"Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up." – From ‘Teaching the Elephant to Dance’ by James A. Belasco and Ralph C. Stayer.
Change is the only constant in today’s world, and, organisations need to change in response to opportunities and threats in their business environment. But the reality is making any change is never easy for any organisation. Envisaging change is easier than executing a change strategy, and, that is where the quote by Belasco and Stayer gains prominence. Leaders cannot drive any organisational change agenda or transformation initiative without getting their employees to embrace the same, we all know from our individual experiences as leaders that it is never easy. Managing change of any magnitude, especially in today's connected world, where organisations have a diverse employee profile becomes even more challenging and complex. Employees and leaders or owners of businesses or organisations usually have goal conflicts and this contributes to employees’ resistance to change. So, it is essential to harmonize or reduce the intensity of goal conflict between these two parties when envisaging or embarking on a change programme or agenda.
Now, when we talk about change, it becomes important to think about business transformation; and, here we are reminded of Kurt Lewin’s change model involving three steps: unfreezing, changing and refreezing. For Lewin, the process entailed creating the perception that a change is needed, then moving toward the new, desired level of behaviour, and, finally, solidifying that new behaviour as the norm. This is where the Human Resources function comes in – they have a critical role to play in the whole process of business transformation.
Over the years, HR as a function has evolved, and, it continues to align itself with the changing world of work, necessitated by the digital disruption. In today’s world, HR departments are required to focus less on the transactional operations of personnel administration, and pay more attention to recruiting the right employees, training and developing the workforce and managing performance.
The transforming role of HR
Dave Ulrich, one of the foremost thinkers in the area of human resources management in his much acclaimed book “Human Resource Champion,” stresses upon the need to align HR and business strategy, and, goes on to talk about the importance of Human Resource Management as a business arm that an enterprise cannot do without. The "Ulrich Model" serves as a benchmark for many HR professionals today in their attempt to dissect and mobilize their multifaceted roles in the administrative, HR, and business partnerships. In this model, he has propounded four roles for the HR function in any organisation. According to Ulrich, the two roles that HR needs to assay around day-to-day operational focus are Administrative Expert and Employee Champion, and, the two roles that HR needs to play to align itself to the strategic focus area, and the organisations' vision for future is Strategic Partner and Change Agent. This clearly establishes the role of Human Resources in driving any organisational change or transformation agenda.
Also, if one looks at the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM)’s competency model which outlines the nine categories of competencies required of today’s HR professional, it talks about change and agility. Interestingly, the word ‘change’ or ‘changing’ appears 19 times in the SHRM Competency model document. Business transformation is included as one of the sub-competencies within the competency of ‘Human Resource Expertise.’
Within the same competency definition, one of the proficiency standards for mid‑level HR professionals is “implements change based on proven change-management techniques,” “interprets both policies and changes to policy” and “recommends policy changes to support business needs.” Clearly, business transformation appears to be a part of what HR professionals need to know and practice.
Similarly, within the competency of “Consultation,” the SHRM model cites the example of the behaviour of those who exhibit the highest level of proficiency as “generates specific organisational interventions (e.g., culture change, business transformation, restructuring, training, etc.) to support organisational objectives.” “Business transformation” also features as a sub-competency within the “Leadership & Navigation” competency, with an associated behaviour of “serves as a transformational leader for the organisation by leading change.” This also appears as a proficiency standard for mid-level HR professionals within this competency, listed as “supports critical large-scale organisational changes.”
According to SHRM, a proficient HR professional at the senior level within this competency, “serves as a change agent for the organisation,” and, at the executive level, he or she “identifies the need for and facilitates strategic organisational change,” “oversees critical large-scale organisational changes with the support of business leaders,” “ensures appropriate accountability for the implementation of plans and change initiatives”, “sets the tone for maintaining or changing organisational culture” and “gains buy-in for organisational change across senior leadership with agility.”
Hence, all HR models and literature have earmarked the role of HR in business transformation. They have multiple roles to play in the entire process of change, being an influencer and consultant for the key stakeholders, where they need to provide an objective assessment of organisations’ readiness for any change and the impact of change on the human capital and existing organisational processes. They need to also play the role of people advocates to ensure that interests and concerns of employees are duly addressed.
"All HR models and literature have earmarked the role of HR in business transformation. They have multiple roles to play in the entire process of change, being an influencer and consultant."
HR as a change influencer
One of the most critical roles that HR is expected to play is that of an influencer. To succeed, HR needs to develop an influence strategy, by mapping out where they will need to spend time and effort to align stakeholders to support their initiatives, and their point of view on the change and transformation agenda. This requires them to identify, which of their stakeholders is likely to be a supporter, a neutral party or a blocker.
Exercising influence to build support for change may range from conversations that leverage likeability to trading currencies of influence to align stakeholder commitments and actions to the HR agenda. In some difficult cases, HR leadership may have to exercise their power building on their own positional authority, or the authority of other more powerful stakeholders, social pressure, and scarce resources to compel non-aligned stakeholders to be more cooperative. Thus, understanding influence and investing in relationships to build social capital can be essential for the HR leadership and executives to accumulate enough currencies to trade or establish coalitions among stakeholders to support their agenda.
Any organisation can be viewed as systems whose components (people, team, groups and organizations) are joined by formal and informal relationships and networks, and, any process of internal change requires complex negotiations based on them. The boxes and lines of formal organisational charts often do not reveal the relationships in networks that crisscross the borders of functions, hierarchies, and business units. These networks define the way work actually gets done in today's organisations. HR leaders and executives that invest time and energy to understand their organisational networks and collaborative relationships greatly improve their chances of making successful organisational changes. Sophisticated approaches can map networks and identify the key points of connectivity where the value is created or destroyed. A network approach can help the HR function and the organisation to make change stick by working through influential employees, to focus on points in the network where relationships should be expanded or reduced, and to measure the effectiveness of major initiatives.
It is also expected that HR play the role of Change Champion which demands a sound strategy and a step-by-step approach.
- They need to take co-ownership with the business leadership to implement the change and securing a commitment from all stakeholders.
- They need to think and act incrementally, plan for contingencies, and, have action plans to deal with road-blocks and obstacles.
- They need to break down the whole process of change into small, "bite-sized" components to help envision the anticipated result, and, also make a course correction, if required.
- They need to establish regular communication with employees and the stakeholders and documenting every step.
- They need to de-escalate and manage conflicts and tension.
- They need to co-opt employees as change advocates.
- They must celebrate small and big wins and learning from things that did not work.
Change is progress, and, if there is no struggle there cannot be any progress. And, the struggle cannot be the reason to resist change – Human Resource has to be the trailblazer in creating a culture of change‑driven performance and progress.
In Quotes “Change is progress, and, if there is no struggle there cannot be any progress. And, the struggle cannot be the reason to resist change.”
Is HR solely responsible for cultural change?
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