Posted by: Professionals In Human Resources Association (PIHRA) | November 25, 2009

HR Concepts: The Strategy of Strategic

November 2009
By Mike Deblieux, SPHR

When most people hear the word strategic, they think strategic plan. They think about sitting in a room full of top level executives agonizing for hours on end over what an organization is and what it wants to be. Those are important elements in being strategic, but they are only elements.

Strategic management is a type of leadership life. It is not just about writing a plan. The challenge for an HR professional is to think and act strategically in a world that demands day to day tactical HR judgments and actions.

One Example
There is a lot of talk in California HR circles these days about how the court will rule in the “Brinker” case. HR professionals anxiously await the decision. It may well have an impact on how meal periods are administered. Waiting, however, is a tactical action. It says, “Tell me everything that I need to know before I do anything.”

Being strategic means looking at an issue from the perspective of the potential impact that it has on an organization moving toward its vision. Suppose, for example, that “Brinker” was a rumored new product from a competitor. The rumor, however, is unclear. One version of the rumor is that the new “Brinker” will revolutionize products or services in your industry. The other version is that it is simply a remake of an old product or service that looks a little better, but does not really add any new features. Either way, marketing, R&D, finance, vendors and suppliers would immediately launch into a “what if” discussion. They would join their resources together to analyze current offerings to decide if changes need to be made to continue toward the corporate vision. (Think of the impact of the i-Phone on the cellular phone industry.) If they do not, the organization risks significant challenges in the market place. (Think of the arrival of Japanese cars in the US and the impact it had on the US automobile industry.)

The strategic issue with the Brinker court case is not how the court rules. It is how the on-going process of changing laws and regulations affects talent management. It is how an organization adjusts and adapts to on-going employment law changes with a minimum amount of disruption on the way to its strategic vision. In other words, the strategic HR professional looks at Brinker as just another tactical event in an ever changing landscape. The strategic HR professional constantly thinks and evaluates how employment law adjustments will affect recruiting, retaining, and managing employees. They think about staffing patterns, productivity standards, and peak productivity times that may need to be adjusted to comply with Brinker. Most importantly, they are planning ahead to inform, educate, and support line managers who will be expected to rapidly adapt to a new set of circumstances.

The Thermostat
One way to think about strategic management is to think about the thermostat in your home. (Purists may shudder at this example, but it will help you understand the concept.) You set it to a desired temperature. That temperature is where you expect your comfort level to be in the future – in this analogy, the not so distant future. Your decision allows you to formulate a strategic vision. The thermostat draws on information about your HVAC system. It evaluates the current room temperature. In short, it conducts a SWOT (Strengths and Weaknesses of your HVAC system and Opportunities and Threats from the environment in your home) analysis to determine the best way to move toward your vision of comfort. The thermostat used your vision to develop a plan of action. The thermostat then sent signals to the HVAC system to call for warm, cool, or room temperature air. In other words, it decided to implement the plan. As the day goes on however, your priorities change. You decide to go to the beach for a few hours. You do not want to waste energy so you set the thermostat to keep the HVAC system from running unless there is an extreme spike in the temperature in your home. The change in your plans allowed you to evaluate your original plan and your progress toward it.

You and your thermostat used the key elements of strategic planning. You formulated a vision. You developed a plan. You implemented the plan and you evaluated the plan.

The Strategic HR Question
A strategic HR professional uses all four strategic planning steps on a daily basis. He or she is keenly aware of the strategic vision of the organization and asks this strategic HR question often:

  • Does this HR initiative move this organization closer to its strategic vision?

A yes answer yields support for the initiative. A no answer brings the initiative to a stop. Not sure results in a reevaluation that moves the initiative to yes or no. There is no “not sure” in a true strategic environment.

Action Steps
Strategic does not happen overnight. It does not occur with one decision. It occurs over time with a constant focus and practice. Some of the key steps an HR professional can take to make strategic thinking a habit include:

  • Know the vision – Too often the strategic vision is a plaque on the wall in the hallway. If you work at Disneyland, you know your goal is to contribute to the happiest place on earth. You know that everything you do has to contribute to that vision. If you work at Google, you know that you work for an organization that is on a quest for the perfect search engine. You know that pretty good is not good enough.
  • Make HR decisions based on the vision – It is critical that HR decisions protect the concepts of equal employment. Employment decisions must be free of discrimination and harassment. Having said that, however, all jobs are not equal when it comes to strategic decision making. Some jobs are more important than others. A Personal Shopper at Nordstrom is strategically more important than an Account Clerk when it comes to achieving the corporate vision. If you had to decide to spend valuable recruitment, training, or performance management HR dollars on an Account Clerk position or a Personal Shopper position, strategic thinking has you spend it on the personal shopper.
  • Look both ways before crossing – The lessons you learned about crossing the street as a child apply to strategic thinking. You have to be aware of your surroundings to be a strategic thinker. You need to attend management meetings with a curious ear. You need to spend time in every department looking for trends. You need to be looking at bad situations for good opportunities (Hewlett Packard is said to have hired some its most talented engineers during a recession in its start up days.).
  • Keep a strategic planning directory – This simple concept can open your eyes to your future. You should be scanning and saving articles about trends and practices in your industry. You should be doing the same thing with information about the types of workers that you hire in your organization. Most importantly, you should be looking at that information in methodical manner from time to time to tell you what you need to be panning to do differently (Remember the thermostat checking and rechecking the air in your home.)
  • Stop benchmarking for average – Benchmarking involves comparing your organization to other organizations. It has a way of making you act, think, and look like other organizations. Strategic management is not about being the same. It is about being different than your competitors. In HR, it is about hiring and managing people who can uniquely contribute to the special vision that your organization is working toward.

Conclusion
The strategy of strategic is a way of thinking. It is a habit that involves formulating a vision, developing a plan, implementing a plan and evaluating the plan for effectiveness. It is about making choices about where to spend HR dollars, time, and resources that place a priority on supporting an organizational quest to live and breathe a vision.

Mike Deblieux, SPHR, writes HR Concepts to provide insights into fundamental human resources principles, issues, and concepts. Mike can be reached at 714-293-9156 or mike@deblieux.com.

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Responses

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