Hey HR – You’re Missing Something Important

Shared Leadership Carol AndersonWhat are we missing? How about organizational learning?

Today’s complex and changing world requires continuous learning within organizations in order to be competitive, and there is no better leader for learning than HR. Often though, HR places the majority of their attention on administration rather than on learning. This is understandable given the huge risk associated with benefits, employee relations and HR technology, but it is a mistake.

This hit home to me recently when a fellow HR professional whom I regard very highly, called to ask me about the concept of learning. She was preparing to present to an internal client group that wanted to become a learning organization. With several decades and an MBA behind her, she was unfamiliar with those very concepts of learning that can place HR in a business leadership role.

She is not alone. HR professionals today are overwhelmed with hiring, benefits, compensation, employee relations, technology and data, and tend to function within the comfort of those silos.  They struggle to find the time to reach beyond the requirements of administration and focus on learning, but a shift in investment of HR time can pay dividends in business results.

What must HR professionals know about learning?

First, they need to understand what organizational learning is. Let’s start with what it is not. Organizational learning is not butts in seats classroom training. Organizational learning is finding common ground, agreeing on values, terminology, behavior and business strategy so that the work of the organization is aligned to that which drives business results.

Organizational learning is developing the agility, stamina and skill to be responsive to changing times.  And goodness knows, we are in changing times.

Learning in organizations happens at several levels

Just because individuals are the “best and brightest,” without collective knowledge and interpretation, there is no common meaning. Without common meaning it is difficult to have intentional and purposeful action that is aligned with the business strategy. It is this lack of common meaning and the assumptions about meaning for others that create unintended conflict which takes precious time away from the real work.

As a facilitator of communication, HR can raise questions and generate answers to problems facing an organization.

Take, for example, an organization that is producing reams of data from all areas of the business, inundating operational leaders with information overload and expecting those same leaders to take meaningful action.

Let’s be clear: the reams of data that sit on managers’ desk don’t drive business; dialogue about what that data says does. Business data sits on the desk because managers don’t have time to synthesize, analyze and interpret the data. Instead of being a catalyst to dialogue, data becomes goals and reward or consequence.

HR can take a lead role in facilitating dialogue to help interpret the data, ask good questions, form hypotheses and help to find the root cause of the business problem. Once the real problem is identified, the rest is significantly easier.

Losing market share? HR, with their broad organizational outlook, can help. They can bring together people data, contrast it with business data. They can help to identify where leadership or employee data may need a correction to be better aligned with the strategy.  HR can point to existing data (and you probably already have tons) to generate a hypothesis which can then be tested.

This is facilitation. This is real value that HR can add by generating learning at the team or individual level.

Adults need context for learning

The science of adult learning theorizes that adults learn best when the content is useful and meaningful to their life. Said concisely, they need to know what they need to know, they need it when they need it, and the knowledge they acquire should be purposeful.

Contrast that with a week-long management training course where every possible regulation and policy are presented? Retention of the information ain’t gonna happen.

By creating an infrastructure of expected performance (planning) and active reflection on what worked and what didn’t work (evaluation), HR can set up the organization to learn collectively.

This is difficult because we think we don’t have time to plan or reflect.  Take that week-long manager training and turn it into a self-directed, six month program of learning at the individual and team level, guided by actual work events. Those 40 hours are far better placed when the manager-learner has a problem, conducts research and identifies the problem, then dialogues with HR about their proposed solution.

There are no known answers to the complex business problems facing organizations today

Off-the-shelf solutions don’t work. With the pace of change in today’s organizations, the variables that were in place three months ago when the “solution” was sourced have already changed.   Bringing in an expert in change management based on a proposal developed months ago and based on work done a year ago in a different organization makes no sense.

The complex business problems we face today can only be addressed through learning; learning to ask good questions, learning to facilitate possible answers, learning to evaluate possible solutions and continuing to tweak the process as events change.

We’re well past the time when change is an event. Change is with us. Always.

HR must become a connector and a facilitator

The administrative work of HR is critically important.  Excellence in branding, compensation and benefits enables bringing in “the best and the brightest.” But beyond that, HR’s opportunities abound. By becoming a connector and asking good business questions about varying facets of the business, HR can begin the process of becoming a learning organization.  By facilitating good dialogue, generating candor and openness, HR can help the organization discover and build collective intelligence.

Attracting the best is relatively easy. Retaining the best – that happens when units and organizations bond through learning, and realize the rewards of their hard work. HR can and must facilitate this learning.


Carol Anderson
Carol Anderson
CAROL is the founder and Principal of Anderson Performance Partners, LLC, a business consultancy focused on bringing together organizational leaders to unite all aspects of the business – CEO, CFO, HR – to build, implement and evaluate a workforce alignment strategy. With over 35 years of executive leadership, she brings a unique lens and proven methodologies to help CEOs demand performance from HR and to develop the capability of HR to deliver business results by aligning the workforce to the strategy. She is the author of Leading an HR Transformation, published by the Society for Human Resource Management in 2018, which provides a practical RoadMap for human resource professionals to lead the process of aligning the workforce to the business strategy, and deliver results, and writes regularly for several business publications.

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  1. Outstanding lessons learned here, thanks for sharing.
    Digital transformation of the business, culture oriented towards Industry 4.0 and development of adequate skills are the last frontier of the business organizations. The role of human resources departments, called to facilitate change, becomes a priority. To do this the same HR functions have to change skin, aligning more with the business and becoming faster to meet the needs of the company with the right people in the right place and to integrate digital skills with business know-how.

    • Thanks for your comment, Aldo. Mentioning digital transformation gets my attention, as I think HR still has a long way to go with knowledge and understanding of both technology and organizational learning.

    • The Board should take responsibility for enabling HR to acquire a strategic function within the company.

    • Yes I agree. But as always, it depends on people.
      However, we must admit that if you do not find the availability and especially the intelligence and foresight of those in the room of buttons, it is difficult for an HR manager to take, just for his initiative, a strategic function.
      If the Board has not yet understood that adequate human resource management can help determine the success of the company, or better, is a key factor to be taken into account in the formulation of the organization’s strategy, it has not understood much of the future of its company and will lose (or will never attract) the best talent.

    • I have spent much of my HR career with public company Board Comp Committees. The challenge I see is that they don’t know enough to ask good questions. They read, so they know that talent management is important. They don’t know enough to really understand the massive PowerPoint presentation on talent management that the HR team puts together to impress them (at the CEO’s direction). So the Board goes along thinking that the executive team “gets it” only to find that the plan is good, but the execution is faulty. Sorry for the cynicism….my very public experience…