How HR became a project-based activity
For many organisations, the project is now the basic unit of business operation. There used to be a strong division between BAU (Business as Usual) and project activities. The vast majority of time and effort in the organisation were spent on BAU, with a much smaller proportion on projects. For many organisations now, that ratio is reversed. Many BAU functions have become self-service or have been automated or outsourced. Working on one project after another, is the new normal, even for permanent employees.
This has affected HR’s role in two ways. Firstly, as the organisation moves towards a project-based approach, the capabilities that it needs may be very different, and the HR function has to develop a strategy that will develop those competencies. Secondly, HR itself is not immune to the primacy of project work.
No sign of tumbleweed in HR
Looking at the second point first, it’s certainly the case that a lot of the day to day work that HR functions used to do has been automated. Employees are using Sharepoint and other systems to access their own HR profile, manage annual leave, request pension information and so on. Large chunks of formerly key HR activities, such as recruitment, are now outsourced to providers who will manage the entire process, using their own automated systems.
So is the tumbleweed blowing through the former HR office, while the section next door eyes up the office space, planning a land grab? Not a bit. HR people in the organisation are busier than ever - but what they are doing has changed significantly.
This is partly because of the need to demonstrate results, involving the setting of performance targets or required outputs. So a culture and capability manager - (to name just one of the new roles you now find in HR) may be given a set of results to achieve, some resources to do this with, and asked to work across the organisation to achieve the outcomes within a certain timeframe. That’s a project, by anybody’s definition.
HR roles on project and programme boards
Then there’s the frequent requirement for HR to take a key position on projects or programmes that may primarily be delivering business change or operational development but which have an HR workstream. For example, an IT transformation project may require advice on transferring existing employees to work for an outsourcer which is coming in to provide services. A major relocation might need advice on how to ensure that the process is conducted fairly under equality legislation.
None of these are BAU, except that in an environment of constant change, this is what BAU increasingly looks like for HR.
Building competence and capability in project-based organisations
There was a time when at the mention of the word “project”, employees got booked on a Prince2 course. As much as anything, this was because no one had much of an idea as to what appropriate training might be, and Prince2 seemed a safe option.
Today, a manager charged with developing capability in the organisation will need to look at where most of the current workforce has developed the competencies they have. If it’s primarily through practical experience and on-the-job training, they may be very effective at what they’re doing - but how effective would they be if the nature of the projects changed?
It’s time to look at the strengths and limitations of the training that the workforce has had. Prince2 for example - great on structured processes, very poor on financial management. This may not matter where project teams don’t manage money, but where a programme manager has a substantial budget, their capability in this area may need some attention.
There’s a bright future for HR professionals who understand not only the way in which HR is changing but how that is related to changes in the organisation as a whole.