Welcome to the Future: HR Without Boundaries

Last week, I had a realization: Looking at my schedule of upcoming meetings, I noticed how many were with leaders outside the HR sphere. There was the meeting I’d booked with a division president to discuss a new services strategy. And one lunch scheduled with a CMO to talk about strengthening the synergies between the customer and employee brands.

As I talk to CHROs globally, this is a key shift from the way many HR leaders were expected to operate even a handful of years ago. But it makes sense: The future of work–characterized by new demands to design seamless employee and customer experiences, the move toward a diverse ecosystem of talent, and the growing belief that people are central to transformation and strategy—is challenging us as HR leaders to redefine the traditional HR function.

Everywhere I look, I see the traditional boundaries of HR expanding. HR leaders have the chance to step up to the challenge and role model new agile ways of working. For example, HR can work with other C-suite leaders to co-lead transformation, guide the HR staff to forge close partnerships with other functions, and, by creating cross-functional roles and rotational opportunities, engage the best minds on data science and predictive analytics, risk assessment, scenario planning, and new forms of business models, partnerships and ecosystems.

Step broadly. Leading companies know that as talent wars heat up, employee experience matters. To attract and retain top talent, companies are appointing employee-experience leaders who are charged to broadly work beyond silos of individual departments to co-create consumer-grade, human-centric employee experiences. These leaders are designing new cross-functional teams leveraging expertise from functions as varied as IT, HR, workplace solutions, data science, internal communications and corporate citizenship to expand focus on the entire candidate, employee and alumni journey.

We know that employees don’t think in terms of siloes; they want a seamless, integrated experience designed around them–including the technology they use, the space in which they work and the rewards, culture and opportunities for development that bring out their best. This requires an integrated approach that brings multiple functions together to create a harmonious whole.

Some companies are going even further by creating one seamless employee and customer experience, knowing that employees are the secret sauce to a great customer experience. At Adobe Systems, for example, Donna Morris leads the charge to attract, engage, and develop employees and customers. As executive vice president of customer and employee experience, she not only oversees all aspects of HR and the workplace (including real estate), but also the product, customer service and technical-support experience for all Adobe products.

Step together. Another reason why HR leaders are now working far beyond the boundaries of traditional HR roles is the rapid rise of an adaptive workforce that includes contractors, freelancers, crowdsourced workers and strategic partners. By some accounts, 36 percent of the U.S. workforce now consists of freelancers; by 2027, freelancers are expected to become the majority.

To harness the power of this new talent ecosystem, we must closely work together with departments like legal, strategy and marketing to tap into new talent pools. We must combine efforts with functions such as finance to understand the bottom-line implications of the new workforce, and collaborate with risk management to identify and address issues like intellectual-property risks. And we must work side-by-side with IT to ensure security and drive transparency into the performance of the entire workforce.

At one financial-services company, the responsibility for this new adaptive workforce is supervised by a steering committee of HR, enterprise operations and the procurement staff. Other organizations are moving the responsibility from procurement to HR to ensure that this growing and ever more strategic workforce has a carefully crafted experience and a set of talent strategies to maximize its performance, ensuring that the function works closely with other areas of the business. Still others are creating new cross-functional roles or centers of excellence to manage the extended workforce, blending skills like employment law, contract negotiations, and project, talent and organizational management.

Step in. Digital and enterprise transformation has created a gray zone that is not “owned” by any one C-suite leader or function. Instead, it demands that every leader step in and collaborate beyond the boundaries of traditional roles. A recent Gartner survey of CEOs revealed that a wide array of C-suite leaders is contributing to digital business initiatives in close collaboration. When asked which of twelve c-suite members contributed most to digital business initiatives, CEOs ranked CHROs fourth in terms of level of contribution, just behind CIOs, CFOs, and COOs. HR leaders, for example, are working closely with IT, business unit or functional leaders, and operations, to reimagine work at the intersection of talent and technology. And CHROs can form a tight partnership with CEOs and CFOs–what global business advisor Ram Charan calls the “G3”–to allocate human capital as carefully as financial capital when undergoing any kind of transformational journey.

The boundaries of our function have been slowly stretching for some time now. I personally experienced this when one of my prior roles shifted from executive vice president of HR to include corporate-affairs responsibilities such as communications, government affairs and social, environmental and foundation duties. It was an extraordinary opportunity to collaborate internally and externally and tackle new opportunities and challenges creatively with fresh new perspectives and solutions.

What is different now, however, is the mounting pressure from new competitive, business and workforce dynamics to stretch well beyond the past boundaries of our function. I challenge us all to step broadly, step together and step in. Let’s walk a path into the future in a spirit of collaboration and camaraderie, jointly working with others across the enterprise to meet our company’s greatest goals with fresh, new boundary-less thinking.

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.