HR - administrator or enforcer?

Janine Milne Profile picture for user jmilne February 2, 2015
In the latest in her series of interviews with HR thought leaders, Janine Milne talks to Dr Emma Parry of the Cranfield University School of Management.

HR is either seen as an administrator or seen as an enforcer, there to make staff stick to employment law.

Emma Parry
Dr Emma Parry

So says Dr Emma Parry, reader in human resource management at the UK’s Cranfield University School of Management. But this antiquated view of HR is hopefully beginning to change.

Parry believes that use of technology has the ‘potential’ to transform the way the HR profession works:

I think it’s changing the way we do things. Obviously the opportunities with technology are remarkable – on paper at least. It means HR is able to things more efficiently, faster and process complex information and to connect people.

She points out the advantages of self-service, enable line managers take over more of the mundane HR admin tasks, such as holiday booking. This leaves HR more time to do the kind of activities that can truly add value to the organization, such as using data and analysis to spot trends. Better use of technology gives HR the opportunity to contribute to the bottom line and help dispel the perception of the HR department as a cost center.

It’s a sharp contrast to a decade ago when most HR departments were mainly running the department from Excel.

Progress indeed, but not an unqualified progress, for as Parry points out:

Technology is wonderful, but I’m very careful to say it has potential, because it has a caveat. There are obviously different levels in technology use. You think everyone else is doing this ‘value add’, but in my experience it’s a minority.

The danger is that people read about best practice “and then rush in” without thinking things through with enough care. With analytics, for example, warns Parry, HR may be eager to get in on the act and implement the technology without thinking about the business questions that need answering:

If you take employee engagement, that’s not a business question it’s an HR question. The business question could be ‘how do you improve customer service?’ and then you work back from that and engagement is perhaps a factor.

Engagement has become this end product – we’ve got to do employee engagement. But why? HR analytics will say why.


Sadly, observes Parry, implementing technology and then “as if by magic” the HR function is able to impact the bottom line, is a scenario that is extremely unlikely to happen. For the transformation of HR to be a success, she says, the people need to change alongside the technology:

If you want HR to do something different, then you need to develop them. It’s not just about technology and analytics skills; if you want someone to be involved in business strategy, you need to teach them about how business works.

Parry is keen to emphasize that it’s the business skills that need nurturing rather than technical or analytics skills. For those skills, the HR department needs to develop their partnering skills, drawing expertise from other parts of the business.

Implementing the technology without developing the staff, means they will just be doing admin faster rather than contributing to the bottom line. They will have upgraded to a faster hamster wheel, but still be going round in circles.

The danger is that HR analyses the number of employee absences, for example, and then passes that information to another business department to deal with, putting HR firmly back in its admin pigeon hole.

strong arm

Alongside analytics, social media is an area that HR professionals need to understand and exploit better, argues Parry, because they have no choice: younger staff entering the organization have grown up using social media and expect to use it in the workplace. HR professionals need to shift from seeing this negatively, thinking of how they can control social media usage in the workplace, to how they can exploit it.

Social media has made most impact in the recruitment process, but there’s much more that can be done, believes Parry:

Most organizations use it for recruitment and to engage with people outside the organization, but they are less good at using it internally. There’s a lot of potential to reach people and communicate, collaborate and support employee engagement.

Yet again, points out Parry, the benefits of social media will not be realized unless there’s a matching cultural change to match the technology usage:

One thing I would say about social media is it’s not a magic wand. You can’t just set up blogs and wikis and expect everyone to collaborate.

Even though they may recognize the benefits of social media and other technology, the internal processes ten aren’t flexible enough. According to Parry:

The problem for HR and organizations more broadly is social media is moving so quickly and it’s very challenging.

And that’s true of all HR technology, not just social media. To ditch the admin tag, HR has no choice but to get with the program.

My take

Technology does have the power to change not just the how HR professionals work, but the very fabric of what they do. It’s not just a case of automation but transformation.

Without effective change management of the people and the processes nothing will really alter. It’s time for HR to ditch the silo mentality and think more broadly about the business requirements.

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