The Human Resources of the Future…Prediction from 1997

I was cleaning out my materials from my masters program because I am totally out of room in my office and something had to give.  As I was looking at what I collected over 6 years (yes, it took that long to finish), I found an article that grabbed my attention (again): “The Transformation of the Human Resource Function: Resolving the Tension Between a Traditional Administrative and a New Strategic Role“.  I thought, wow – how timely.  I long to see Human Resource be the force that I think they can be.

So I leafed through the article and was amazed to find that it was authored by a professor from the Harvard Business School.  Huh – unusual to find HR a topic of Harvard Business School.  Then I looked at the date….The article was published in “Human Resource Management” in Spring 1997!  That got my attention, as I thought the topic would have been more contemporary.  Then I started to read…

The author makes a case for the needed paradigm shift to a more strategic HR:

  • “Competition, globalization and continuous change in markets and technology”
  • “A flatter, less bureaucratic, less hierarchical, faster and more responsive organization is emerging as the model for the future”,
  • The need for “far higher levels of (1) coordination across functions, business units, and borders; (2) employee commitment to continuous improvement; (3) general management and leadership competence; (4) creativity and entrepreneurship; and (5) open communication.”
  • Pressures for cost reduction within Human Resources.

The author goes on to describe an organization where the CEO found that his HR Director was not “up to the task” of driving the strategic change in organizing and managing people.  What is particularly interesting is that the HR Director had been hired five years before because of his excellent record, and had created nationally award winning HR programs for the organization.   But line executives “saw an expensive HR organization adding negligible value“.

How many times have we bemoaned that we weren’t getting the “seat at the table” or being listened to?

The author describes his vision of the new HR function (remember, this was 1997):

  • HR will have shed the admin, compliance and service role
  • HR will focus on developing  the capabilities of the organization and the leaders
  • Admin functions, enabled by technology, will be centralized, allowing time for strategic work
  • HR will question traditional programs that don’t add value (he cites performance appraisal and pay structures)
  • HR will become evidence-based in determining value add
  • HR will develop leaders to do leadership work
  • HR will provide expertise in “organization design, organization change, and intervention methods”
  • “Corporate HR will be small, and focused on compensation, management development, diversity and organization effectiveness.”

And finally, he describes the obstacles including the skill and competence of existing HR practitioners, and the lack of understanding on the part of the CEO about what HR should contribute.

So….the two things that strike me about this article…first, it doesn’t feel like we’ve progressed very far in 16 years.  Second, when will this profession that has so much opportunity to really drive business success take steps to grow?

Just as a lark, I looked at today’s front page.  The “most popular” topics were benefits/healthcare (4), Payroll/taxes (1), Job descriptions (1), EEOC (1), Engagement surveys (1), Interviewing (1), Training (1).  Is this the work that will position HR in a place of influence on the business?


Beer, M. (1997). The transformation of the human resource function:  resolving the tension between a traditional administrative and a new strategic role.  Human Resources Management, Spring 1997, 36, 49-56.



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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