UK: HR'S SHRINKING FUNCTION. - The personnel department has to prove it still has a role.

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The personnel department has to prove it still has a role.

Who needs human resources - the management function, that is? The role of HR, as it has been practised in Britain in recent times, is increasingly being called into question. The reason is the spread of 'empowerment'. In countless companies, the drive to reduce costs, to improve productivity and quality and sharpen sensitivity to customer needs, has pushed responsibility for every aspect of business to managers 'down the line'. If operational staff are now expected to carry the can for the whole job, what is left for the HR specialist to do?

Not very much, if John Wood is anything to go by. Wood is the manager in charge of the carton packaging division at Robinson and Sons, Chesterfield's biggest industrial employer, and reports directly to the group CEO. (The very existence of the carton division - one of three businesses carved out of Robinson Packaging - is itself evidence of line management's empowerment, by the way.) Although the division still has a personnel administrator, it has 'scaled down HR activity over the past year', says Wood, and transferred aspects of the traditional HR role - health and safety, training - to others. 'Policy-related issues come to me as managing director.' Queries on pay, holidays and the like are fielded by first-line supervisors.

This is not an isolated example. Last spring the Institute of Manpower Studies at Sussex University published a study of the changing roles of line managers and HR specialists in five large UK organisations. The authors drew attention to the forms of support - such as coaching - that HR specialists can offer line managers. But they also remarked upon the 'almost inevitable tension' between the two, and noted that 'in some instances, the empowerment of line managers has at the same time represented the disempowerment of HR professionals'. For this reason, the professionals sometimes resisted empowerment down the line.

More recent research by Eric Gowling, former director of postgraduate studies at John Moores University Business School, Liverpool, points in much the same direction. Gowling's study, covering 100 companies, was carried out for Peterborough Software, the C E Heath subsidiary which is a leading supplier of software for HR applications. At a presentation of his preliminary findings, Gowling set out the alternatives starkly, thus: 'Do HR managers have a strategic role - or are they a waste of time?' The Sussex authors maintain that line managers usually have a very limited view of their HR responsibilities, and are reluctant to see their own jobs enlarged. Gowling, by contrast, estimates that 50% of line managers in the companies he has visited 'warmed to the task'. And up in Chesterfield, Wood believes that the majority of his junior managers welcome this extension of their roles. 'It enhances the profile of supervision,' he argues.

The personnel management function succeeded in enhancing its own standing 20 years ago, when it grabbed a strategic role for itself and assumed the more sonorous title of 'human resources'.

In the present context it can prove its worth only by actively promoting - not impeding - the devolution of power.

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