There’s that magic word “or” again. John Haggerty was lamenting this week on Workforce Management that most of the HR people he meets lately are “business partners” – generalists who sit in the business next to business leaders and help them implement general HR solutions. He asks whether we shouldn’t expect these individuals to be specialists in at least one of the HR “silos” – compensation, benefits, labor relations, etc.
You probably know my take on “or” by now. It should almost always be “and.” Yes, generalists should have a specialty… and specialists should also be generalists. No matter how long they’ve worked in their specialty, no matter how much time they spend on it and intend to spend on it in the future, they should NOT fail to review what they do and propose in generalist terms. Will the average line manager understand and value what they’re suggesting, will the business “in general” benefit?
The reason HR is often perceived as isolated from the rest of the business is exactly this problem. Generalists sitting in the business side with line managers in viewing most of what comes from central “centers of excellence” as we now call them as being too ivory tower oriented, not workable in the real world. Specialists on the other hand tear their hair out wondering why the line never adopts programs fully (and then complains they don’t work).
But isn’t this a challenge in almost every area of a business. The marketers don’t want to step over to get experience in HR. After all they know for a fact that marketing is much more important and so that’s where they want to spend all their time. They complain those finance guys limit their budgets because they don’t understand. But the finance guys don’t want to get any experience in marketing and certainly not in HR because, after all, finance is the ultimate key to the business… right… sigh.
So let’s hear it for specialists who are also generalists and generalists who have a specialty. I mean for real, not simply some silo’d wonk who thinks they understand the business better than the people who work at it day to day or vice versa. At some point in every career, people need at least a bit of experience in both… or very good empathy and imaginations to understand what it’s like to walk in the other person’s shoes. Being one or the other simply isn’t effective; we need to think “both.”