The focus of HR isn’t to be commercial: Day three of #cipd2012

A time for some final conclusions from the CIPD conference, before I jump on the train and head back to the world of work, emails and slightly irate family members wondering why I’ve been living it up in Manchester. Living it up is probably too grandiose a term, but from the time of some of the text messages I received last night/this morning, there was a party going on…..somewhere.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the matter in hand. Or the matter that should be in hand, but strangely isn’t. And by that I mean, the standard of our profession.

It seems almost a lifetime ago now that I was watching Gary Hamel on stage as the opening keynote to the conference. Gary was inspirational he was challenging. he built on the opening address from Peter Cheese. They both talked of setting a high bar for the profession, of re-engineering our purpose for the future world of work. It was heady stuff and long overdue.

But so much of what I’ve seen and experienced since then has reminded me how far we have to go. Slipping back into our comfort zone of process and procedure, of task and activity, of compliance and control. I attended a session yesterday entitled, “Commercially focused HR Business Partners” partly because I wanted a laugh and partly because I’m kind of curious about why we are still having this particular conversation. I wrote about “Commercial HR” a while back for the kind people at XpertHR. You can find that series of posts here. I also had a great conversation with FlipChartRick about this and his experience of another session, “How can HR improve its influence with the Board” and he has written a post about it here.

The thing that strikes me most is this; we should be bringing something unique to our organisations, something that other departments can’t bring and which outsourcing can’t do more cheaply. At the session on Commercial HR, I asked a question of the speakers – whether the debate about commercial HR wasn’t actually defunct and redundant and shouldn’t we talk about values led and culture led HR instead? The general consensus was that yes it was….and then they went back to discussing “commercial HR”. You see, I don’t understand how anyone can get any joy out of work without being interested in the operation of their organisation, the purpose, intent and performance. It would be like driving a car without looking out of either the windscreen or in the mirrors. In order to be of any sort of use, you need to be commercially aware, but that isn’t the same as being commercially focussed.

As Rick points out in his post, “you don’t need to do the CFO’s job but you at least need to learn his language”. Correct. You don’t need to try to outdo the experts in the room, but you do need to understand the conversations that are going on and be able to contribute. However, our focus should not be commercial. It should be something else that brings something new to the table. Can you imagine how things might have been different in some of the companies that have recently encountered “credibility” issues if they had experienced a strong voice talking about the importance of values, culture, integrity and sustainability? What is they had experienced someone working with the senior team and coaching them on tackling their challenges in a different way? Both because they understood the business, the challenges but also because they brought a different angle, a different approach to solving them?

I don’t buy this constant banging on about being commercial. I’ve never been anything else and nor have the people who I’ve recruited into my team and have worked with. I get that there are HR professionals out there that aren’t and they will never be successful, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be the focus of our profession – it is a pre-requisite to being a good business person. Our higher purpose, our contribution should be something else. Our focus should be on performance through people and the culture, values and leadership of our organisations. Really, it should. Trust me.


  1. Jon Ingham (@joningham) · November 8, 2012

    Love it! (and isn’t it the point I was making on your XpertHR article?)

  2. Julie@fuchsiablue · November 8, 2012

    Great post….of course our focus should be on these thing… and of course there is a place for “technical” HR which works on the legal/policy frameworks that are a requirement within the commercial focus of the business…and of course this is just one part of a larger reality of what HR ( and OD/ L&D) should and could be bringing more of: an advocacy and representation for what it is actually like to be a human citizen in an organisation and how performance, culture and values can be fostered through good leadership and more open/ trustful conversations….demonstrable leading to…. greater productivity, lower turnover, and increased likelihood of commercial success… Oh… and the organisation starts to be a better place to spend our precious time.

    You’d think it would be a no-brainer.

    And what I read here is a very usual response to your plea being played out very publicly. The commercial discourse/ orthodoxy what ever you want to call it, completely squashing the voices that ask for a less mechanistic, predictable discussion about outcomes and demands a more person-focussed, potentially messy or tough discussion about purpose.

    My mate Amanda tells a story about weapons focus – it’s what happens, psychologically, when you are threatened with a gun or a knife, seemingly. The Police find people can beautifully describe the knife or the gun – and have lost focus/ can’t describe who is wielding it. For the greater good, the latter would be better information, I suspect.

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      Weapons focus. Is that what people have when they look at HR? Probably.

  3. pwillcox · November 8, 2012

    Hi Neil. Really got me thinking this post and I have taken three attempts to write this reply.

    Completely agree that being commercially aware is a prerequisite for any discipline within HR and I purposefully send myself (and my teams) out into the business to understand it, it’s language, it’s terminology, etc.

    At the same time we NEED to be the part of the business that helps the organisation find and reference it’s moral compass, it’s conscience if you will. Let me be clear, we are not THE conscience. We are however, perfectly placed to make sure that there is a recognition, no, a focus on the values, behaviour, culture and the leadership of our organisation(s). So that we are working in and building a business that is both a commercial succces and somewhere I want to work.

    Who knows, we may even be part of something where people want to be, love what they do and can be of their best. Is that it ………. HR (in all it’s disciplines) is there to help the people and the organisation be of their best.

    Thanks again for a great post!

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      Right! We are there to help the people and the organisation be the best they can be. Anything else is a waste of time and energy.

  4. Henry · November 13, 2012

    Well said.

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      I thank you!

  5. Mark Withers · November 14, 2012

    I agree with much of what you write here.

    Essentially we need to be relevant – which indeed means being able to play our part in shaping strategy and plans, understanding the numbers, the marketing plan, how we make money, IT proposals etc. We need to be able to understand the world of those we work with and be able to bring our expertise to the table in ways that help our colleagues (collectively and individually) get better. If we call this being ‘commercial’ I get it and, as such, it isn’t defunct or redundant. It’s just not the headline act. It’s not what makes us distinctive.

    I also agree about finding our unique voice in the organisation. I don’t believe HR has any particular ‘overseer’ role to play in being the ‘moral compass’ of an organisation – we are no more moral than any other department or colleague. However, we absolutely do have a part to play in helping our organisations with culture, values, leadership and broader organisational development and creating a culture of mutual accountability. This means being focused on teams and the wider organisation, as well as the individual. It also means HR must develop the capabilities to work effectively with colleagues to define the environment that will drive performance and to support delivery ‘on the ground’. These are different capabilities to running processes, developing policy and ensuring compliance and they lie in the heartland of HR and not on the fringes of expert areas.

    This is a very helpful blog and I hope more people will read it and make their comments.

    • Neil · January 5, 2013

      Thanks and I totally agree, understanding the business is not the headline act….but it is a prerequisite.

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