bigger than lifeWhen I was a kid, I was one of five girls in a very busy household. Our dining room table, as it was, was pretty big to begin with and sometimes, in lean times, it was simply a picnic table. When we had guests over, though, one of us was usually dispatched to the linen closet to get one or both of our table leaves, to expand the table for our guests.

No worries, a point is coming just around the riverbend. See, when  began my professional career, no one had ever heard of a CMO just as very few companies had a CLO, CSO or a CHRO. In fact, unless your fancy title referred to executive, finance, operations or information, chances were, no one had heard of it. And even if they had, many thought you’d made it up.

That attitude clearly reflected business attitudes of the time (just ten or so years ago). HR didn’t deserve a seat at the table. And lest Human Resources and Talent Acquisition get their pants in a wad, neither did Marketing, Learning, Strategy or any number of truly essential business functions. Remember this?

The human-resources trade long ago proved itself, at best, a necessary evil — and at worst, a dark bureaucratic force that blindly enforces nonsensical rules, resists creativity, and impedes constructive change. HR is the corporate function with the greatest potential — the key driver, in theory, of business performance — and also the one that most consistently underdelivers.

The argument has been long made that HR leaders don’t deserve a seat at the table because:

  • They aren’t strategic enough
  • They can’t read a PL
  • They don’t care about long term business goals
  • They are encumbered (willingly or otherwise) with petty managerial tasks making them unfit for executive level decision making
  • They are poorly educated or undereducated

And if anyone keeps pushing the envelope, they are told to abandon the cause, to focus on being better at their job and to stop worrying about that executive table setting (for lack of a better term). But is that genuinely the right course of action? I don’t think so. Because while the stable of executive titles was being expanded, other changes were taking place as well. Decisions about people suddenly become a great deal more important in a knowledge economy. Management and onboarding feels more essentials when the average tenure of a millennials is under 3 years. Learning and Workforce Strategy shifts to everyone’s issue when faced with educational and skills gaps that transcend simple EE learning programs.

What has changed is that the skills that HR professionals use everyday have suddenly become vastly more important in a post-industrial, post-informational society. Global companies struggle with contingent workers, local policies, multiple outsourced vendors, shifting legislation and strategic initiatives. In addition, HR Professionals often get to see the direct effect of new company directives “on the factory floor” through change management programs. When you have both the ability to make recommendations and create change in your organization and the knowledge and experience to see those changes carried out, it becomes less of an option to demand that a placemat be laid out for your ever-increasing purview.

So why do executives seem so unlikely to give this embattled seat away? Perhaps the debate is being framed improperly. Some feel that getting that “seat at the table” may mean taking it from someone else, which only starts fights. So what if, we simply expand the table? While much of the data hasn’t been compiled to directly support a unilateral decision to shove a CHRO in at every organization, the spending statistics are clear.

ASTD reports that $171 billion was spent on learning and developments in 2010. Managed properly, what would an even ten percent improvement in this sliver of Human Capital be able to support?

The recent Towers and Watson reports that more than four in 10 (44%) of all organizations we surveyed — dramatically more than last year’s 26% — indicate they will change their HR structure in 2012 or 2013. Which departments will manage that change?

Analyst Sarah White puts it succinctly: In other areas of business you don’t sit around talking about getting a seat at the table, you just sit down!

But this:

HR can never have a ‘seat at the table’ is because its legal responsibilities prevent it from being a trusted member of the inner circle. Often perceived as the “political correctness police”, a significant part of HR’s job is to promulgate and educate. That means noticing when something is amiss and correcting it.

And who wants someone like that in the middle of a problem solving session?

Expanding the definition of the table seems as though it’s the only answer. When people and systems become such a huge part of the equation that they can’t be ignored, the justification for getting that seat must be reexamined. I think we are getting close.

Will someone go get the extra leaves?

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