Future HR: a Process of Including Humans and Resources

It was back in 2016 when Tom Rommens published an article on LinkedIn that became trending. The content being more humane than the title suggests: Would somebody please kill the HR Business Partner?

In the same period I visited in The Netherlands a large conference on Educational Leadership, and out of the countless options I chose to attend a workshop called Strategic HR. Apparently some forty others were interested; all seats were filled. The duo-presenters started their introduction. Just for the record: I am sort of the last person that feels like complaining about the food in a restaurant, and in conferences I may think of good questions, but normally leave the microphone to others. In this case, only after a few minutes of listening, a question popped up in my mind: is this about Strategic HR or about HR Strategy? This time I actually asked that question, The two facilitators wondered and asked me to explain my question. After I shared my ideas about Strategic HR as a welcome field of expertise that contributes to the integral wellbeing of an  organization, versus HR Strategy as the tools (or toys) launched by the HR department, not seldom by waving with Ulrich’s bible, the facilitators asked for a short pause to discuss, and disappeared behind the projector screen. They came back earlier than expected, and admitted, considering the recent definitions, that their workshop better be called HR Strategy. That being clarified, and given the abundance of alternative sessions in the conference, I apologized for leaving the room and attending the workshop that was next on my wish list. All fine, but for the fact that almost 25 other participants decided to go …

Having been an HR manager in an IT company way before, as a career step from being both a software manager and chair of the central workers council, I wasn’t aware of Ullrich’s HR expertise, or his book wasn’t there yet, and had it be, I wouldn’t have had the time to read it properly. What I understand now is that Ulrich’s good advice may often be selectively applied in HR circles – a problem that more ‘bible’s’ have to cope with – but that his values and purpose are much more profound and aim for something that I would call Strategic HR.

Well. There’s a friendly lineage connecting Dave Ulrich and Simon Dolan, the multi-author “values professor” who initiated the Global Future of Work Foundation, in favor of which I am writing this blog. And I would like to raise the question that is on my mind after encountering with the GFWF:

“What do we mean by the Future of Work?”

The website tells us: “The GFWF aims to help Business, Academy and Governments around the globe prepare the workforce of the future for a sustainable world by detecting and predicting trends and paradigms for successful transformation.” (O yes, I like the word ‘predicting’ when it comes to trends, but that’s for another blog to come.) It can’t be misunderstood that Global refers to Foundation, and that it is “Future of Work” being addressed or even: “the workforce of the future”.

My question to you, dear reader, would be: if you think of the term “future workforce”, what context do you consciously or unconsciously include? Office? Workplace? Organization? When writing this, I don’t know what kind of context the GFWF members refer to. I can only speak for myself when I say that the phrase ‘future of work’ raises a new question:

“What is work in the future?”

Perhaps this question is relevant today already: how do we define work? Being fully aware that I entered a domain, also a discourse, too big to cover adequately and respectfully, and just touching some aspects of it like ‘voluntary work’, ‘household and caretaking’, ‘ equality’, ‘basic salary’, I take the liberty to ‘predict’ a future definition of work, rather sooner than later to be honest, and it sounds like: “Work (labor) is every human activity that contributes to collective hope, human development and societal progress.” This being my very first attempt to define work as we could understand it. Please reply, refresh and renew in the comments to co-create better versions.

Only when we develop a better view on what work looks like in the future, we may be able to say something about the corresponding workforce. The more I re-read GWFW’s mission the more I get convinced that ‘preparing the workforce of the future’ doesn’t exclude co-workers outside the organization borders. The question is whether the average HR professional would be willing to reach beyond the boundaries of their ‘own’ organization, and whether Ulrich has the recipes …

This brings me to another memory, a story that might explain the very title of this blog, and leaves us with questions that address all actors involved in processes of the H&R kind: Humans and Resources. Whether we need a department for that, time will tell.

For decades, the Dutch National Mail runned a yearly internal ‘best practices competition’ against the criteria of organizational excellence (the so called EFQM Excellence Model), and I had the honor and pleasure to be one of the external assessors, later on even the chair. One of the promising projects we visited was about a mobile phone app to be used by postmen, to mainly organize their own employee administration. It was a time that these employees had to be provided a proper mobile phone for it, or even get trained in the use of it. They could schedule their workweek and holidays within the boundaries of their contract and the delivery windows. Sick leave, doctor’s visits, and even getting behind schedule for some reason during work, and finding a replacement worker was sorted out by the system behind the app. Yes, there was quite a discussion, about privacy, ‘big brother’ knowing where the workers are; our assessores were impressed by the intensity of the communication before and during the implementation of the app. At some point I found myself speaking to the project leader, a senior manager himself, about the intriguing fact that this app actually would take many tasks out of the hands of operational managers, and what that would mean for their careers. What I still remember from that conversation was the sharing of a future vision in which managers really could spend their time on what really matters: the quality of communication with and between co-workers. According to my conversation partner, this valuable future task of managers will show to be an ongoing process, not to be centralized in corporate departments, and that the deployment of this task by all managers – his words – should be called the HR process.

That was more than ten years ago. HR was still booming and not disputed. It was me today that put the & in between, suggesting a process including Humans and Resources. What do you see?

Cornelis (Cees) J. Hoogendijk MSc is a Dutch independent ‘genarrative’ OD facilitator since 2004, with 35 years of (change, HR, leadership) experience in various large/international organizations and institutions. Cees is the founder of the Dutch Appreciative Inquiry Academy and the Society for Connective Leadership; associate of Taos Institute, ‘sometime professor’ of Modern Organizing, Inclusive Change and Generative Conversation in various universities and business schools; author of multiple books on a.o. dialogical practices, organizational learning, processual thinking, appreciative inquiry and organizational generativity. For relevant publications see the References. At the moment, Cees is involved as process architect and lead assessor regarding re-use of best practices among all Dutch city councils, and he spreads Appreciative Inquiry among health care professionals in focussing client conversations on Quality of Life. Find more about Cees on www.ceeshoogendijk.com and linkedin.com/in/ceeshoogendijk/