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HR vs. People & Culture – why we still talk about HR

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A few years back a new trend started, when the first organizations began to rename their Human Resources (short HR) departments “People & Culture”. A really interesting development! I want to say upfront that I like this new title quite a lot. However, I tried to understand the intention behind this renaming and am still wondering if it is really necessary. So I decided to look a bit deeper into that topic and would like to share my thoughts and findings in this blog post. Just to be clear, this is just my point of view. I neither insist to be “right” nor do I claim completeness. This is rather meant as an invitation to start a dialog and am looking forward to your reaction whatever it might be. 

To avoid all misunderstandings: Here I won´t cover the topic of if “Human Resources” is the best description for the work with people at all. This indeed is a very interesting topic too, that I might tackle to write about another time. This time I specifically focus on the distinction between the term “Human Resources” to “People & Culture”.

I was able to find a couple of thoughts on the move from HR to People & Culture, that appeared  quite often in several publications. In this post I will summarize the ones I found most remarkable.. I will also give an estimation on how much sense the given reasonings for the renaming make to me. And yes, the title of this post might already give a hint on the outcome. Anyway, please feel invited to read the whole text unbiased and come to your own conclusion.

To get closer to the topic it is important to put it into context with the current development of HR in total. Following is worth to mention: HR is changing! And that is a good thing. For too long, too little happened in the world of HR. I think that on an international level there has been a bit more movement than in Germany, but a true HR innovation, a game changer with wider  impact, did not  occur for a long time.

The whole world is in a phase of tremendous change at the moment and organizations are forced to react to this change. I feel we have reached a point where even HR acknowledges that something is going on and slowly starts to get active. Driven by the apparently never ending digitization of everything and terms like “VUCA” (Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity), “agile working” and “New Work”, HR starts to realize that the time has come to wake up and find a new orientation.

I am not saying that HR did not do anything in the last years and decades or that HR was ineffective in its work – quite the opposite! As an HR practitioner I know how hard this work is and that “we” in HR always try to do the best work possible for the organizations and people we work for and with. 

Whether my perception is correct or not, could be discussed in length I guess. I am aware of that and it is absolutely okay. I am going to explain in one sentence, why I feel there is a lack of innovation in HR: : The practitioners are busy with running the daily business (practical work) and do not find the time to work on innovation a lot. The “innovators” of new trends often do not show a lot of practical experience before they start to draft and phrase HR innovations. This might be one reason why there is a rather low adaptation rate of the offered “innovations” on the side of the practitioners.

I want to point out again, that I am not saying, there are no HR innovations at all. But there seem to be no innovations of global relevance up to date, which would have affected the whole HR function. So I am not denying the innovation efforts out there – however they do not seem to get enough traction, to prepare HR for the future. 

In this light it sparks my interest, when a new name for HR is about to be launched. And although it has not  been fully established yet, it seems to gain global popularity 

As described above, in this text I will discuss a couple of the most common arguments for the renaming I could find on the web. Let’s go.

1. HR needs to stop hiding behind its desk and needs to get closer to the employees.

Well, I really can not hear it anymore, but of course I could not  agree more. I would even say this is such an obvious statement, and therefore random, that every HR colleague would agree on.

The times when working with staff was pure personnel administration are thankfully long gone. Maybe there are organizations out there, where HR is still handled like that – never say never – however the awareness, that HR needs to be with the people and that you can not  do this job from the office alone, is nowadays common sense – or at least should be. 

In organizations with a full HR matrix, teams like the HR Business Partners and HR Services exist for exactly that reason. In smaller HR departments this job is done by the generalists, HR Assistants, Coordinators and Managers.

Some might be thinking “But that is not what they are doing!”. Well, even if that was true, this is surely one of the few cases of a real resource issue – too many employees for too few HR professionals. But very clearly this is not a case of a wrong self-conception of the role of HR.

How re-naming the department would do any good here, remains unclear to me.

2. HR must stop focusing on handbooks and policies and needs to put the culture in the center of their work

Not the newest idea neither. But yes, it is true. Depending on which country you work in, “policies and procedures” can take up too much room in the daily HR work. And maybe there is some potential for HR to shift the focus even more to culture. However, if we look at it realistically, labor law, handbooks and policies will always remain part of the HR work. Where else should it sit? Thinking of HR without any of the basic work or personnel administration, sounds somehow utopian to me.

In the HR departments, that I know of, there is already a structure in place, where this whole area is covered by specialists, for example by an HR Operations Team. What about these colleagues? Are they all second class HR professionals, because they can not work on culture predominantly? Well, I do not  think so.

Of course I get what sentence number two is trying to say. However I do not believe that splitting the HR function through an artificial separation of its core functions, will bring any improvement. 

To determine and shape the culture of an organization is not HR´s job only. How would that be possible anyway? HR has a strong role in fostering the culture and to actively realize it in collaboration with all employees. Maybe my understanding of HR is too far ahead, but I wonder, when this ever was not the role of HR. At least in “modern” HR times.

Here too the renaming into “People & Culture” rather serves as a description of what HR is doing, than changing something to the new. Shifting the focus does not happen by just changing the name.

3. Millennials and GenZ talents opt for organizations with a strong culture. As a result the focus on culture should be reflected in the name of the HR department.

From what I understood of these two generations so far, it is absolutely true that Millennials and GenZ talents are strongly interested in and focused on culture. So it is indeed extremely important for organizations to win in the area of culture. I have no doubt that this part of the statement is correct. It is common sense that these generations, which build an increasing share of overall workforce, decide more value based as generations before them. 

An organization shows with its culture how its values are lived. If the culture is communicated effectively, organization A will surely be more attractive to young talents than organization B, which might not be as successful in that regard. So this makes a crucial difference especially if both organizations are from comparable internal quality. So far so good.

What I do not understand is how just renaming HR into People & Culture would make any difference here. I read somewhere that the fact that applicants have contact with someone from the People & Culture department instead of someone from HR during their hiring process, would give a massive advantage when trying to attract them.  The reason here is that a department that carries the name People & Culture would immediately send a clear signal on the importance humans and work culture has in their organization. I wish it was that easy.

In the last decade, I was involved in hiring young talents every week. In all the time, there was not a single case where we could not convince a talent to start with us or where we would have lost a strong applicant, because they had to deal with someone from HR and not People & Culture.

An organization is able to use a strong culture to attract great talent, if the culture is clear and authentically lived and communicated to the outside. So this should be done first I guess. For that reason I am under the impression it is just part of a new communication strategy, which uses People & Culture just as a modern and “cool” label. If that is true, there is a high risk that employees belonging to these new generations will unmask this quite quickly.

4. Last but not least: Personnel administration will be taken over by robots in the near future…

…and that’s why we all change to the “good” side of HR and start doing only People & Culture work from now on. Or did I get this wrong? Anyway, it is the only sense I make of  this headline. 

It would be too nice, if I could see this happening during my lifetime. The legally safe and good functioning transfer of the whole personnel administration to technical solutions or even robots.

I am a clear digitization evangelist and enthusiast. And therefore I have a pretty good understanding of where we currently are on this journey of digitizing HR. Quite frankly, there is still a good part of the way ahead of us. If it takes us as long reaching the level where robots (I take it by the word here) take over this work from us, as it takes us to digitize personnel files across the board (talking about Germany here in specific), we will rename HR a couple of times more before this finally happens.

I think what is way more interesting, is that the actual problems of such a drastic reform remains unnamed:

Will there really only be People & Culture work left?

Who is going to do that work? The ones in HR who do it today already?

What is happening in a world in which a main part of today’s HR work gets automized?

What is going to happen with all the colleagues, who spend most of their time in the administrative side of HR?

Maybe this development is without alternative but especially then I think it is way more exciting to think about how we want to deal with that. What does it mean for the culture of HR, if we are running a risk to transform into an elite caste?

You will probably recognize that I have some reservations to what looks like a simple renaming. Even when I like the new title as such a lot. Be assured my refusal is without any dogmatism. I am not afraid of change, quite the opposite. Many of the thoughts I found on this renaming point into the right direction. However for me this would only mean curing the symptoms than dealing with the actual problem. 

So to avoid the old wine in new bottles effect, we should focus first on what we really need to work on in HR.

Where do we need to think differently?

How should we re-position ourselves as HR?

And then, when this is done, we can consider a new label, which represents clearly and more transparent what we work on and with whom.

From my point of view it would only cause unnecessary confusion, if we change the name first and then try to live up to it. 

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