Fireman, Strategist or Catalyst - What is the role of HR?

As I attend various HR related events and read the posts in social media there seems to be some discussion as to exactly what HR is supposed to be doing. Have said that I can find some common threads in the discussions.

Some of the individuals believe we are there to be the policy cop's. Our responsibility is centered around the task of keeping the organization out of trouble. In doing that we tend to gain the "we have an app for that" mentality. If a problem arises we have the solution or we will create it. Never mind if the solution is aligned with the corporate objectives or the business vision or mission. Management tells you they have a problem and you create the problem solution only to be told that now HR is a roadblock to the successful organization as a whole. You want a clearer picture of what we are suggesting talk to your peers who have been around and ask them what it was like when we were called Personnel.

For several years now I have been telling anyone who asks that I am a HR strategist. We use that nomenclature on our blog and on our LinkedIn profile. But what does that mean? My interpretation was that my role in the equation is to show organization show to align HR with the overall business strategy. That I am working to show the organization that HR has a major role to play within that strategy. Dictionary.com defines strategist as one who is an expert in strategy. It defines strategy as a plan, method or a series of moves to obtain a specific goal or end result. That was what I thought I was doing. I was talking to clients about getting their HR department to be seen as a critical part of the organization. I was showing them how by some relatively small moves they could have their department run as an efficient hub within the organization. True some of the moves required dramatic changes in the way they have always done things. We expected our peers to challenge the status quo, because at its roots the system was not producing the results that HR wanted or that management expected.

Then the other day along comes a business partner who tells me you are not a strategist you are a catalyst. So I had to stop and think about what the difference is between the two. Dictionary.com tells us that a catalyst is something that causes activity between two or more persons or forces without itself being affected or a person or thing that precipitates and event or change.After considering this for a bit I am not sure if I can give him a direct answer to his proposition. Let me talk a bit as to why.

First let me say that plainly the global workplace is not going for too much longer tolerate us being the corporate fireman. The world will not move forward with the obstacles we sometimes put in place. We are not helping our organizations and we are not helping ourselves. If all we do is put put fires day in and day out we have not proven or more important justified our existence. The same duties and functions can be performed by an outsourced entity.

So if we can't be the fireman then we are left with being either a strategist or catalyst. I am not sure the answer lies specifically within or outside the organization. The answer rests rather in the consideration of what our function is or should be.

As we stated above a strategist is one who is an expert in strategy. As HR professionals are we not experts in how to advance our human capital assets? Are we not the best persons within the organizational structure to know and implement strategic initiatives to advance the collaboration and innovation of the organization based on the way we source, recruit and train the talent needed by the organization? We have a vital role to play that no other can perform as proficiently as we can. We understand the dynamics of human interaction and can identify those who best fit within the greater picture.

If we are catalysts rather than strategist then we are given the task of advocating change within our organizations,but with the understanding that we are operating apart from the rest of the organization. I am unclear how you can advocate change within the organization without it affecting your own position Remember one of the tenants of the catalyst above was that we advocate change but we are not affected. I find it difficult to believe that as HR professionals that if we improve our organizations we will in turn be affected by the raised stature of both our immediate position but the whole profession as well.

Could there be an alternative or a merger of sorts.? I would suggest that as HR professionals we are both strategists and catalysts at the same time. We advocate change every day to improve the performance of the organization. We may not always be heard but we do make the attempt. At the same time we are experts in the implementation of plans, methods or a series of moves to obtain a better work environment for the workforce. We are charged with sourcing , recruiting and hiring the right person, for the right job at the right location at the right time.

We want our place at the table where the decisions are made regarding the objectives and initiatives of the organization are made. We are not going to get there without determining what our role is within the organization. So what are you - Fireman, Strategist or Catalyst? What role do you want in your organization and do you have the evidence based documentation to support your decision?

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