ACE 2012 - The focus of HR isn't to be commercial: Day Three of #CIPD12

By Neil Morrison, Group HR Director at Random House - Change-Effect Blog

A time for some final conclusions from the CIPD conference, before I jump on the train and head back to the world of work, emails and slightly irate family members wondering why I've been living it up in Manchester. Living it up is probably too grandiose a term, but from the time of some of the text messages I received last night/this morning, there was a party going on.....somewhere.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the matter in hand. Or the matter that should be in hand, but strangely isn't. And by that I mean, the standard of our profession.

It seems almost a lifetime ago now that I was watching Gary Hamel on stage as the opening keynote to the conference. Gary was inspirational he was challenging. he built on the opening address from Peter Cheese. They both talked of setting a high bar for the profession, of re-engineering our purpose for the future world of work. It was heady stuff and long overdue.

But so much of what I've seen and experienced since then has reminded me how far we have to go. Slipping back into our comfort zone of process and procedure, of task and activity, of compliance and control. I attended a session yesterday entitled, "Commercially focused HR Business Partners" partly because I wanted a laugh and partly because I'm kind of curious about why we are still having this particular conversation. I wrote about "Commercial HR" a while back for the kind people at XpertHR. You can find that series of posts here. I also had a great conversation with FlipChartRick about this and his experience of another session, "How can HR improve its influence with the Board" and he has written a post about it here.

The thing that strikes me most is this; we should be bringing something unique to our organisations, something that other departments can't bring and which outsourcing can't do more cheaply. At the session on Commercial HR, I asked a question of the speakers - whether the debate about commercial HR wasn't actually defunct and redundant and shouldn't we talk about values led and culture led HR instead? The general consensus was that yes it was....and then they went back to discussing "commercial HR". You see, I don't understand how anyone can get any joy out of work without being interested in the operation of their organisation, the purpose, intent and performance. It would be like driving a car without looking out of either the windscreen or in the mirrors. In order to be of any sort of use, you need to be commercially aware, but that isn't the same as being commercially focussed.

As Rick points out in his post, "you don't need to do the CFO's job but you at least need to learn his language". Correct. You don't need to try to outdo the experts in the room, but you do need to understand the conversations that are going on and be able to contribute. However, our focus should not be commercial. It should be something else that brings something new to the table. Can you imagine how things might have been different in some of the companies that have recently encountered "credibility" issues if they had experienced a strong voice talking about the importance of values, culture, integrity and sustainability? What is they had experienced someone working with the senior team and coaching them on tackling their challenges in a different way? Both because they understood the business, the challenges but also because they brought a different angle, a different approach to solving them?

I don't buy this constant banging on about being commercial. I've never been anything else and nor have the people who I've recruited into my team and have worked with. I get that there are HR professionals out there that aren't and they will never be successful, but it isn't and shouldn't be the focus of our profession - it is a pre-requisite to being a good business person. Our higher purpose, our contribution should be something else. Our focus should be on performance through people and the culture, values and leadership of our organisations. Really, it should. Trust me.

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