Strategy Implementations by Human Resources

HCM StrategyAfter a decade or so of haphazard evolution, it can probably at last be said that Human Resources, that ambiguous child of marketing and capitalism, has finally gotten his ungainly legs beneath him. The HR department has always been a point of some confusion, as companies struggle to discover the best ways to utilize such a vague, if obviously valuable, tool. Trial and error have gradually allowed HR to carve its niche in the business world; in recent years, HR has proven itself especially useful in the innovative development of organizational strategy. The time has come, however, for Human Resource professionals to push past the strategy-development phase and put their plans into action. The implementation of strategy is a key element of business success, and HR authorities are uniquely positioned to pioneer the realization of such strategies.

And why, exactly, HR? First, unlike any other constituent of an organization, Human Resources is extensive, inter-departmental, and involved throughout the company; the nature of HR is to interact with and understand the processes of the business as a whole. Second, the implementation of a business strategy intrinsically demands cooperation with the human workforce, and whose domain is that? Human Resources, of course. Last, the specific arsenal of skills necessary for strategy implementation is native to those people working in HR: similar tools for similar tasks, in a manner of speaking.

Strategic HR: Driving Business Change

The notion of “strategic HR” is common enough. Certainly, a multitude of books, articles, white papers, and courses exist to spur HR professionals towards strategizing their business management. A great deal of progress has been made along this trend, but the fact is that much of this strategy development remains strictly conceptual; very little ground is being gained in terms of actual organizational change. Strategy, in order to be effective, must naturally be implemented. If a business needs to change, people must drive the wheels of that change—and that is where HR’s true role emerges.

Honing in on a successful method of strategy implementation, of course, can be a difficult and often overwhelming task. Even HR professionals at the forefront of their field can find themselves well out of their depth when it comes to actually putting the vehicle of strategy into gear. It is the goal of this article, therefore, to act as both friend and guide to anyone aiming to become more actively involved in the evolution of his company. HR can and should be a leading factor in the implementation of strategy.

This article serves to outline but one method of strategy implementation, designed for the simple purpose of aiding HR professionals in transitioning to this new and very important realm of contribution and influence. Regardless of an organization’s size, function, or ambition, certain essential steps should be taken as part of the implementation process.

Hurdles of changeLeaping the Hurdles of Change

Before HR professionals can work to implement strategy, they must first ascertain what obstacles presently exist to prevent the desired changes from occurring in their organization. Strategy implementation is, in many ways, a systematized process of removing the company’s many internal roadblocks to change. Every strategy will encounter some measure of resistance, even when it’s been unanimously agreed that change is imperative; and the more dramatic the change in strategy, of course, the more struggle there will be.

HR can preempt many potential battles by anticipating and addressing some of the problems that will likely arise. As a general rule of thumb, there are five basic causes for strategy implementation failure, and from these causes stem ten or so foreseeable hurdles that HR management must endeavor to overcome. The core causes and their related issues are as follows:

1. Poor Coordination Within Management

  • Incongruous goals, opinions, and policies among upper-level executives can obstruct the cross-system cooperation required by the strategy.

2. Employees Aren’t Buying In

  • Employees within the company do not understand the strategy.
  • Employees feel no personal responsibility to fulfill the strategy. It’s possible they may feel that their efforts will be inconsequential in actually bringing about a change, or perhaps they are contemptuous of management.
  • Employees are impassive towards the execution of the strategy, and exert no enthusiasm in taking part.
  • Employees are uninspired by the overarching goals of the strategy.

3. Inadequate Change Within the Work Unit

  • Managers fail to direct the efforts of their work units toward conforming with the new strategy.
  • Managers’ styles and tactics undermine employee enthusiasm about the strategy.
  • Work proceeds as usual even within those units which the strategy requires to exhibit swift and considerable change.

4. Weak Inter-Departmental Collaboration

  • There are insufficient processes employed to advance the collaboration between different operating and functional areas.

5. There Exists No Measurement of Progress

  • A method of measuring progress toward the desired goals is either deficient or else entirely absent. It is difficult, if not impossible, to tell what exactly is changing.

In order to establish which of these barriers to change will pose the most difficulty within a given organization, consider the following questions:

  • Which of these problems will most directly affect the achievement of our goals?
  • If these problems persist, what kinds of challenges could result?
  • If we remove or reduce these problems, what quantifiable business benefits will we see?
  • Which of these problems comprises the most immediate, pressing issue?
  • How can HR work to address these problems?

The most crucial element to solving these kinds of internal company issues is to identify them from the start. Like any disease left undiagnosed, small discrepancies in communication and leadership can rankle deeply and result in long-term and potentially devastating problems. In order to effectively implement strategy, HR leaders must take a proactive role in seeking out and carefully eradicating these various obstacles to change.

Strategy Implementation as a Social Issue

human social networkThe most significant aspect of the “obstacle course” listed above is the fact that it consists predominantly of not technical or financial system flaws, but rather, stumbling blocks within the human system. This, of course, is HR’s happy realm of specialty – for, where there is discord in the human resource, there is work for Human Resource professionals.

The art of strategy implementation is a symphony in three parts: the technical system, the business system, and the social system. The majority of management teams do a swell job of dovetailing their business processes with the newly-established strategy, and the benefits of cutting-edge technology typically fall into place – but the marriage of social system and strategy is far too often a rocky one. The human resource is fickle and complex, difficult to understand and, as a consequence, difficult to successfully manage. By working to improve human interactions, HR will, by extension, be working to improve the actual execution and use of the more straightforward technology and business processes.

Social issues, when left to fester, can grow to the unfortunate point of overshadowing otherwise superior efforts by the remaining two fields. Put simply: the best technology money can buy and that paragon of a business plan are meaningless without the right people to operate them. HR professionals, therefore, become indispensable in their roles of mediating social issues and building up a support force to help drive the strategy implementation.

So, Where to Start?

That formidable string of issues listed up yonderways can be pared down to yield a tidy little “To-Do” list – but recognizing problems and tackling problems are two very different things. The chore of thoroughly managing barriers to strategy is an intimidating one, and given that, the rarity of effective strategy execution is really none too surprising. Fortunately, every one of those issues is within the power of HR to conquer.

From a big-picture perspective, there are four vital tasks that all businesses must accomplish. These four jobs, when properly fulfilled, add up to the bare-bones work of strategy implementation, and they are:

1. Helping employees to understand the strategy.
Not only must employees understand the strategic direction itself, they must also comprehend the reason for the strategy, as well as the driving forces behind it. Employees are the cogs around which the gears of business turn. If the employees don’t understand where the strategy is headed, they will be incapable of realizing their full potential in aiding the strategy implementation.

2. Augmenting employee commitment to the strategy.
Changes in strategy mean changes for people on an individual level, and individual change tends to mean frustration, disappointment, and challenge. If an employee is going to put in any extra effort toward propelling a conceived strategy to fruition, he must genuinely believe that, in the long run, the end product will be worth the difficult sacrifices made in order to implement the strategy.

3. Streamlining local effort with the strategy.
Though invariably all employees must be on board for understanding and committing to the strategy, this in and of itself is not enough. Implementing a strategy means legitimately changing work production. In order to achieve the business strategy, all off-strategy work must terminate and all on-strategy work must proceed with renewed urgency and dedication.

4. Inducing cross-system cooperation.
The final and most important step in strategy implementation is that of realigning departmental relationships within the system. Implementing strategy means carving deeper relationships between inter-dependent organizational units, such as sales and manufacturing, or customer service and distribution. This last job is as challenging as it is critical, because it demands that employees within discrete work units learn to share and interact across the traditional boundaries of their job descriptions.

Implementation of strategyImplementation of Strategy

This system of change as organized into four jobs is rather unique among most designs for strategic HR. Where many plans focus in on how HR can appeal to, motivate, and enrich the contribution of the individual, the Four Jobs system recognizes the work that must be done on all three tiers of organization, from the individual to the work unit to the department as a whole. Implementation of strategy is an all-encompassing procedure, demanding change at all levels of the business’s social system.

Naturally, strategy implementation doesn’t always quite follow the nice linear path laid out above. The first two jobs, however, do remain distinctly foundational, and without their proper groundwork of understanding, jobs three and four are mind-boggling to approach. Jobs one and two, meanwhile, are certainly inter-related. When employees are lead to fully understand the nature and logic of the business strategy, they will feel entirely more compelled to work toward achieving it – particularly when they can see what they stand to gain from the change.

All this talk of strategy, of course, is worthless if it doesn’t at some point translate over into action. Therein lies the purpose of job three. Regardless of employee understanding and enthusiasm, if there’s no change in work at the local level, the strategy will never achieve full implementation. Changing work means not only altering the actual processes of local work units, but also improving the ways in which they go about completing their tasks. This is not simply a job for management – the workers themselves must affirmatively be included in the process of formulating solutions. Working employees enjoy a firsthand insight which upper-level management simply does not have the ability to possess.

Fulfilling a company-wide strategy requires that change be made not only within individual departments, but also in the ways in which those departments interact with one another. Job four focuses on adjusting the relationships between different business processes, improving how they work together and accomplish their aims. The implementation of a new strategy almost always demands such cross-system changes, but rarely do organizations actually take steps to make these shifts. Granted, it’s pretty hard work.

And why is job four so much more difficult than job one? Proceeding through the steps of strategy implementation, there is a distinct trend of increasing difficulty. The reasons for this are several:

  • Technically speaking, HR can accomplish jobs one and two without really partnering with the line organization (and it certainly often tries to) – but HR could not possibly hope to achieve jobs three and four on its own. To really hold weight over what work is done and how it is completed, HR must have an agreeable client who wants the offered help.

  • As jobs one and two suggest, it is one thing to guide people in understanding something, and another thing entirely to motivate them to take action with what they’ve learned. This, of course, is one of HR’s specialties – but though HR might be pro at instilling such changes within its own field of the business, it should be careful not to do so otherwise without line manager involvement.

  • As important as it is that employees understand the strategy, as in job one, it is exponentially more critical that they apply what they know, as through jobs three and four. Unfortunately, this is where traditional training begins to grow less effective, and different, less conventional approaches become necessary.

  • Job three does not apply merely to the individual – it is a sweeping movement throughout entire work units, driving a collective change in focus, work habits, and processes. To successfully accomplish such a far-flung task, HR must work closely with line managers, often in situations which are out of HR’s usual comfort zone.

The Real Role of Human Resources

Having established that these four jobs form the core work of strategy implementation, the question now remains: exactly whose work is it? Certainly HR has a necessary role in helping the business to address each of these jobs, but it is not the place of HR to carry them all out. HR should follow its own initiative to complete those tasks it can, and a solid partnership with the executive line will see to the rest. Put simply, HR must establish itself as the driving force behind the strategy implementation effort.

On the flip side, though it is within the ability of HR to fulfill many of the requirements of jobs one and two, the executive line should be far from uninvolved. Employees, in all honesty, would rather be lectured and inspired by line leaders than they would by HR. HR, meanwhile, has the power to generate opportunities to bring employees together with managers and executives, leading from behind the scenes.

Management will have the greatest success in implementing strategy given a:

  • Thorough understanding of the strategic objectives
  • Willingness to make sacrifices in order to achieve the strategy
  • Common view regarding what parts of the organization must change
  • Commitment to a systematic plan of employee management, support, and inter-departmental relations that will cultivate efficient execution of the strategy

If any of these elements are deficient, it is the job of HR professionals to urge the management group to address these issues and suggest means of bringing the group into greater accord.

Checklist for Strategy Implementation Success

checklist for strategy implementationPutting together all of the pieces, here is a final set of guidelines to HR professionals aiming to crack down on transforming strategy ideas into actuality.

1. Look at the big-picture business problems, not just HR bustle.
Be down-to-earth and talk to people about what’s really going on. Ask a line executive what problems are weighing on him – chances are good he’ll launch into a spiel on customer response time, bottlenecks, production costs, waste, sales slumps, and the like, not the cost of new hires or lack of corporate values. Don’t worry too much about what strategic problems HR professionals should “bother with” getting involved in, whether they’re “HR-type” priority or not. The important thing is that HR is helping the organization to make changes, and any point that falls in line with the strategy is worth HR’s time.

2. Gauge HR in terms of business results.
HR often deals with the difficult-to-quantify, yes – but it’s worthwhile to encourage HR to be more market-driven. HR will be more successful in earning respect within the company if it can contribute what the line executives need, want, and will appreciate.

3. Buddy up with the top line executives.
A good partnership includes two parties which are working to achieve a common goal. HR and the executive line should both be open to receiving feedback with regard to how they are helping one another accomplish the strategy objectives. This sort of relationship operates far more effectively than the unfortunate habit of HR simply dictating coldly to the line functions what the problems are and what “must be done” to solve them.

4. Be obstinate in building alliances.
Job four is pivotal – there must be inter-departmental collaboration and change in order for strategy implementation to succeed. The different business processes, so accustomed to their separate and competitive ways, may very will dig their heels in and resist the building of cross-system relationships, but HR professionals should stick to their guns and manhandle the company into cooperation.

5. Get savvy about business change.
HR professionals should be exactly that – professional. They, more than anyone else, should know their stuff when it comes to what’s going on in and around the business. Nothing is more valuable than a thorough understanding of how HR must operate. This article itself is a mere sampler of what HR is responsible for knowing.

6. Branch out for support.
Don’t shy away from hiring outside partners in order to help HR compile and carry out a method of tying in organization to strategy. “Hiring out” is not a sign of weakness or incompetence – on the contrary, it shows business maturity in seeking diversity and creativity in order to solve problems. Oftentimes HR is too far buried within its own issues to see clearly, and an outside perspective can offer a crisp new form of insight.

The purpose of this article has been to illustrate the need for HR to take real action in not only conceiving but in actually implementing strategy, and to offer a generalized guide which will, hopefully, help HR professionals to do so. HR professionals can and should be an extraordinarily valuable asset to every organization, and when working to the full extent of their capabilities, they are more than qualified to set the wheels of legitimate strategy implementation in motion.