Transitioning From Human Resources To Organizational Development

This article was originally published in Forbes on May 16, 2022.


In the early 1500s, Hernán Cortés led an expeditionary force into the Aztec Empire. When his force had disembarked on shore, he set fire to the fleet of ships they’d used to cross the Atlantic.

This dramatic, intentionally dire act sent a clear message to the men he led: There was no turning back. They would succeed in their endeavor, or they would die trying.

Although he may not have been the first in history to do so, we generally attribute the phrase “burn the boats” to Cortés’ act. It’s indicative of a mentality in pursuit of success with no retreat from an objective. And this is the mindset a human resources (HR) professional needs to dive into organizational development successfully (OD). Without it, they’re not the correct part of the organization to lead OD initiatives.

This isn't a harsh rebuke of HR. And it isn’t a dismissal of the important role that over-fills their plates. It’s just that the HR responsibility set is often in direct competition with OD’s interest in improving employee experience.

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There are five reasons why HR can be an enemy of employee experience. But all of them can be overcome. With the right mindset, strategic architecture and properly aligned processes, HR leaders can ensure harmony between administration, liability, high engagement and buy-in. They just have to be willing to burn the boats in pursuit of it.


1. HR is too close.

Firstly, HR handles administration. In fact, in some organizations, you won’t find a CHRO; you’ll find a chief administration officer. Whatever it’s called, the primary function is right at the intersection of compliance and clerical.

The second function is to limit liability to minimize risk. Ironically enough, most CEOs make statements like, “Our people are our greatest asset,” and then turn around and force HR to assume those people pose a risk to the organization. How can a department with this edict manage to get focused on treating employees like customers?


2. HR is at odds with the employee experience.

This may sound a little scathing, but an adversarial relationship isn’t HR’s intent. These administrative experts do celebrate the idea of employee engagement. Heck, highly engaged employees would make HR’s job a lot easier. So there’s lots of discussion in HR around improving it.

In practice, it’s caused by a misalignment of priorities. They’re forced to shelve that topic in exchange for limiting liability because it’s what the organization expects of them. If HR dived into improving engagement at the expense of keeping the metaphorical trains running on time, people wouldn't get paid, benefits would lapse and there could be severe legal compliance issues.

This is why we rarely find HR on the shop floor talking through the equipment of a production employee, dissecting how information flows to CPAs during tax season, or at the nurse’s station sharing in the frustration of getting a consent form signed for surgery.

The ever-present administrative and compliance demands mean most HR professionals become far too removed from employee experience to get an opportunity to champion that experience’s impact on organizational goals.


3. They aren’t strategists.

OD isn’t just about working with people. It’s about raising the value of the company. To do that, and to be a multiplying force for the people engaged in your core business, you have to deeply understand the field, the product and people’s day-to-day experiences.

To break into the world of business strategy, an HR professional needs to be in the right place at the right time. The mix of factors necessary to grow an effective strategist doesn’t come around often.

Navigating major organizational change, or responding to existential threats to the business, doesn’t arise in many HR careers. When it does, HR may not be in a key decision seat. If they are included, their role can insulate them from the types of experience that would make them an asset.

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4. They haven’t had the opportunity to test drive their skills.

Because they’re often insulated from decision making, and expectations placed on HR are often contrary to engaging employees behind the strategy, the skills honed throughout an HR career are often misaligned with building highly effective organizational architecture.

Say "OD" or "engagement" to HR, and they might think you mean classes on leadership or communication for people who would rather be anywhere else. That’s their reaction because, for the most part, they’ve not had many opportunities to try their hand at systematized OD.

Getting relegated back to typical priorities means they’re stuck running the class, checking the box and barely having time to worry about whether it actually improved the way the organization functions in a tangible, sustainable way.


5. It’s just plain scary.

The level of self-trust OD takes is unbelievable. You have to have seen it in action, working with real traction and changing the way an organization feels, to have the faith it takes to operate it effectively.

When you haven’t had the opportunity to learn and grow in a particular niche of your field, and you are actually given an opportunity to flex your muscles in it, the stakes are suddenly very high. OD isn’t usually the first thing an organization invests in. When results aren’t swift and visible, it’s often one of the first things to get cut.

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Businesses have seen it done badly many times before, so there is always doubt about breaking through. Differentiating oneself from the snake oil and major flops can be nerve-racking.


There’s a bright side.

Despite the factors working against HR, those willing to get their organizations to a better place are in luck. The methodology can be taught. Organizations can learn to apply deliberate architecture of processes and behaviors that will harness more momentum than they thought possible.


It takes guts for an HR leader to set aside their administrative comfort zone and plant a flag in the ground, saying, “This is how we do things from here on out.” It’s a “burn the boats” kind of crossroads that is rooted in courage.


This article was originally published in Forbes.

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