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What’s keeping HR from being seen as a true strategic partner?

Stacey Harris, Sapient Insights Group
Stacey Harris
Stacey Harris is the chief research officer and managing partner of Sapient Insights Group, where she oversees their industry research work, including the esteemed Annual HR Systems Survey and White Paper, now in its 25th year. Results of the survey debut exclusively at the HR Technology Conference each year.

Sapient Insights Group’s annual HR Systems Survey, now going into its 26th year, reveals all sorts of interesting data about trends in HR technology. We use this information to help buyers make informed purchasing decisions and help vendors understand how their solutions are being viewed by the market. But the survey also includes questions unrelated to IT—and the answers help us uncover important trends about the HR profession itself.

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One such question is whether HR is perceived as contributing strategic value in the respondent’s company. When I compared the answers to this question from last year’s survey to the data from previous years, I was floored by what I found: The needle moved significantly from 2014, when 38% of respondents said HR was viewed as “strategic,” to 2017, when 44% said HR was viewed as “strategic.” However, from 2018 to 2022, the percentage hovered between 45% and 46%. When I dug deeper, I saw very little difference in responses by region, company size or industry segment.

HR not viewed as strategic partner

So, the big question is why—after the Herculean work done by HR organizations around the world, particularly throughout the pandemic years—hasn’t this perception changed?

My colleagues and I have spent much time discussing what’s keeping the perception of HR so stuck. Ultimately, we came up with five general explanations. One reason is that HR professionals are likely to be harsh judges of themselves and their organizations. We know we can always do better. Susan Richards, my business partner and the founder of our company, believes another reason is that HR professionals and leaders are just not great about telling their stories. I agree: HR professionals and leaders spend so much energy fighting brush fires—ensuring paychecks are correct, addressing employee issues, and managing and offboarding with care—it can feel like there is no time left for promoting successes.

The lack of HR analyst training leads to a shortage of those who know how to put HR data into a compelling context. And too often, HR teams don’t have their own established best practices—tailored to the individual business model, budget and culture—to lean on. This can put an HR team into a reactive mode, especially when compared to HR organizations in much larger or very different companies.

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And finally, consultants and vendors also have a stake in the problem. Too often, consultants are looking for long-term engagements and therefore are reluctant to share expertise with HR teams; it’s often easier (and more time-efficient) to do the work for clients rather than helping them build internal capabilities. HR technology vendors could also do much better at helping their customers fully leverage the features of their products to not only save time but better utilize available data and reporting. Good vendor partners ensure their clients have the tools and knowledge to achieve the business goals that funded purchases in the first place.

See also: HR Tech: Apple’s (WWDC) and innovative solutions

Perception can be more important than reality

Let me be clear: Incompetence is not the cause of this perception problem. The HR people we talk to and work with every day are skilled and highly knowledgeable about their jobs.  But, since perception can be just as important as reality (or more so), it’s important to address the perception issue and figure out how to move the needle.

The primary reason is that when HR is viewed as a strategic partner, talent, HR and business outcomes all dramatically increase. Here’s what we saw from last year’s data:

  • Strategic HR organizations had 10% higher outcomes in areas such as attracting and retaining talent, developing high-quality workforces and using workforce data for decision-making. Those HR organizations rated as “on their way to strategic” by respondents saw only 2% higher outcomes.
  • In areas such as employee engagement, employee and manager productivity, alignment with business strategy and cost efficiency, HR organizations rated as strategic had 13% higher outcomes. HR organizations rated “on their way” saw 4% higher outcomes.
  • When it came to business outcomes such as market share, competitive advantage, profitability and customer satisfaction, strategic-rated HR organizations had 10% higher outcomes, compared to the almost-strategic organizations, which saw only 1% higher outcomes.
  • It’s important to note that those HR organizations perceived as compliance-focused saw declines (around -5%) in talent, HR and business outcomes.

See also: Your HR data is extremely valuable—how to do more with it

How to get unstuck with HR and strategy

The survey data gives us a clear idea of what types of actions can drive perceptions of HR as strategic. On the surface, these actions may seem too simple to have strategic value, but they all have profound impact on the business and workforce.

The action with the highest correlation is adaptive change management. This is not too surprising, given that businesses are changing constantly at increasing speeds. Change success depends largely on how readily people respond and adapt to change. HR is uniquely positioned to lead and guide change, especially now with the data on hand from HR and payroll systems and survey tools. This is an area HR can lean into and make a big impact.

The next area is around continual workforce planning that utilizes both business data and position management details. Position management means objectively digging into the specifics of the job—such as the range of skills needed, and when and where the roles need to be filled—independent of how the job might have been filled in the past. When we anticipate and solve the workforce needs of functions across the organization, operational leaders take notice.

Other areas for focus are around time management solutions that always meet business needs and ensuring the processes around managing absences, leaves and skills development are streamlined—for employees and managers alike. These areas impact people at all levels in your organization on a day-to-day basis. When they experience problems or have to deal with clunky systems, HR’s reputation is hit hard. These are processes that impact employees’ finances, their ability to care for family members and their opportunities to succeed and grow in an organization.

Of note, survey data also revealed some of the issues that had the highest correlation to a negative perception of HR. These included reactive HR processes and approaches to employee health and wellbeing, poor HR data management practices and a lack of efficient mobile access for HR-related activities.

Where do we go from here?

Recent news stories tell of layoffs in multiple industry sectors that include HR staff. While some of these layoffs seem to make short-term sense—for instance, if a company is closing open job requisitions and laying off functional staff—reducing the number of recruiters or training professionals follows. But staff cuts and budget reductions in areas such as benefits management, employee relations, DEI, and performance and talent management will have a significant negative impact.

In the war for profit margins, too many business leaders look to their IT functions to digitize the work and build automation and finance functions to reassess spending and investment models—yet, they don’t think through workforce impact and long-term strategies. HR is the only function that can help companies build unique, lasting differentiators. We do not get innovation, continual growth or deep customer relationships through HR cost-cutting. Instead, we get frustrated employees and more attrition.

We at Sapient Insights believe that solving HR’s perception problem requires involvement and action on the part of the entire HR community and its vendors and consultants. Our goal: We want to see 55% of our survey respondents rating their HR organizations as strategic by 2025.

In the coming months, my colleagues and I will be hosting webinars, workshops and discussion forums to offer up guidance and give HR professionals the opportunity to share their stories and ideas. Meanwhile, we invite you to download the comprehensive details of the 2022-2023 survey so you can see the results and analysis for yourself. And please do take a minute to sign up for the next survey, open later this month. Your participation will ensure that we can continue to share objective, statistically validated data and analysis with the HR community.

Want to help “raise the bar on HR”? Join Sapient Insights Group’s Stacey Harris, Susan Richards and Teri Zipper, along with special guest Lisa Sterling, chief people officer of Perceptyx, for a live LinkedIn conversation at 2 p.m. EST May 24. The event will provide actionable insights to help you shift the perception of your HR function from compliance to key strategic partner.