The secret of sustainable HR

The secret of sustainable HR

Posted by Erica Volini on April 12, 2016.

Last month, Deloitte was listed on Fortune’s Best Companies to Work for List…for the 17th year in a row (don’t worry, this isn’t a blog post about how great Deloitte is, although I am pretty proud of this organization). I still remember when we made the list for the first time. We were #8 and I remember thinking–where do we go from here? Given that it was 1998 and the heyday of exponential change hadn’t quite embedded itself in our lexicon, I couldn’t imagine how we could do much better. But what I really couldn’t envision was that 17 years later we would still be on that list. Achieving success is one thing, but sustaining it–especially in our ever-evolving world–that’s quite another.

So what’s the secret? And, maybe a more important question, how do we–as HR leaders–create a culture of sustainability for ourselves? Logic would tell us that it’s about constant reinvention, about having a formal, structured way of ensuring that new ideas and evolved solutions are embedded into the existing environment on an ongoing basis. So now that we know the “what,” let’s figure out the “how”…

A three-part puzzle
For the sake of simplicity (and limited word space for this post), let’s say that HR has three fundamental components: customers, technology enablers, and the HR operating model, and let’s take a look at each of these components through the sustainability lens.

Customers: There is little doubt that the customers of HR are evolving…constantly. Whether it’s the influx of millennials, the change in employee expectations, the expanded diversity of the workforce, we know that the customers of HR and the business overall is in a constant state of evolution. Reinvention? Check.

Technology enablers: And we don’t have to look further than the cloud itself to see that we–finally–have a way to get constant updates to our technology enablers. Heck, we don’t even have to do big upgrades anymore! Cloud has paved the way to ensure that the latest innovations and thinking are brought to us on a frequent basis. Formal way of constantly bringing new ideas into our tools and processes? All good here.

HR operating model: This is where it gets tricky. Don’t get me wrong, the HR organization has gone through transformation. From shared services to BPO, from HR generalists to embedded business partners, we have seen plenty of progress in the HR operating model. The challenge is that it’s all structural in nature and more often than not, takes a large effort to get it done. It’s not fluid, and it’s certainly not constant. And that is where I think we face the biggest opportunity for sustainable HR.

Addressing the issue: The 4C’s of Sustainable HR
We had a 3-part puzzle and now we’re going to have a 4-part solution (what’s a good consultant anyway without a few frameworks to leave behind). Lately, I’ve been thinking about HR in the context of what I call the 4Cs: capacity, credibility, capability, and community.

Capacity: If there is one thing we know about constant evolution, it’s that it takes effort and time. And if there’s one thing we know about HR, it’s that both of these are in short supply. Creating room for HR to see where evolution is needed becomes paramount for driving sustainable HR. Whether it’s through the creation of an HR COO whose sole responsibility it is to evaluate how the HR operating model needs to evolve, the deployment of new technology that enables an even greater level of self-service, or bringing design thinking to the world of HR processes to eliminate manual activities still left on the plate of the HR Business Partner, creating capacity for HR to continuously evolve is key.

Capability: With every new tool, new process, new solution, new workforce segment comes a need for new skills. To keep up, formal programs need to be in place to constantly upskill the HR professional. That may come in the form of moving HR professionals around the HR operating model to give them new experiences, it may come in the form of professional education on the new skills needed in today’s world of work (building diverse leaders, applying design thinking, and deriving insights from data jump out as three skills that should be at the top of the list), or it can be about providing HR professionals the experience of working in the business to learn skills that can be brought back to the HR organization. Whatever the method, constantly building new capabilities in HR is a surefire way to ensure sustainable HR.

Credibility: Part of driving continuous improvement is knowing where to look and part is having the support from the business to drive change. Not every aspect of the HR organization needs continuous change. So part of this solution is knowing where to drive change in the model and having the credibility with the business to drive it forward. Without that credibility, HR can face resistance or even worse, make a change that doesn’t provide demonstrable value back to the business. That damage in credibility can stop any change initiative in its tracks and make sustainable HR a lofty idea now out of reach.

Community: We don’t have to look far in this world to see the linkage between the sharing of ideas and innovation. While reading posts like this one or reviewing the annual Global Human Capital Trends report is one path to continuous improvement, don’t forget that joining user communities, attending conferences, subscribing to research, and following key bloggers also help maintain the innovation edge. What about taking advantage of the user communities that the cloud vendors themselves create? That will provide an opportunity to contribute your organization’s requirements into the continuous stream of cloud-based innovations and will position you as a forward-thinking leader of change, rather than merely as a survivor. Or, more simply put, create a sustainable HR organization fueled by the innovation that the business demands.

In conclusion
Sustainable HR is about enabling the HR organization to constantly evaluate and evolve to meet the changing needs of the business and take advantage of the innovation and influx of new technology that is so prevalent in the world today. Is your organization ready to rethink your HR operating model in pursuit of sustainable HR? Your future competitiveness as an employer of choice may depend on it.

Join us to continue the conversation on LinkedIn.


As the leader of Deloitte Consulting LLP’s HR Transformation practice, Erica Volini is responsible for the overall strategy, financial performance, and delivery of HR Transformation services across the US.

As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of the legal structure of Deloitte LLP and its subsidiaries. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

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