Leading with an HR Strategic Plan

By Stephanie Milliken

As we embark upon the decade of the twenty-teens, at a time when most leaders enthusiastically acknowledge that people are their most important assets, why is it that so few have plans linking HR strategy with the critical success factors of their organizations? While there is a widespread desire to be ’employers of choice’ is it possible for organizations to sustain so called ‘best practices’ if they haven’t taken the time to validate those practices in terms of the specific challenges and priorities facing their organizations?

When asked to explain why HR Strategic Plans are so rare, the absence of an organization strategic plan is often a common reason — after all, doesn’t the HR strategic plan need to align with the organization’s mission, vision and values in support of its strategic and operational goals? The organization’s strategic plan provides the foundation upon which HR strategy is built; yet, so many organizations either don’t have strategic plans, or have plans that are out of date. As a result, many HR practitioners conclude that it is impossible to create a credible HR strategic plan. If this has been your conclusion, think again!

Every organization has an underlying purpose that guides the behaviour of its people. Collectively, those behaviours embody the organization’s culture and values, and provide insight into certain beliefs about the organization’s business focus, competitive advantage, and resulting priorities. These core elements of strategy exist even if they are not documented in a strategic plan, and can be used by HR to create an effective HR Strategic Plan. Creating an HR strategic plan under these conditions may require some pioneering efforts on the part of HR, but will also give HR the opportunity to be a role model for strategic leadership. At the very least, it should spark some important conversations about the impact that this type of goal setting could have on the organization’s effectiveness.

At the outset of the planning process, it may be comforting to know that the outcome of your efforts won’t be perfect, nor are they expected to be. There will always be missing information, uncertainty about future events, and/or resistance to proposed strategies. Although the plan will act as an anchor for future decisions and actions, it will be ever evolving.

It is also important to realize that the organization’s HR strategic plan is not ‘owned’ by the HR Department; rather, it articulates goals and objectives that are translated by line management into departmental operating plans for which they are accountable. It is very important that the HR plan is owned by everyone and that this is understood by the organization’s leadership team.

Finally, it is also important to keep in mind that strategic planning is as much an art as a science. While there are some common elements inherent to strategic planning, the process, elements, and language of a good plan are unique to each organization. As a result, it is important to tailor the planning process and document to fit the sensibilities of the organization. Processes that meet with the greatest success tend to:

  • Involve individuals from across the organization, particularly informal leaders and those who will be responsible for carrying out the resulting action plans. Having them involved early will provide a range of perspectives that will increase the quality of the plan, and also garner support needed to grease the wheels for a successful implementation.
  • Involve someone from outside the HR department as the process facilitator. This will strengthen the actual and perceived objectivity of the process, and increase the inclusivity of the process by giving everyone on the planning team an equal voice and opportunity to participate.
  • Include frequent reviews and revisions along the way. Although the planning process involves a number of steps, it tends to be more iterative than linear. Information gathered and created at each step often shapes and reshapes the information gathered and created at previous and future steps. For this reason, it is ideal to engage a process that involves frequent ‘recaps’.
  • Accommodate considerable time at the outset to examine the organization’s environment. Reviewing the organization’s mission, vision values and business focus is essential before any conversation about HR challenges, priorities or strategies can take place. Examining such things as your organization’s strengths, weaknesses and competitive advantage, in light of potential opportunities and threats, will lead to the articulation of the organizational capabilities, competencies and culture characteristics that will best support organization effectiveness. Often conducting a pre-planning organization effectiveness survey designed specifically to inform the planning process can be a tremendous asset.
  • Remain focused at the strategic level. Although it seems obvious that an HR Strategic Plan should be ‘strategic’, too often the plan loses its big-picture focus and becomes operational. Strategic plans are different from operational plans. Strategic plans answer more of the “what and why” questions whereas operational plans answer the “how”, “when”, and “who” questions. As the strategic plan cascades down into the organization it provides all departments (including the HR Department) with the foundation upon which to build operational plans.
  • Include metrics to measure impact as opposed to action. Finally, one of the most crucial characteristics of the plan will be the ability to measure its effectiveness – and that means measuring the impact that HR strategies have on the organization’s success. This requires a clear understanding about how the success of the organization is measured, and the identification of the lead and lag performance indicators that are affected by people practices.

Stephanie Milliken provides a wide range of HR Consulting Services including HR Strategic Planning, Organization Effectiveness Surveys, Competency Maps, Performance Management Systems, and Total Compensation Strategies. For more information about her services, refer to her website at: www.millikenhr.com.

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