On 9 November 2017, Anna Martin and Kenny Chen from Odgers Berndtson Singapore hosted a drinks reception at Salt Grill & Sky Bar featuring guest speaker Sunil Puri, Asia Pacific Director of Research, Innovation, and Product Development at the Center for Creative Leadership. With a wealth of experience interviewing and collecting data from business leaders, HR professionals and headhunters in the region, Sunil is uniquely placed to comment on where the HR function is likely heading in the next 10 to 15 years and what HR leaders must do in order to stay relevant.
Sunil first gave an overview of the current landscape:
- the business landscape is changing rapidly thanks to technological advancement, market disruptors and geopolitical uncertainties, among other things
- the role of a Human Resources leader is evolving and becoming increasingly complex. In order to serve the business and employees of the future better, the HR function will have to adapt and evolve.
Sunil then outlined three big trends in the way businesses are changing that he predicts will directly affect the HR function in the coming decade.
- Companies are changing the way they employ people. In the future, a core team of employee-generalists will be complemented and advised by a large group of independent freelancer-specialists. This is already apparent in the rapid growth of platforms that connect freelancers to companies. Upwork, for example, claims to have 10 million subscribers and experts project that half a billion people will register with such platforms in the next 10 years. This is the reality of the gig economy and it’s a trend that is happening in a big way in Asia. In addition, the COE function, like a lot of shared services, will be outsourced to third-party vendors like BPOs.
- The second trend Sunil highlighted is that career path, which used to be rather predictable and linear, are becoming much more fluid and less traditional, with an emphasis on collaboration and multi-disciplinary capability. HR executives should be encouraging those within their organizations to take on roles in parallel functions, to make horizontal career moves in order to enrich their exposure and expand their networks. Diversity is another area that will continue to gain importance and while some organizations are still focused solely on gender diversity—which remains critical—Sunil argued that we should also be thinking about initiatives to ensure our organizations reflect diverse nationalities, ethnicities and ages.
- Sunil’s research also points to a third trend: C-suite executives’ and employees’ expectations of the HR function are evolving. CEOs will increasingly expect HR executives to stand beside them and provide proactive guidance, instead of waiting for top-down strategic direction. Employees are also expecting the HR function to add something to their experience at the company that their manager cannot. In other words, employees will expect HR to take a more holistic approach to enhancing their overall employee experience. This will require HR to stretch outside of its traditional function and operate at the intersection of HR and finance, and HR and operations.
The impact of these trends will be that HR leaders of the future will be expected to be more agile with multi-disciplinary experience, capability and business acumen. The HR executive’s role will become much more strategic—not just partnering with the business but also executing on strategic initiatives. The HR leader of the future will be a guardian of one of the business’ most valuable assets—talent—even if the company does not directly employ most of that talent. In terms of the delivery model for HR services, Sunil pointed out that the role of technology, digitization and data analytics will continue to expand. HR will be something employees access on their smartphones or through the cloud.
To illustrate the HR executive of the future, Sunil outlined three different types of executive he expects to proliferate in the next decade:
- The “HR ninjas” are executives who are trained in HR but have broad experience in different parts of the business and different global offices. The HR ninja is very versatile and understands the nuances of different markets. Sunil predicts that this type of HR professional will multiply while HR process junkies will be marginalized.
- Another profile is the “Yoda”. These are trusted advisors who have likely transitioned from a business function into HR at the request of a CEO who decided the HR function wasn’t business savvy enough or capable of executing on strategic projects. The Yoda may not have specific HR training or understand all of the best practices of the field but she has the ear of the business.
- Finally, there are the “Avatars”, new age leaders who combine business, HR and tech experience. Someone who fits this profile has likely worked for start-ups, tech companies and other young and growing organizations. Their technology experience is really valuable and they are used to dealing with a young and modern workforce. According to headhunters in the region, this profile is the most in demand and big organisations are lapping them up.
In order to transform into the HR superheroes of tomorrow, Sunil recommended that HR leaders focus on seven mind-shifts that are already taking hold in some organizations. These include being
- more tech-savvy
- becoming more comfortable using and understanding analytics
- taking a more expansive view of the HR function’s responsibilities in terms of owning all aspects of the employee experience
- prioritising what that want to own, basis where they are able to add maximum value
- keep an eye out for best practices and macroeconomic shifts that will impact business
- getting better at collaborating with other functions to make HR happen outside the four walls of human resources department
- proactively advising and steering business’ talent agenda instead of waiting for problems to arise.
1) To what extent will the role of the CHRO change in the future, as Sunil postulated that the role is likely to require more broad-based competencies rather than specific HR process expertise, as is the case now.
Sunil replied that CEOs are increasingly looking to fill CHRO roles with business leaders who have HR experience. His research currently shows that two out of five CHROs have more business training than specific HR process-training and that proportion rises to three out of five in their successor pool. This trend shows that companies appear to value business skills and strategic thinking while not valuing pure HR skills as highly as before.
2) Another attendee pushed back on this and pointed out that organisations will continue to need HR skills to build COEs, for example, even as processes become increasingly automated. She agreed that HR business partners will need to be more business-savvy and strategic but wondered whether HR is transforming fast enough to keep up with a technological and cultural change in core competencies.
In response, Sunil pointed out that a lot of core HR functions like learning and development will likely be standardized and outsourced to shared services providers but he agreed that there will continue to be a role in some form for HR business partners and other HR professionals within organisations.
3) Another HR professional noted that hearing Sunil’s talk made him worry about his future job. As more and more of the HR function is outsourced to consultants, recruiters and shared services providers, what will be left for the corporate HR professionals to do?
Sunil reassured him that based on the research he’s done, the HR function is not going away but it is evolving. For example, in the future, HR will play an even bigger role in driving the culture of an organization. Many current in-house functions will be outsourced and digitized but there will always be a role for HR, even inside a much leaner organization. Sunil concluded that it is up to HR leaders to embrace the evolution of their role and develop the necessary skills to become even more valuable, strategic and aligned with the business.
Sunil Puri is the Director – Asia Pacific for Research, Innovation, and Product Development at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). Sunil brings 20 years of experience across large global organizations to his current role at CCL, where he leads the research on leadership development in Asia and guides product design for the region. His research interests include leadership in Asia, global leadership development, HR future readiness, and cross-cultural influences. Prior to CCL, he served as Head of Research and Insights at Human Capital Leadership Institute (HCLI). Sunil has authored/co-authored several HR-related research studies and in 2015, he co-edited the book “Human Capital Insights: Inspiring Practices from Asia, for Asia”. Sunil holds a post-graduate degree in Technology from Indian Institute of Technology and a post-graduate diploma in management from Indian Institute of Management.
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