Even HR executives have to reinvent themselves to survive

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HR chief executives by and large are ill-equipped to meet the needs of the modern workplace, according to a new report of 500 top executives.

The irony is the HR profession is perhaps entering a golden age for HR leaders, as the role shifts beyond administrative and process-related functions to work that is at the very core of a company’s business strategy to keep top talent.

And yet because the workplace is changing so fast to adapt to technological and demographic shifts, the study by SHRM and Willis Towers Watson found that the role of HR hasn’t been able to keep pace to train the latest generation of HR leaders.

Because work functions are constantly in flux, training and development can no longer be considered episodic events but instead will require perpetual reskilling to stay relevant. The study noted that between 2003 and 2013, more than 70% of the Fortune 1000 companies changed and were replaced by nimbler firms.

Most HR executives or chief people officers, or CPOs, will need to reskill to stay relevant — and do so quickly, according to HR People + Strategy, the group’s network of business and thought leaders in human resources.

“As the pace of innovation and technology in the workplace accelerates, CPOs will need to reinvent themselves,” says the study’s co-author Suzanne McAndrew, the global head of talent of Willis Towers Watson. “With disruption on the horizon, organizations will require strong, visionary people leaders who can think through the people and talent strategy, and work with management on the business strategy.”

Most executives “are not prepared,” McAndrew says.

“We’re only going to get things done if we have the right people, the right talent in the right functions with the right goals,” Upwork CEO Stephanie Kasriel says in the study. “That to me is the role of HR, to ensure that we have the right people strategy in order to inform the business strategy.”

The study reviewed key changes shaping HR functions for human resources leaders and also found:

  • Virtually all respondents (99%) believe HR executives must have the agility and courage to change, yet only 35% said today’s leaders are prepared to respond.
  • More than nine in 10 respondents (94%) say it’s important to explore the development of future HR leaders, but only about a third (35%) agree that future staff are receiving the training they’ll need to succeed.
  • Only one-third of respondents (36%) are prepared to think about how technology can be used to execute work in the future; only a quarter (26%) say they have the technical acumen to evaluate new technologies.

HR leaders can do five things to help drive change, including acting as an advocate for change and agility, developing digital technology to improve HR functions, using automation to foster new skills and reinvention for staff, focusing on workplace culture and leadership and elevating HR decision-making to include more analytics, the study found.
Alexander Alonso, chief knowledge officer at SHRM, noted that HR executives have the greatest potential to foster the evolution of enterprises by building up their own expertise to meet future workforce demands.

Respondents also recognize much progress is still needed with digital enablement and understanding how to apply digital technology and automation in the workplace. Only 42% had a favorable opinion of their organization’s progress when it comes to embracing technology that builds a consumer experience for employees.

“While CPOs don’t need to be technology experts, they must understand how changing technology can impact work and the workforce,” says Ravin Jesuthasan, a managing director at Willis Towers Watson and co-author of the study.

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