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HR is under pressure. Most HR-managers feel this. Budgets are cut and processes are criticized. HR needs to reinvent itself. It needs to find ways to shape its own future. In the past we have lamented about the lack of strategic “weight” within the company. I have worked for 2 decades in HR and I was always puzzled by this. Lamentation is never the right option. We need to do things. And we can only gain influence by doing well the things we are doing. But were we any good? Let’s face some brutal facts.

  • According to a Gallup Survey, only 13% of employees worldwide are engaged. They are outnumbered by the actively disengaged employees.
  • 20% of workers in Europe report a poor mental well-being (5th European Working Conditions Survey). In Belgium half of the employees experience a too high mental workload (Securex Whitepaper) –
  • The ILO world of work 2013 survey reports a degradation of job quality between 2007-2011. The change of Job quality is determined by the change in the percentage of temporary employees, the change in social benefits expenditure as share of total public expenditure and the growth in the average hourly wages between 2007 and 2011 were used.
  • Long-term absenteeism is on the rise according to a Securex Research and the increase of long-term absenteeism is accelerating.
  • Research on Karaseks Job quality model, consistently report low figures.

And I could go on. Of course, HR professionals should not take the blame. But still, these facts have to make us think about our own profession.

Wasted time

And the question is how we can do better. This situation has been predicted 4 decades ago by Alvin Toffler in his monumental book “Futureshock“. We are now where he predicted us we would be. McGregor has defined in the 60ies human-centric style of leadership and organisation in “the Human Side of Enterprise” and Shumacher pleaded for economics as if people mattered in his book “Small is Beautiful“. These and other books from the past, have predicted our present and future state.
It seems we have been wasting 4 decades to find ourselves in a difficult situation. So it’s time to act. If people in HR really want, they can shape their own future.

The Future

Thinking about the future of how employers will manage the employees should make us humble. Indeed we know the past and the present, but are ignorant about the future. There are two answers to the question about that future. We can think about the future content: what will be the tasks? And we can think about the process: what will be our role?
The first question is in my opinion not the most important one. To answer it you can review many surveus that have asked the question. A research by Boston Consulting Group revealed 6 tasks for the future:

  • Managing Talent: assessing quantitative and qualitative needs for talent, managing the talent pipe-line.
  • Managing Demographics: managing the loss of capacity and knowledge, managing the ageing workforce
  • Becoming a learning organisation: choosing a learning strategy, boosting the number of on-the-job development programs, measuring the return on investment.
  • Managing work-life balance: determining what people need, building programs that afford flexible working hours, enhancing corporate social responsibility
  • Managing Change and cultural transformation: determining and shaping desired behaviours, ensuring top-management support.
  • Getting the fundamentals right: mastering people processes, delivering on recruiting and staffing, transforming HR into a strategic partner.

The second question is much more interesting and challenges us more. What role can HR play in organisations? I see 5 determining roles for HR in the future.

Role 1: The Architect

HR no longer owns the people processes. Instead, HR becomes a facilitator or even an architect. By creating the right context in which people can be successful, HR will deliver its greatest contribution. In that sense HR is working on culture, organisation, processes and environment. The processes are not HR’s, they belong to the company. Let’s also not ignore the CEO’s increasing interest in people, leadership and culture. The CEO (or the board) is the owner of people processes. HR takes on the role of architect. HR will create organisations in which leadership, cooperation, innovation, entrepreneurship, … can develop.

Role 2: The Artisanal and Digital Expert

But to be able to take on the role of architect, HR needs know-how. In the recent past HR became a generalist, but in future we will become experts, or craftsmen. Instead of being a generalist, HR will offer top-notch expertise about the people side of the company. Apart from the more traditional, artisanal know-how, HR will have to master the digital know-how: Social Media, HRIS, Employee Self Service, … HR will need to incorporate knowledge and practices from other disciplines into its own discipline: marketing, finance, service management, … Learning from others is a great opportunity for HR.

Role 3: The Coach

But HR should be aware of reification of people. In the quest for a spot at the board table we might have lost the contact to people. HR needs to be(come) more empathic. Empathy means to listen, try to understand and act upon that understanding. And why should HR not introduce kindness, compassion and humanity into the corporate DNA? It’s like we need to rediscover the human being behind the employee ID again. This is not an appeal for meaningless softness. Business needs to be human in order to help people to be successful. HR becomes a coach of the organisation, its management and its employees. In the future it will be the employee that will determine and evaluate a company’s people strategy. Coaching is a way of individualization of the people strategy.

Role 4: The Data-Strategist

Like any other discipline, HR is oriented towards results. HR will work on becoming evidence-based. That entails not only looking for data to assess HR interventions, but also planning interventions based on available scientific insights. There is not much big data in HR today. However, by analyzing the data we have, we might be able to shape the future of our profession.

Role 5: The advocate

HR leaves the backbench and becomes an advocate of the importance of people processes and results. The people strategy is a part of the company strategy. HR people are gaining influence through their know-how, there fact-based approach and their proactive contribution to the business results. Any business decision has an impact on people and any business strategy depends on the quality of the people who execute it.


If HR is able to design organisations, based on its profound knowledge of human behaviour, with the necessary coaching presence it has a bright future. We need to take on 5 roles, all at once. When I presented this to a group of HR professionals, it was clear that the role of coach and expert were seen as the most important and developed roles. This is good starting point for any profession. But HR can expand its influence by trying to look for evidence. And this evidence can be used to build an HR strategy through which HR can become the advocate and the architect of the people side of business. When we can do this, there will be no lamentation needed.
Future roles of HR

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This blog post is based on a presentation I have done for the Antwerp Management School. The Slides (in Dutch) are available here:

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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