Operational HR

This month marks the 6th anniversary of my first job as an entrepreneur, which consisted of sharing my experiences in international retail with a group of HR managers from European countries. At that round table I spent three hours explaining how my team and I lived our day-to-day jobs close to our store teams, who were our main internal customers. When I finished, I realised something I had never thought about before: what was normal for us (literally being at your internal customer’s side so that your expertise was really useful) was the least common thing in most of our profession. Since then, I have been finding the same situation in all kinds of sectors and industries: HR areas very focused on strategy and back-office and without a direct relationship with their internal client who, paradoxically, is the one who gives us the keys to create a coherent strategy. I don’t know at what point HR people began to abandon ourselves to strategy to the point of losing impact on the operation. What I do know is that, if we want to be truly relevant to the business of which we are an intrinsic part, we can achieve this in one easy way: by embracing an operational HR approach.

In the current situation, it would be a serious mistake to continue to innocently believe that strategy is the essential and “highest” thing in an organisation, as everyone thought it was in the 20th century. If we look at any organisation, whether public or private, we see that precisely those organisations that spend most of their time talking about strategy are the ones that spend the least time on their operations and live the most isolated from their end users (let’s call them clients, consumers, patients, fans, citizens or whatever name the industry or institution in question prefers). The most dramatic thing is that they are not even aware of it and are happy to meet and explain it in various forums. For them, the strategy is drawn from a cloud while the operation (where the business takes place) is the front line, the workers, the ground (in some cases I have even heard “the mud”). But it so happens that the operation is where we find the largest community of internal customers in an organisation, they are the ones who are in contact with those who buy the products or services of that organisation and, because it is the largest community, it is the real cradle of the culture of that company (stop thinking that “values” is what you get after the workshop with the management team and the typical consulting firm). In fact, most of the time we are dangerously thinking that the “real” company is its headquarters, its offices. These days, all the conversations about talent or compensation, to give an example, revolve around “head office” profiles, when The Great Resignation is happening mainly in operational profiles (where, mysteriously, almost nobody has started to work on benefits, conciliation or new ways of remuneration beyond agreements or price/hour … Unbelievable). The real company is not four walls, but the boundless field of operations. Do we HR people (or whatever we choose to call ourselves) really want to give up being present where business happens simply because some people think that making powerpoints is better? Do we really want our job to consist of that?

I only see advantages to the operational HR approach. Being close to my client, I know the profiles and the scenario in which they operate better, so when it comes to finding and attracting the right talent, I will have a clear idea of how to do it and who I really need. By knowing first-hand the day-to-day life of my teams, I have all the elements to create (and co-create) products and formats that are really attractive and useful for their learning and development and that adapt to their reality. By being part of their usual environment, I stop being “a visitor” and become someone they can talk to on a daily basis, share doubts, solve concerns, gather information to anticipate problems or have a coffee break and simply get to know each other.

Being physically in the business allows us to be in the real dimension of the organisation and that gives us an undeniable knowledge and impact that we should not be willing to lose for anything in the world in order to gain a hypothetical strategic influence that, let’s face it, we will never have if we do not know our business and our internal customers first hand. So, if it has been more than a week since you last spoke face-to-face with a client, I recommend that you turn off your computer and go and have a coffee with him or her right now. Once you have done so, you will wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

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