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Tension is normal

Work for a lot of people seems to be getting more and more stressful: increased workloads, less time to do it in, competing priorities, difficult people to work with etc…. The theory goes that the implications of increased stress levels leads to greater tension within and between employees resulting in lower productivity, less innovation and reduced employee engagement. However, is stress and tension necessarily always a bad thing? Can tension be a sign of a healthy organisation? More importantly, is tension something to be actively encouraged within the HR Function?

The demands on HR are manageable

HR is going through a transition phase from the predictability of Personnel to the dynamism of HR Partnership. This means that on the one hand HR is being asked to ‘add value’ to their organisation whilst on the other hand it is expected to retain its traditional focus of delivering efficiently. On the face of it this breadth of offering can seem contradictory and unmanageable. However, in fact it simply reflects a tension that has been recognised in all organisations for decades.

Academics recognise that all organisations face a number of inherent contradictions e.g. to centralise or decentralise; to create new products or grow existing ones. These contradictions have no right ‘answer’ and organisations must therefore find a ‘balance’ that best meets its goals at any moment in time.

For example, most people will have been faced with the challenge of trying to save costs whilst at the same time striving to increase revenues. The risk for organisations which don’t get the balance right will potentially result in them either offering cheap but outdated goods or innovative yet unsaleable/unstable products.

What can HR do?

Tension arises as organisations need to risk spending money in order to create new revenues. The ‘right’ level of investment for any individual organisation will be based on a range of factors including their strategy, heritage, competitors and market environment. CourageousHR call this tension the Standardisation / Customisation Dynamic and it is in response to this that the HR Partnership structure emerged in the early 1990’s.

Attempts to create, in a diagrammatic form the HR Partnership structure which can sufficiently capture the complexities and fluidity of this relationship based model has tended to fall short as they have concentrated on formal reporting relationships and ‘deliverables’. The existence of these ‘three legged’ and ‘four legged’ models are at best simplistic views as they do not reflect the reality of multiple and non-static reporting lines in organisations (especially multi-nationals). More importantly, these models give rise to a belief that there is one best model or structure for HR and that the role of the HR Business Partners is as the exclusive ‘power brokers’ for HR.

However, this traditional thinking needs to be turned on its head by instead focusing on the underlying reasons for the emergence of the HR Partnership structure as well as by recognising the dynamic nature of the HR Partnership structure.

What this mean for HR

The HR Partnership structure simply mirrors the organisation’s need to balance efficiency and revenue generation. Therefore, HR needs to;

  • Continue to support the organisation in reducing costs and being as efficient as possible. This can be delivered in direct savings or managing risks e.g. helping managers to make balanced decisions.
  • Support individual businesses to increase their revenues. This can be delivered through a variety of different approaches such as greater productivity e.g. increasing employee engagement; new products and services e.g. increased innovation; increased customer spend e.g. improved customer service; or entering new markets e.g. appropriate talent.

The HR Partnership structure therefore has an inherent tension as HR professionals have to balance these two competing organisational needs.

HR Roles

The Standardisation / Customisation Dynamic Model also helps define the role of each part of the HR Community (function).

HR Partners

HR Partners are responsible for ensuring that the needs of their business are represented to the HR Community. While they have a continuing responsibility to ensure that the organisation need for efficiency (Standardisation) is met, they are ideally placed to translate their business revenue need (Customisation) into ‘people’ deliverables.

Importantly, the Model also demonstrates that if an activity e.g. salary review, is standard across the organisation, there is no requirement for the HR Partner to be responsible for its delivery (they add ‘no extra value’ as it is the same activity for all businesses).

Where there is a potential to increase revenues, HR Partners have a role in helping their business build an investment case and representing that investment to HR. However, they also have a responsibility to ensure that their business does not unnecessarily spend money where the returns cannot be justified or the resources are unavailable.

HR Operations, Centres of Expertise and Shared Service Centres

HR Operations, Centres of Expertise and Shared Service Centres are responsible for ensuring the needs of the organisation are suitably represented to each business. Whilst there is a clear responsibility to support agreed business customised activities, they are ideally placed to use their technical expertise to minimise costs and risks to the business. Importantly, the Model shows that Operations, COEs and SSCs should have responsibility for delivering standardised HR activities directly to the business.

Where there is a potential to increase revenues, Operations, COEs and SSCs have a role in examining whether an organisational investment is justified based on available resources and whether it should be standardised across the organisation. However, if an investment is agreed, they have a responsibility to support the HR Partner and deliver their part of the HR activities.

HR Deliverables

The Standardisation / Customisation Dynamic model also helps quantify HR Deliverables.







Where a deliverable is Standardised

  • It is specific to the organisation e.g. the recruitment process. Standardised deliverables are typically the responsibility of HR Operations, COE or SSC.

Where a deliverable is Customised

  • It is specific to a business e.g. a sales incentive programme to a sales team. Customised deliverables are typically the responsibility of the HR Partner, although they may not actually undertake the activity i.e. ‘deliver’ them.

The benefits of defining HR deliverables in this way is that it allows HR Communities to make conscious decisions and establish protocols for who is both accountable for making sure the deliverable happens and who actually undertakes the activity.

Characteristics of a High Performing HR Community

A high performing HR Community is able to recognise and openly manage the inherent tensions between standardisation and customisation. They know that the business world is in a constant state of change, that there is no ‘one size fits all’ HR Partnership operating model and that HR needs to continuously be able to respond and adapt its model and how it works.

High Performing HR Communities also recognise that the existence of tension is a sign of health. Where there is no tension, the HR Community is;

  • Probably not delivering one of its core responsibilities (typically the revenue or value adding one)
  • Unclear about the roles within HR and who is accountable for its various deliverables
  • Seeking to hide conflict

The sign of a ‘powerful partnership’ between HR and the organisation is when all parties are able to articulate the standardisation / customised tension and pro-actively use it to achieve the organisation’s strategic goals.

Benefits to you and HR

By expressing your responsibilities, roles and deliverables in terms of the Standardisation / Customisation Dynamic; you and the HR Community will experience a number of benefits;

  • Recognise that tension is normal, not the product of individuals being unable to ‘get on’ with each other
  • Create a language that both HR and businesses can understand
  • Allows you to communicate HR deliverables in terms of organisation and business needs
  • Allows you to rationally communicate both the basics and ‘value added’ that HR can offer and who is best placed to deliver them (line, centralised, outsourced)
  • Help clarify your role
  • Creates clear protocols and procedures to agree accountability and delivery where there is overlap in responsibilities i.e. a modified deliverable is involved
  • Supports the concept of the HR Community – all parts of HR are reliant on each other to deliver HR offerings
  • Demonstrates that there is no best HR structure model – the focus should be on HR deliverables and the quality of HR individuals and their role
  • Reinforces the concept that every business is different and therefore the role of every different HR Partner is different - if every business was the same then the HR Partner role would be standardised!

Tension is normal – find a way to make it work for HR

The world of work is unpredictable and therefore HR – and other internal Service Functions – needs to realise that if it is to meet the competing demands of its internal customers it has to focus less on formal and restrictive structures and rely more on quality relationships and purposeful action.

The CourageousHR Standardisation / Customisation Dynamic model is a radical new view on the responsibilities, roles and deliverables of HR. It re-defines how HR needs to work together as a Community, so that it can positively and openly deal with apparently competing demands for their time and expertise. Based on an established academic perspective of inherent tensions within organisations, this Model is a practical tool that gives HR a language and perspective that allows the Community to pro-actively work with the wider organisation to achieve its strategic goals.