The Future of HR Competencies

These days it feels like if you blink, you’ll miss an important development in business. Business paradigms have changed — and will continue to do so. Traditionally, a company's value has come from its tangible assets: holdings, property and inventory. Massive companies such as Google, Amazon and Uber have proven that this isn’t the only place value lies. There is true power in intangible assets.

And what’s the biggest intangible asset of any organization? People. No organization can succeed without developing and putting the right people in place.

HR plays a critical role in developing human capital to increase a business’s strategic outcomes. But there have been major changes in work over the past few decades. And there are more changes on the horizon. How does HR need to change to keep up and to become a key player in the new economy?

“There is a shift from HR being sedulous with policy and rules to HR taking on more of a leadership position in strategy alignment, value enhancement and people development,” says Alonzo Walker, managing partner at Altus Human Capital Solutions. This move into leadership and strategy requires a completely different set of competencies from what was expected of HR practitioners as recently as a decade ago.

Here are the competencies your HR team needs to help lead your organization.

Bring Business Acumen to Bear

As technology develops, HR has come into its own as a strategic function at many organizations. This function is crucial. As work changes, workforces need to be developed to accommodate shifting business outcomes. An excellent workforce is a major strategic advantage. In order to be successful in the C-suite, HR practitioners have to understand how the business works.

It’s impossible to contribute consistently to a business’ bottom line if you don’t possess an acute understanding of costs, operations and outcomes. “HR needs to become a strategic partner,” says Keri Ohlrich, co-author of “The Way of the HR Warrior” and CEO of Abbracci Group. “HR practitioners have to know the goals of the business and be able to develop programs and set department goals that are in alignment with the larger organization.”

Sharon Looney, CHRO at CoreHR, agrees: “HR is expected to align HR initiatives with organizational strategic intent, ensuring ‘tie in’ between HR interventions and business outcomes,” she says.

To do this, all members of any HR team are expected to bring an understanding of business principles and operations. HR practitioners must know how to implement workforce operations in achieving strategic outcomes.

Understand How to Collect and Interpret Data

While business acumen is clearly an important skill for the future of HR, it’s vital to consider the next step in business development: data. “Business savvy should be expected from any business leader, regardless of function,” Looney says. “HR practitioners need to be upskilling as data analysts and mastering the art of HR data collection and analysis.”

We have more data on the workforce than ever before, and it’s this data that helps write the blueprint for the future. Knowing what to collect and how to use that information is the next step in the evolution of work, and HR has the chance to play a pivotal role. “It’s critical that HR practitioners understand how to use this insight to guide HR initiatives, measure their success and elevate the HR discussion to the right level of strategic relevance.”

The role of data in business is no small one — in fact, the entire future of work depends heavily on data-driven technologies. Being able to understand and analyze human capital data gives your HR team a distinct advantage. “Becoming more ‘tech-savvy’ and armed with the right HR technology, HR professionals can truly draw direct lines between their initiatives, their data and overall business performance outcomes,” Looney says. 

The ability to articulate data findings and translate the implications to leadership effectively also matters. “An additional competency is the ability to interpret and present this insight at the board level,” Looney says. Organizational decisions rest on HR’s ability to demonstrate the power of the workforce. 

Capitalize on Your Distinctly Human Traits

As we move forward into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, it’s more important than ever before to cultivate distinctly human traits. Curiosity, for example, is an important soft skill that leads to innovation. HR can connect business outcomes and data collection by investing in curiosity. HR practitioners have the power to ask new questions and put concepts together in ways that have never been done before. 

Learnability — the ability to follow through on curiosity — is an equally important trait. “HR practitioners, at all levels, should be lifelong learners,” Ohlrich says. HR teams and leaders can increase learning by challenging themselves and each other to continue their education.

Additionally, HR should be capable of facilitating learning across the organization. Work itself is changing, and the workforce needs to adapt. “HR needs to know more than what is changing — HR is critical in implementing when and how those changes occur,” Walker says. “HR should advance on the opportunity for employee learning, management development and adapting more data analytics to function in every aspect of the discipline.”

Curiosity and learning will keep HR moving forward. “Human traits like creativity, risk-taking and randomness are needed to convert ideas into tangible valuables,” Looney says. These are qualities that can’t be replicated by technology. HR practitioners who can bring these human traits to bear at their organizations are set-up well for success in the future of HR.

This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated in October 2019.