategic operational experience, it doesn’t work that way all the time. Through our research, we found that the reason the HR profession is not viewed with the same level of confidence compared to some other functions is that many HR professionals have a strong understanding of the technical perspectives of HR, but lack the business competencies that could help them be effective business partners in the boardroom.

Over the last few years, SHRM has done extensive research in this area surveying a progress group of 33,000 HR professionals across the globe. We have identified nine key business competencies that HR professionals need to be effective in the workplace: Effective communication; consultation; ethical practice; critical evaluation; business acumen; leadership and navigation; technical expertise; cross-cultural awareness, and relationship management. In the past, the focus was on developing HR professionals with knowledge of the function but many have not mastered these business competencies. We are now trying to shift the focus of professionals towards these competencies in order to prepare them for senior HR and business leadership roles.

Is there one very essential competency that you would like to highlight?

The one thing that stands out at the senior levels and where we see a real gap is business acumen. Business acumen is also the ability to understand how the HR policies and practices are contributing to the strategic objectives of the organization and creating practices that support business objectives. The other area is ethical practices as everything that HR does builds the core of trust in an organization. HR professionals cannot be effective in absence of that trust; therefore ethical behaviour is a foundation of everything we do.

How do you encourage HR professionals to take up business roles?

Often, HR professionals are reluctant to take up other roles and that’s why the first step has to be about changing the mindset. Our nine competencies enable HR practitioners to step out of their comfort zones, preparing them for higher business roles. Secondly, having a broad business perspective is definitely the key to being an effective HR professional; SHRM has a significant impact on the academic community in ensuring relevant business content in HR programs. We also need to look at the business community to ensure that HR professionals get on-job exposure beyond their HR role. It’s fairly common nowadays that companies bring someone from the operational role to fill senior HR roles. We also need to enable Similarly, HR professionals should seek and prepare to serve in leadership roles for other business functions.

What’s your view about the HR profession in India?

I have to say I am very impressed. I believe that many of the people here are among the best in HR in the world. Since India is a country of contrasts, my intuition tells me that there is a greater diversity here in terms of orientation, sophistication, training, education of HR etc. more than even in US. But, the best here are as good as or better than anyone!

The widening gap between HR and business expectations is now slowly coming together with organizations like yours helping build capabilities. But, what do you feel stands true for the CEO community – are they also building capabilities to understand the value and impact of HR?

I feel there’s a growing appreciation for the role of culture and engagement in driving organizational performance and at the same time, I believe nobody completely understands culture but still they believe it is important. I think this is where the HR profession has a huge opportunity to create and implement evidence-based tools and methodologies that support the development of more effective business cultures. There’s a high level of appreciation of the same at the C-suite level, but there may not be a full understanding of how to achieve it yet. So, there’s an opportunity for development in that area as well.

How do you see the role of technology, data analytics and social media evolve?

Technology is a huge opportunity as it has freed the profession to move from a focus on tactical, transactional operations to an emphasis on strategic potential and impact. In fact, Data Analytics really empowers the HR profession. However, I feel that we don’t have enough capacity to absorb this information and understand how to further use it for organizational progress. The other important aspect of technology is social media, which is turning out to be an effective tool in recruiting, communications and is being leveraged for knowledge management and engagement as well. Still, there is a lot of uncertainty around how to integrate it and fully leverage it.

There still seems to be some hesitation in investing and creating budgets for HR innovations. In such a scenario what do you think are the benefits of being a pioneer?

One thing that is prevalent most in the US is the focus on creating an employer brand and there are some examples of progressive companies such as Google etc. They see their HR policies as a key influencer in the efforts to create productive culture as a strategic asset and also as a part of their overall marketing of the organization. There is a huge benefit of being a highly progressive company, but even in the US the profession suffers from under-investment. There are very rare instances where companies have placed HR, people and workplace culture as a primary focus. In order to change this paradigm, there is a strong need to focus on and learn from the companies who have succeeded by doing it right.

How do you approach capability building from the SHRM perspective?

Well, we are now using our competency model as the framework for capability building and professional development. We are also looking at enhancing our certification programs to make them more competency based. We believe that this will have a major impact on shifting the focus of the professionals towards a more holistic approach to professional development.

Talking of capability building and career progression, do you also have an MBA program in HR?

SHRM has an academic initiative through which we work with colleges and universities both in US and outside to align the curriculum with the best practices. Throughout the world, including the United States, we’ve seen a huge growth in academic programs that focus on HR. Not all of them are degree programs, but we believe that the fundamental for the growth of this profession is the focus on formal education. Also such education can’t just be HR for HR, it has to be such that it focuses on HR for business.

Which other emerging economies has SHRM identified as key strategic growth markets and how important is India?

We are investing a lot on increasing our global awareness and business and almost two-thirds to three-quarters of our investments is focused on India. We have a significant presence in China as well. We have an office in UAE where we are seeing tremendous growth and that is one region where you feel that the government really understands the importance of building human capital and are focused on HR as a key enabler for growth. We are also now seeing explosive growth of HR in Africa. HR not only is contributing to the strength of organizations but also to the strength of civil society, building attitudes that liberate people and human potential. It’s not just about HR but it’s about building better society and we feel privileged to have the ability and opportunity to have some impact on a worldwide basis.

What is SHRM’s larger vision for India?

India is the world’s largest democratic country with a commendable creativity. We can’t aspire to be a world leader in the HRD area without being deeply engaged in India. We want to be a value-adding part of the HR community here in the country, helping India leverage the research, best practices and technology developed in other countries, while sharing the progress and achievements of India with the rest of the world. We see ourselves as a catalyst, a provider of leadership and best practices, but we want to do it in partnership with the community.

How has your life changed after coming to the world of HR from a consulting background?

Throughout my life, I have always loved learning about new cultures, languages and new places. In fact, early in my career, I worked for the US Department of State in Latin America. Since much of my consulting work was for the US government, my focus was mostly on the US. Now I feel so fortunate that I have been able to integrate these two aspects of my life. I understand that we are running a business, but we also have a mission and it appeals to both the business side of myself and the part that enjoys contributing to better organizations and societies throughout the world. It is extremely satisfying.

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Topics: Strategic HR, #Culture, #GlobalPerspective, #HRInsights

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