What is the role of the HR function? Is there one, simple answer? Context is king, so does the answer depend on your industry, the maturity of your organisational leadership and culture, or dare I say it, your CEO and what they want from their HR team? Some argue that HR as a central function adds no value and is not needed in agile businesses; others have the view that as the future of work swiftly becomes reality, HR’s role in organising for now and the future across talent, skills and the organisation has the potential to be indispensable. Then there’s the question of what do we even mean by the term “HR”? I don’t know how it is for you, but I can say for myself that I’m no longer surprised when I chat to a counterpart in title in another firm and discover we do entirely different jobs.

“The Blueprint sets out the role of HR going forward as working across individual, leader and overall organisation levels, building human capability in an integrated way to drive targeted results”

I’ll assert upfront that most of us as readers of this magazine will agree on one thing: the last 18 months has highlighted the central nervous system role HR plays in our organisations. Let me take this a step further: the last 18 months has provided a platform from which we can come together behind a shared purpose as HR colleagues to build a new era of impact whatever the context. 

Let’s start with the foundational question – when we talk about “HR” what do we even mean? Human Capital, Human Resources, and the People Function of “strategic HR” (for the function itself or for the business) focus on individual employees and/or the overall organisation. Different terms for the same mandate, lack of conceptual clarity, or fundamentally different jobs? Ulrich’s recent Blueprint for HR Going Forward provides a clear term sheet from which to build a frame of common reference for the HR function across sectors and scales. The Blueprint sets out the role of HR going forward as working across individual, leader and overall organisation levels, building human capability in an integrated way to drive targeted results. 

A clear definition for HR, which is broad enough for individuals across the profession to amass and powerfully drive outcomes? Yes, please. I’d like to suggest that we can elevate that power even further, if we take on the role of HR as solution architects across individuals, leaders, and organisations, owning and driving business performance whilst creating an employee experience that enables people to truly be their best self at work. Organisations are the people they are composed of – a necessary pre-cursor therefore to the organisation being the best it can be, is that a critical mass of its people are enabled to be the best they can be the majority of the time. 

What do I mean by solution architect? To me, through reimagining how work is done, solution architects can harness the power of digitisation, data and humanity to solve real problems in service of better outcomes. Solution architects bring their uniquely human behavioural capabilities to bear alongside their technical skills whilst taking advantage of the digital world we live in. The term uniquely captures the breadth of innovation and change HR professionals are optimally placed to drive. 

Our role as architects of solutions that drive business performance and differentiated employee experience has been thoroughly evidenced in the last 18 months of the pandemic. Through blending our human skills in empathy and active listening, with the technical expertise to swiftly shift policies and procedures, we as HR professionals have led the move to hybrid working whilst simultaneously managing the impact of the pandemic on our own lives. Collaborating with AI and using data analytics technical skills we have stepped up and created mechanisms for tracking employee covid status whilst continuing to drive organisation level transformations through our human influencing skills. I could continue. The circumstance has highlighted that we are the inherent Solution Architects within our organisations, through the broad, critical, and the pivotal role we can play, when we’re all aligned behind a common purpose, a common mandate. 

So, what lessons can we take from the experience of the last 18 months that will enable us to step forward and build on this platform? I’d suggest three practical take-aways:

What’s our ‘so what’? The last 18 months highlighted the relevance of HR across all industries and gave us both immediate and longer-term validation for the critical role we need to play in organisations. To sustain this, we need to revisit our vision and purpose, test whether it needs to evolve given the changing needs of our employees and the businesses we serve and galvanise our teams around that shared purpose. Ulrich’s Blueprint provides a solid framework through which to test thoughts and shape the conversation.

United we stand, divided we fall. The power of us, as HR professionals in our teams in the function, being joined up, is immense. Just reflect on some of the things you were able to achieve in the last 18 months that you never thought were possible? Those moments are characterised by teams across HR coming together to make change happen in an agile, non-ego driven and outcome focused way. Let’s keep that commitment going and not fall into siloed HR – it makes the work harder and it diminishes client experience. 

Be an HR function that walks the walk. I don’t know about you, but when I speak to HR colleagues across multiple organisations a common theme is that we are, as a function, experiencing fatigue, stress and in some cases, burn-out. Alongside this, we’re advocating for wellbeing, driving discussions across our organisations, re-thinking work with leaders in service of enhanced productivity. It’s time to put ourselves at the centre of this discussion and role model the behaviours we’re driving elsewhere, particularly in the context of hybrid working. Find out what works for your teams in terms of working hours, what sort of informal connect opportunities they are looking for and create a shared view of priority outcomes that can be committed to, effectively prioritised against, and planned for. It’s basic, but it makes the difference. 

We don’t need to prove our value, to pre-fix everything we do with “strategic HR” or re-brand our function in line with the trends. Through acknowledging the solution architecting role we already play and embracing the unique position we have in the organisation, cohesively, the potential for impact as we build the future of work, is limitless.