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The Human Capital Telescope: Repositioning HR for Zim economic take-off

HIGH performing human resources  (HR) professionals acting in highly organised departments, focusing on business value-added agendas contribute about 12,5% to overall business performance according to recent research.



Businesses must modernise their HR departments to get this 12,5%. On a global scale, HR departments in progressive organisations are increasingly being structured according to the urgency-importance frame.

The urgency-importance frame cuts activities into four: urgent but important; not urgent but important; urgent but unimportant and not urgent and unimportant. Top-notch implementers focus on the first two.  Effective HR does the same. Any other activity is non-essential and must be ruthlessly eliminated. A question HR has been grappling with is: how can we organise ourselves to focus on both the “urgent but important” and “not urgent but important” tasks? In addition, HR has been asking: how can we reduce our focus on the “urgent but important things” and invest more in the “non-urgent but important’ tasks”?

To address these questions, HR thinkers have come up with a menu: HR service centres, embedded HR, centres of expertise, corporate HR and HR programmes. These are relatively new concepts in Zimbabwe’s corporate world — rarely taught in our business schools.


HR service centres
To deal with “urgent but important” issues the idea of a HR service centre (HRSC) has evolved.
HRSCs are dedicated to handling administrative issues relating to basic people needs in an organisation. HRSCs are the “frontline office” of HR, handling queries for which employees want answers “now”. Covey calls these now-now issues the “proximate and pressing”. To handle these, two options have emerged: either capacitate each employee to handle their basic HR service needs or engage an outsider (business process outsourcing).

The former is called in-sourcing and involves turning electronic based HR systems known as e-HR into a self-service menu. The most advanced e-HR systems allow an employee to apply for leave from their computer or phone, make HR-related enquiries, for instance, without referring to an “HR officer”. The idea is to allow employees access basic HR services anywhere, anytime. At times the scale of HRSCs is astounding. For instance, Edgars could simply have one HRSC for all its employees in Zimbabwe. Some organisations are creating one HRSC for an entire region. For instance, Barclays could have one large HRSC located in India serving the whole of Africa.

The second option is outsourcing, which involves completely contracting out to an external service provider to handle the “urgent but important” HR tasks, including payroll. Accenture is an example of a company that offers outsourced HRSCs.

The value proposition of a HRSC is cost-effectiveness and speed. Some have erroneously suggested that HR should not do administrative work. By handling basic HR services effectively through HRSCs, HR gains credibility. HR talent is freed to focus on higher value-added business agendas.      
Embedded or business partners

In a big organisation HR generalists are assigned to business units. These business unit based HR professionals are called embedded or business partners. Since HRSCs handle the basic HR services, embedded HR concentrates on helping business unit leaders set, simplify and implement business strategy. Embedded HR professionals have an intimate understanding of the specific business issues and their environmental drivers. They also work closely with HR experts in the centres of expertise, adapting the ideas of experts to address specific business unit issues. Business partners do not have the depth of experts but can understand and interpret the experts’ models and frames. Business partners have business depth.

Centres of expertise
In my early teens I asked my father to explain to me the meaning of an expert. He said something to the effect that an expert was “someone who knew much about very little”.


The point is that experts have very deep knowledge about a specific area. Centres of expertise (COE) house experts in talent management,  learning and development, performance, remuneration, health and wellness, organisation design (work processes, organisation structure, governance and physical space arrangement), for example.  These experts scour recent research, track changes in theory, and keep abreast with emerging practices in talent and organisation. COE lack specific business unit knowledge.
Smaller organisations can draw deep HR knowledge through renting the services of independent expert consultants.


Corporate HR
Corporate HR works at the board level and is concerned with developing organisation-wide HR (people and organisation) policies aligned to business goals. For instance, BancABC, a bank with Zimbabwean roots operates in several countries in the Sadc region. To shape an integrated HR policy, BancABC will have an HR team operating at the board director level to give direction to all its regional operations. Corporate HR looks at big picture issues such as tracking company culture, approving and making sure regional HR strategies are aligned with the business strategies. Corporate HR is also responsible for upgrading HR talent on an organisation-wide scale.


HR programmes
The original HR department structuring models overlooked semi-urgent but important activities. These are activities that do not happen daily. The challenge was that embedded HR professionals found themselves having to do semi-urgent activities such as disciplining and interviewing and thus suffocating strategic work. Organisations are dealing with this challenge by introducing “junior business partners” to handle the semi-routine HR activities.


Suitability for Zimbabwe
A lot of ground needs to be covered to bring Zimbabwean HR to world class standards.

The biggest opportunity for organisations in Zimbabwe is the establishment of HSCs. If HR fails to provide reliable, cost-effective and fast services it will not be allowed to enter into strategic business discussions.  In the short-term organisations can invest in increasing the efficiencies of basic HR operations as a first step towards a full transition to HSC. Zimbabwean organisations need to find ways of reducing paper work for their HR. A “zero paper” policy can be adopted. Working with IT experts, HR can begin moving much of their work and processes online. Pilot HR self-service systems can be deployed to work with a select group such as line managers. Gradual up-scaling then ensues to widen the service to every business unit.


Candidly speaking, HR professional development in Zimbabwe needs upgrading at all levels to bring to speed our HR generalists to act as embedded HR or business partners. According to the RBL Institute, to add value to the business a modern HR professional needs to show six competences: strategy architect, credible activist, talent manager/organisational designer, culture & change steward, business ally and operational executor.  We need to shift from a labour relations emphasis to a mastery of both people and business competences.


Corporate HR in Zimbabwe is currently being championed by either the CEO or the board of directors. However, the quality of their work is debatable.


As for centres of expertise we are still a way off. In fact, we need to seriously pursue an HR professionalisation agenda, starting with the setting of an HR intellectual agenda and building the capacity of our local HR capacity-building institutions.

Can we honestly expect to compete with the likes of Singapore who place strategic HR at the top of their national agenda? The government of Singapore is a member of a highly respected HR institute!


Let’s discuss at brettchulu@con-sultant.com.

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