While clichés abound, there is no certainty about what will happen next. But if two HR directors – Alex Wilson of BT and Tim Miller of Standard Chartered Bank – have their way, the one thing HR professionals won't be is "business partners".
Wilson says: "The term worries me to death. HR has to be an integral and fundamental part of developing the strategy of the business. I don't even like the term 'close to the business' because, like 'business partner', it implies we are working alongside our line management colleagues, but on a separate track, rather than people management being an integral part of the business.
"If someone says they are an HR business partner, I'm three inches from their nose saying: 'What do you actually do?'"
Miller declares: "I detest the term 'business partner'. I'm not a partner of anyone."
And both men, who are airing their views at the CIPD's annual conference and exhibition at Harrogate this week (see further info), claim to have invented the comment: "I've only got one partner and I'm married to her."
The term "business partner" was originally coined by US academic Dave Ulrich. Despite Wilson's dislike of the terminology, he is a great admirer of Ulrich. BT sends HR managers to the RBL Human Resource Learning Partnership programme run by Ulrich, Wayne Brockbank and their colleagues at the University of Michigan. Wilson believes the academics there are among the world’s leading HR thinkers.
He has little patience with concerns expressed by some in recent issues of PM that a fixation with strategy means HR professionals are ignoring their traditional, employee-focused role.
"At a time when we are on the threshold of an exciting new world, in which we can play our part as a fully integrated part of the business, we are getting a backlash," he says. "The detractors seem to be saying that the profession should return to its old welfare officer roots, and I don't think that is right. I don't believe that performing this strategic role eliminates the possibility of being, for instance, the voice that considers the impact of change on employees. But some of the views we have read in PM imply that we have to choose between the two.
"Tim and I agree that the importance of HR delivering competitive value through people is absolutely true now, as other levers to competitiveness, such as time-to-market and technology, lose their edge," he says. "Voices arguing for us to go back into our shell of insecure, cosy administration and advice should be roundly condemned."
Miller agrees. "The suggestion that if you are enmeshed in the business you can't be cognisant of employees' needs is ridiculous," he says. "I don't see the profession as a continuum with employee champion at one end and business partner at the other. It's HR professionals embedded in the business."
Miller sees the "tea and sympathy" role as belonging to the line manager, not an HR "employee champion" as outlined by Ulrich. Responding to the criticism that the old personnel manager was better able to help when someone's close relative died, he says: "That's what the line manager is there for. Businesses are demanding more output from the profession and it's a huge opportunity. The sting in the tail is that, if we don't deliver, they will look elsewhere."
Given their vision of the future, what kind of development do the two men think HR professionals need? Miller cites social and networking skills. "They have to play in the space where dialogues occur between different actors in the management team. It's about being able to network and influence, trade and negotiate," he says.
Miller doesn't think HR professionals naturally have these skills. He enhances his own function by employing people from a wide spectrum. Recruits include a forensic scientist, a marketing professional and someone with a social sciences background.
BT gives its HR people responsibility for operating within the business, minimises their chances of getting stuck in routine work by outsourcing administration, and arms them with key skills. HR's integration with the business is underpinned by the way it participates in the annual round of strategy formation. At a senior level, there is a debate about what group forecasts mean for the people strategy; company-wide objectives are then fed into the plans of divisional HR directors. These are reported back to the chief executive, then communicated and updated through meetings of senior teams.
Standard Chartered calls its senior HR managers "organisation effectiveness heads". One of these works in each global team.
"HR is about helping managers to manage people, and I want them to be engaged in building performance through people and involved in the cost of people as well," says Miller. "Of course, they have to understand HR processes, performance management and reward, and so on. But it’s how they configure and embed these products and make them part of the business that matters."
Despite their sometimes doom-laden warnings about the future, both men think HR is up to the challenge. But they agree there is a long way to go – even in their own companies. As Wilson says: "Do I have all 650 in-house HR people operating at a higher level? No. Do a significant number of them operate in a strategic, embedded way within the business? Yes. Do we still have a way to go? Yes."
Tim Miller and Alex Wilson: CVs
Tim Miller worked in sales and operational roles and had a spell as a university lecturer before moving into HR in 1988. He joined Standard Chartered Bank five years ago as group head of human resources, having held a number of senior positions at GlaxoSmithKline.
He says he has always believed in the importance of embedding HR in the business. At Standard Chartered, he initiated a radical review of HR, transforming it into a global function with international administration operating from an internal shared service centre in India, and employee and manager self-service.
Alex Wilson started his career in personnel at car maker Ford 31 years ago. He spent 10 years with the company and 12 years with food, drinks and retailing firm Grand Met, also working for shorter spells at Guinness, Diageo and ICI. He joined BT three years ago.
His career has included four jobs in general management in countries outside the UK, which he believes is invaluable experience for a senior HR role. But he has always returned to the function, believing in its importance.
Tim Miller is director and group head of human resources at Standard Chartered Bank. Alex Wilson is group HR director of BT. They are speaking on “What future for HR?” at the CIPD's annual conference and exhibition in Harrogate on 26-28 October