What Does Strategic HR Really Mean

By Dana Jarvis

Dec. 8, 2006

    “Strategic HR” is today’s buzzword, which in the past might have been “TQM,” “Six Sigma” or “The Toyota Model.”

    While buzzwords come and go, basic blocking and tackling remains consistent. For HR professionals to ensure people are engaged, excited and energized, they must proactively practice strategic HR.

    Strategic HR means thinking two steps ahead, while remembering the past and preserving the core. Often HR professionals have many areas they are responsible for, from benefits administration to training and development and everything in between.

    From a time-management perspective, it is important to set time aside to critically think about strategic HR. It’s a matter of envisioning what it will take two to five years down the road for one’s HR department to not only be acceptable but exceptional. Operating on the wings of mediocrity no longer will cut it in today’s highly competitive global economy.

    The first step to having a strategic HR department, one that sits at the board table and is welcomed with open arms for new ideas and innovations, is to raise awareness. This means we need to ask some basic questions, the answers to which will elicit new ideas, perhaps raise an eyebrow or two and generally stir the pot of creativity. The end result is strategic HR where internal human capital and external business benchmarks are exceeded time and time again.

    A great example is a company I’m familiar with, as its HR director: Snavely Forest Products. In the beginning, training was primarily for senior management and did not reach critical mass. Upon being hired, my responsibility was to generate thought-provoking questions and engage the executive committee to critically think about our training program in the long term. The endgame was to develop our next-generation leaders. With the end in mind, we asked questions like:

  1. What is the meaning of training for our company?

  2. What are we doing right currently?

  3. Where are we missing the boat today?

  4. How are we going to get from A to Z?

  5. How much is training going to cost us?

  6. What is our long-term outlook on training?

  7. How will we measure the ROI of training?

    The outcome was SFP University (Snavely Forest Products University). SFPU targeted “up and comers” in the beginning, for a period of two years, with quarterly face-to-face sessions, reading in between, report writing, presentations, internal and external trainers and a focus on our ROI.

    The next phase of SFPU focused on engaging the rest of SFP in training. All divisions were given a poster explaining in brief the different ways employees could access SFPU, from invitation-only programs to volunteer-type programs. In addition, each division was given a form that basically asks for an employee’s interest in training and need that the training will meet.

    Needs were defined in terms of adding value to the bottom line–increased productivity, cost saving, product enhancement and/or service quality improvement. The form also has a space for their general manager and the employee to sign off on prior to the form going to HR. This step was important because it was valuable to ensure the employee and general manager are on the same page, increasing employee engagement.

    From there, the form would be given to human resources. HR would then have a conversation with the employee and general manager to then create a customized training that meets specific needs, while flexible enough to meet dynamic training needs of larger groups with a common need.

    The example above is basic. In reality, strategic HR is all about getting back to basic blocking and tackling. It shouldn’t be rocket science. Yes, we’re dealing with people, but we’re not putting a man on the moon.

    It’s up to us as HR professionals to leverage individual and collective talent. As “Good to Great” author Jim Collins says: “It’s all about putting the right people on the right bus in the right seats at the right time.”

    Strategic HR is a powerful tool that leverages significant opportunities for HR departments of one person up to HR departments of hundreds to get the job done in not only an acceptable way, but an exceptional way.

    Being a winner in HR need not be complex. Armed with some basic strategies, common sense and an ability to ask the right questions, HR professionals can quickly position their departments for long-term, strategic success.

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