12 April 2021

Reshaping the role of HR

Professor Julie Hodges and her new book with the blog title 'Reshaping the role of HR'

In the first of a four-part series, Julie Hodges, Professor at Durham University and an organisational change expert, looks at the role of HR in leading and managing change.

The impact of the global pandemic and its social and economic fallout has created a time-machine to the future with organisations having to rapidly adapt their business models. This has far reaching consequences and demands a strong contribution from HR.  Indeed, some might say that, in the global pandemic crisis, HR has become the hero since the greatest impact of the Covid-19 outbreak is on people. With organisations having to focus on caring for their workforce while rapidly managing the shift to new patterns of work, HR is faced with not only re-imagining the workforce but also reshaping its own role within the organisation.

In order for HR to be more responsive and agile in facilitating organisational change the following needs to be considered:

1. Becoming a strategic partner

HR must claim its role as a strategic partner in change and define its contribution to the organisation. This is vital since one of the most common factors leading to the high failure rate of organisational change, is a lack of employee engagement.


2. Creating a people-centred approach to change

Since HR Professionals understand the people elements of the organisation, they are equipped to anticipate how changes in one part of the organisation have repercussions for people in other areas. In particular HR should be able to understand how the organisation should engage, incentivise, develop and manage the transition of stakeholders through change.


3. Defining value with a stakeholder-centric approach

Defining value with a stakeholder-centric approach starts with HR understanding the organisational context and the needs and expectations of key stakeholders. If HR evolves to a position where the HR function focuses on strategic change, this indicates a move to a professional services type role, in other words to that of an internal consultant. Internal consultancy may not be new to HR, but having HR play a leading role in organisational change as an internal consultant is less common. For HR to reframe its role in this direction and evolve, it needs to ensure that the transactional and legally mandated parts of the HR job are managed in some way – for example through automation, so that HRPs can focus on the opportunity to develop the strategy, structure and skills to transition into an effective consulting organisation that addresses strategic, change-oriented issues. This will also mean a change in role for line managers.


4. Facilitating a shift in the role of managers

HR has a role to play in supporting managers to adopt facilitative, inclusive ways of working with people prior to, during and after organisational change, so that the required change/s is embedded and ultimately sustained. HR can also help managers to identify the organisational capabilities and capacity required for effective organisational change and take the lead in ensuring that they are optimised for change. Crucially, HR may also have the management information required to understand the totality of the workforce, its demographics and capabilities, as well as the current baseline and the future projections of the composition of the workforce.


5. Supporting how the organisation should organise itself

HR needs to play a pivotal role in determining how an organisation should organise itself to meet the external forces driving change in the organisation. Some HR departments believe that they are already doing this; however, findings from a recent study I conducted* reveal that the role is still aligned with the procedural aspects of change, such as specifying to managers how many days consultation must take place. Evidence from non-HR managers also suggests that HR does not take the time to listen to stakeholders and really understand the thoughts, feelings and experiences of people impacted by change.


6. Breaking down hierarchies and walls

HR will have to see itself as a facilitator of organisation transformations. This will, however, depend on HR’s ability to tap the collective wisdom, that is the accumulated judgements, perceptions, experiences, intuition and intelligence of all organisational members, as well as external stakeholders. Far from policing people, HR’s role will need to be to set them free. What this means in practice is breaking down hierarchies and walls, and enabling people, whenever feasible, to engage with organisational change rather than imposing change/s on them.


7. Developing a collaborative way of working

For HR to be perceived as professional in change efforts and establish itself as adding value to the organisation, it needs to adopt a collaborative way of working. In other words, rather than HR being merely a bystander or leading the change, change needs to be co-owned and co-led by managers as well as by HR. This requires HR practices which provide the methods, processes and guidance to engage stakeholders with change, improve their experience with the change process, and also enables managers to own and lead change in their part of the organisation.


There are signs of a shift towards reframing the function’s role with ‘HR’ evolving into a ‘People’ function just as ‘Personnel’ changed into ‘HR’ in the 1980s. This next stage in the evolution of HR does, however, require not only a change of name and the strategic capability to envision a different approach, but also the fortitude to step out, lead and enact a reshaped role, so that the function focuses on enabling and supporting organisational change and effectiveness and the well-being of the workforce. Some might be surprised to read this for surely all HR teams are doing this?

The difference required is in the depth of the organisational and stakeholder-centric nature required of the role and in a shift to being proactive, rather than reactive, in leading and managing change.


This is the first in a series of four blogs on the role of HR in organisational change, which is the subject of Professor Hodges’ new book: Reshaping HR: the role of HR in Organizational Change. To celebrate, we’re giving away five copies of the book. To be in with a chance of winning, just share this blog across your social channels, tagging @Mhr into your post so we can see you have done so.

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