How Many Languages Does HR Speak?

Most of us are probably pretty familiar with the various treatises about the need for HR to step up to the plate … get a seat at the table … become more strategic—whatever you want to call the advice about how to elevate our discipline. I don’t disagree, though if I have to hear that “seat at the table” phrase one more time, I cannot be held responsible for my reaction!

No matter what we call it, we’re basically talking about gaining credible recognition for the value HR contributes to the business – whether it’s a small start-up or a giant corporation spread across multiple countries and regions. We know we’re good. We know that we do contribute—probably in many more ways than most people would imagine.

I think that much of the issue that underlies the concept of a strategic or valuable HR involves our need to communicate more effectively. Certainly, we need to report our activities. Many HR departments already capture the kind of information that speaks to our efficiency—vacancies, time to fill, cost per hire, and similar statistics that are commonly tracked by HR offer good measures of our performance. Unfortunately they don’t offer any insight into our effectiveness as a business function.

Largely, HR still languishes because we haven’t learned to communicate in the same language that our comrades in finance, marketing, operations, and other functions use. The language of business. Typically, that language is numbers. Recently, I had a conversation with an HR professional who heads workforce planning for her organization—an energy company with multiple locations across a widespread area. And our talk reinforced the idea that better communication can make a real difference.

What struck me about our chat was her description of her journey in trying to re-start workforce planning—a strategic and valuable HR-based program—in her organization. Seems the company had tried a planning initiative several years earlier, but it fizzled. A big part of the problem occurred when the former planners tried to define job roles. They used descriptions that were too complex and that appeared arbitrary to the various managers (mostly engineers) across the company whose involvement was crucial.

But when my colleague re-tooled the planning process, she recognized the stumbling block that poor communication had been. Instead of a variety of job roles, she honed the categories to three. More importantly, she devised a rating system that let the business leaders in each location assign numerical scores to all of the jobs there. The scores reflected the talent risk associated with each role—based on whether there were successors in the pipeline, how hard it would be to find or develop a replacement, etc. She’s done much more to facilitate the planning process, but credits those changes with shifting the managers’ opinions to favorable ones.

The point here isn’t workforce planning. It’s that this HR practitioner had the insight to recognize that communication wasn’t working because the old planning team wasn’t speaking the same language as the managers it needed to influence. She understood that engineers speak numbers and that numbers speak to engineers. So she found a way to turn a subjective process into a more objective, numerically enhanced one. What she found was a way to ensure that HR and the businesses it served could speak the same language.

You know your business better than anyone, so you’re in a great position to look closely at the ways HR communicates with management and with the leaders of the other business functions. If you need help understanding the language those functions use to demonstrate their value, have a chat with your colleague in finance and ask for some pointers about measures that convey HR’s effectiveness, not its efficiency. Learning how to speak that new language can be a big step toward communicating HR’s true value.