The Human Resources of the Future…Prediction from 1997

I was cleaning out my materials from my masters program because I am totally out of room in my office and something had to give.  As I was looking at what I collected over 6 years (yes, it took that long to finish), I found an article that grabbed my attention (again): “The Transformation of the Human Resource Function: Resolving the Tension Between a Traditional Administrative and a New Strategic Role“.  I thought, wow – how timely.  I long to see Human Resource be the force that I think they can be.

So I leafed through the article and was amazed to find that it was authored by a professor from the Harvard Business School.  Huh – unusual to find HR a topic of Harvard Business School.  Then I looked at the date….The article was published in “Human Resource Management” in Spring 1997!  That got my attention, as I thought the topic would have been more contemporary.  Then I started to read…

The author makes a case for the needed paradigm shift to a more strategic HR:

  • “Competition, globalization and continuous change in markets and technology”,
  • “A flatter, less bureaucratic, less hierarchical, faster and more responsive organization is emerging as the model for the future”,
  • The need for “far higher levels of (1) coordination across functions, business units, and borders; (2) employee commitment to continuous improvement; (3) general management and leadership competence; (4) creativity and entrepreneurship; and (5) open communication.”
  • Pressures for cost reduction within Human Resources.

The author goes on to describe an organization where the CEO found that his HR Director was not “up to the task” of driving the strategic change in organizing and managing people.  What is particularly interesting is that the HR Director had been hired five years before because of his excellent record, and had created nationally award winning HR programs for the organization.   But line executives “saw an expensive HR organization adding negligible value“.

How many times have we bemoaned that we weren’t getting the “seat at the table” or being listened to?

The author describes his vision of the new HR function (remember, this was 1997):

  • HR will have shed the admin, compliance and service role
  • HR will focus on developing  the capabilities of the organization and the leaders
  • Admin functions, enabled by technology, will be centralized, allowing time for strategic work
  • HR will question traditional programs that don’t add value (he cites performance appraisal and pay structures)
  • HR will become evidence-based in determining value add
  • HR will develop leaders to do leadership work
  • HR will provide expertise in “organization design, organization change, and intervention methods”
  • “Corporate HR will be small, and focused on compensation, management development, diversity and organization effectiveness.”

And finally, he describes the obstacles including the skill and competence of existing HR practitioners, and the lack of understanding on the part of the CEO about what HR should contribute.

So….the two things that strike me about this article…first, it doesn’t feel like we’ve progressed very far in 16 years.  Second, when will this profession that has so much opportunity to really drive business success take steps to grow?

Just as a lark, I looked at today’s front page.  The “most popular” topics were benefits/healthcare (4), Payroll/taxes (1), Job descriptions (1), EEOC (1), Engagement surveys (1), Interviewing (1), Training (1).  Is this the work that will position HR in a place of influence on the business?


Beer, M. (1997). The transformation of the human resource function:  resolving the tension between a traditional administrative and a new strategic role.  Human Resources Management, Spring 1997, 36, 49-56.

2 thoughts on “The Human Resources of the Future…Prediction from 1997

  1. Well this is just depressing! In all seriousness, I think it’s true to the extent that we’re still looking to consistently (consider that last word underlined) upgrade our Human Resource functions to more strategic from administrative. I do think there are some organizations who have done a great job of partnering with the C-suite, adding value as an esteemed partner, and helping drive the business forward through its people strategies. The more and more I see this type of editorial, the more I think: are we looking at the right thing? Are we asking the right questions? Are we trying to push a square peg into a round hole? After all, HR will always have some transactional, very administrative work. Yet I also know HR professionals (perhaps not the HR profession per se) who are very business-minded and can be that value-added partner. Maybe the ‘seat’ is truly just a seat, meaning maybe there are only one or two HR indivdiuals in the department who bring the long-term, business-minded, broader view. It continues to be an interesting, albeit somewhat frustrating, conversation.

  2. Sorry Mercedes…didn’t mean to depress you! This topic really is my passion, as I’ve watched over 35 years HR trying to add value, and not very many times have they/we achieved it. What I found interesting about the author’s concept is that he suggested thinking way outside the box and shifting administrative duties over to parts of the organization that are set up to do administrative work. That made me think about benefits and executive comp, where the issues are so heavily financial and administrative, but is that where HR really adds value? In my last two companies, the responsibility rested with HR, but we had to hire financial people to manage the programs. And if I looked at a pie chart of where our CHRO spent time, it was in dealing with the administration of programs.

    Over the years, particularly since I moved into OD, I watched operations take on more and more of the type of work that, in my opinion, would really be the role of HR – the “guardian of the people and culture”. One example is the myriad project management and total quality programs that are steeped in change management and leadership skill, but yet HR has been excluded from what could be a very meaty role, as the operations people bring in specialists and consultants. Should not the HR team have the competence to serve as the organizational consultant for change management and leadership skill?

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