The Changing Role of Human Resources in Organisational Change

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Home > Articles > The Changing Role of Human Resources in Organisational Change

 The Changing Role of Human Resources in Organisational Change

Susan Goldsworthy and Walter McFarland | Today's Manager
March 1, 2018

Perhaps in challenging leaders to rise above perceiving their workforce as a source of resistance, they may yet come to embrace this as an opportunity for mastering enduring change.

Two things that are not often linked are human resources and change. They have separate research traditions, separate academic training, and are often viewed as separate entities in organisational life. Yet, they are inexorably linked because they both focus on people and how to engage them. As with every other aspect of organisational life, people are at the center once again.

This article will discuss the relationship between human resources and organisational change and suggest that aligning a large-scale organisational change effort with the human resource (HR) system not only makes sense, but increases the probability that the change effort will succeed and become anchored in the organisation’s culture.

At the heart of this article is the notion that the key factor in successful organisational change is an engaged and inspired workforce and that the HR function can help change leaders engage and inspire. Building engagement and inspiration into a workforce demands creating a HR system that is optimised for organisational change and becomes an integral part of it. The change-enabling HR system recruits, on-boards, assesses, develops, and rewards those competencies which the organisation views as most essential in building organisational change competence.

This HR system supports a strategy that views the ability to perform organisational change better, cheaper, and faster than competitors as a source of competitive advantage. If a change-enabling HR system does not exist in your organisation, it is worth building now, because a key characteristic of the future is continuous change, and how to best manage it—forever.

Although a robust HR system will support organisational change in many ways, a particularly important one is the development of great change leaders. We suggest that the core of such a leadership development programme is the creation of a change leadership brand that emphasises business performance, inter-personal effectiveness, and talent development competencies. It develops leaders who are at the top of their game leading their business and their people, and are able to create great employee experiences during every large-scale change effort. A change-enabling HR system develops great change-enabling leaders.

Involvement in Change
The organisational change literature identifies several reasons why change efforts underperform or fail. They include: poor leadership, inadequate resourcing, ineffective communication, and others—but a key reason for failure is the inability to engage the collective experience, expertise, and passion of the workforce in the change effort. We believe that a change-enabling HR system enables change in many ways, but key ones are:

  • Aligning all people-processes to support and reinforce change,
  • Building future change capacity,
  • Creating and branding change leaders,
  • Enhancing overall engagement and performance, and
  • Contributing to a “change-enabling” culture.

This change-enabling human resource system is created specifically to align with and support large-scale organisational
change efforts and to reinforce a change-focussed organisational culture.

The “Change-enabling” HR System
The change-enabling HR system has several key features: it identifies organisation-specific change competencies, builds these competencies into every piece of the HR system, and integrates every piece to ensure that the change-enabling HR system performs as an integrated whole.

Note that the HR system begins by identifying organisation-specific change competencies. How organisations change themselves is unique to them; this demands unique competencies. Identification and mastery of these unique competencies forms the foundation of a change-enabling HR system. The ability to support change efforts well is integrated into the organisation’s definition of high performance.

Once competencies are identified in detail—including clear behavioural indicators, the change-enabling HR system translates them into each HR function including: recruitment and selection, on-boarding, talent development, performance assessment, rewards and recognition, leadership development, and more. In other words, the change-enabling human capital system recruits people with the desired competencies, develops these competencies in the workforce over time, assesses performance on these competencies, and rewards and recognises the expression of these competencies during large-scale change efforts. This system makes it clear to the workforce that change competence matters here and is a key factor in career success.

This human capital system also helps anchor transformation competence in the organisation’s culture—and it does so in two important ways. The first was just described above: it links change competence with the organisation’s performance management system. The second makes change a formal part of the organisation’s leadership development model. Leaders are selected, developed, and rewarded based upon their proven ability to lead successful organisational change. Over time leaders talk about, focus on, and value change competence as an integral part of organisational strategy.

The Leadership of Change
A noteworthy feature of the change-enabling HR system is its ability to create highly effective change leaders. What is leadership competence for organisational change? We suggest that the development of change leaders includes a mastery of three areas: overall business competence, interpersonal/relationship competence, and talent development competence. Each of these areas will be discussed in more detail.

First is overall business competence. Leaders of change efforts must be proven business and project leaders. They should possess a deep understand of the core business and how to manage the cost, schedule, and performance of change efforts. However, research has shown that business-related competencies alone do not prepare a leader to lead a successful change effort. Successful change leaders need more—and realising this is critically important in conducting successful change efforts.

Second, interpersonal and relationship competence is also needed. It frequently surfaces in “after action” reports of organisational change efforts. These efforts can be so profound and stressful that employees need more support from leaders during change. They need and want leaders who can relate to them personally and “stand between” them and the chaos of change—actively helping them to successfully navigate it. These leaders act as secure bases during uncertain times. Great change leaders don’t just help their teams survive change, they help their teams thrive in change.

Third, the ability to use change efforts to accelerate the development of people is a critical leadership competency. The best leaders are able to use change efforts to help people achieve personal and professional development goals. Leaders know how to inspire and engage people to the extent that they can reframe change efforts as development efforts and keep people focussed on the “higher” aspects of change—such as the ability to shape an organisation’s future or make improvements that help everyone.

In spite of all the attention that organisational change receives, the truth is that the majority of these efforts continue to underperform. A key reason for this failure is the inability to engage the workforce in the change effort.

The volume and complexity of organisational changes can rattle people and rob them of the ability to engage fully. One important and underused tool for helping people thrive in organisational change is a “change-enabling” HR system that focusses more organisational resources on aligning people with change. In this system, people are selected, developed, assessed, rewarded, and promoted based upon their change competence. The hallmark of such an HR system is its ability to create highly effective change leaders who are able to demonstrate three critical competencies: business competence, relationship competence, and talent development competence.

Perhaps in challenging leaders to rise above perceiving their workforce as a source of resistance, they may yet come to embrace this as an opportunity for mastering enduring change.

Ms Goldsworthy and Mr McFarland are co-authors of the award-winning book—Choosing Change: How Leaders and Organizations Drive Results One Person at a Time.


​Ms Susan Goldsworthy is an international executive coach, multiple award-winning author, and former Olympic finalist with extensive global business experience at senior management levels. She is also an associate of Genesis Advisors, known for its work on transitions and The First 90 Days, as well as a visiting professor at QUT, Australia and Copenhagen Business School.

Mr Walter McFarland leads the People and Change business of North Highland. He is the past Board Chair of the Association for Talent Development and co-author of Choosing Change.


Copyright © 2018 Singapore Institute of Management

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