All HR professionals participate in projects of one kind or another. Hiring a new member of the executive team, developing a new training system, undertaking a compensation review, organising team building initiatives – these critical HR jobs require multiple people engaged in multiple tasks over multiple days, weeks or months. And what is a project if not a series of related tasks undertaken to achieve an overarching objective?
For this reason alone, project management skills are vital for professionals who work in the field of human resources. In this post, we’ll look at why. We’ll cover why these skills are useful for anyone who wants to be noticed by employers; why HR-related projects are particularly important for many organisations; and why the changing nature of HR may increase the need for these skills in the future.
Because they’re important skills – full stop
Before we get to what makes project management skills essential for HR professionals specifically, let’s first look at why they’re important on a more fundamental level.
Employers seek professionals with expertise in the area of project management because projects, by their very nature, are prone to complexity. Complexity creates challenges, and although some of these challenges can be overcome by intuition and creativity, many are best confronted with an arsenal of technical skills and knowledge.
As we wrote last year, a project might seem straightforward when everybody first sits down to discuss it, but when your colleagues return to their desks and other priorities begin to get in the way, expectations can quickly change. And not in a positive way.
“When team members are unable to complete their tasks in a reasonable amount of time, it slows down the rest of the team, hinders your capacity to deliver on time and the necessary reallocation can be a management nightmare,” we wrote back then.
In many ways this is the classic project problem, the impediment that brings so many initiatives to a grinding halt. But it can be relatively easily overcome – not just by a good project manager, but by anyone with a sound understanding of project management.
It’s about careful management of deadlines – the whole-of-project date, but also deadlines relating to individual components.
It’s about staying on top of who’s responsible for what and encouraging them to meet their targets.
And, it’s about ensuring accountability without denying flexibility – putting the human in human resources, if you like.
It’s a difficult balancing act, which is why those who are able to pull it off are so highly sought after, regardless of their area of primary expertise.
Because HR projects are relevant to everyone
Why do those specifically recruiting for HR professionals look for skilled project managers? In great part, it simply comes down to the reach a human resources department has.
A procurement project might affect some staff and a few external businesses. A marketing project might affect some customers, some members of the community and ultimately shareholders. But, as this article in Chron.com suggests, an HR project can affect a very broad group of stakeholders. That includes staff, customers and clients, the local community (including individuals and businesses), shareholders or company owners, and businesses closely associated with the company undertaking the project (such as insurance firms).
“Primary stakeholders are direct beneficiaries, such as employees who receive a raise because HR revised the company's compensation structure,” the Chron.com article states. “Indirect or secondary stakeholders derive benefits from HR projects, such as a neighbouring business that profits from a company hiring more staff.”
In other words, like few other business units, HR has the power to create flow-on effects throughout an organisation, as well as the community and economy within which it operates. A well-managed project, then, is more likely to lead to a positive outcome not just for a small, niche segment of stakeholders, but potentially a large and diverse population of people.
Because HR is changing
Writing for Forbes, CEO of Distribute Consulting, Laurel Farrer, proposes that the discipline of human resources is undergoing a radical transformation. In her article, ‘Human Resources 2.0: How People Operations Is Powering Higher Productivity’ she says that many organisations, especially in the technology sector, are hiring for a new role embodying a new approach.
Farrer says that these companies have started to bring together operations and human resources, merging them into a single position (or team) known as People Operations - or PeopleOps.
“Traditionally, the objective of the operations officer is to supervise results, while the human resources officer supported the workers. However, the future of work is rapidly moving toward results-based work models, which are fueled by autonomy. Therefore, workers now supervise their own results. In order to control output, operations managers now must do so indirectly through the workers, so they are just as invested in supporting the workers as the human resources department is,” she writes.
Farrer’s article suggests that this new role is representative of a shift in the way companies are considering employees and their value. Whereas traditional companies might have considered employees to be a cog in a corporate machine, a mere source of labour, new or enlightened companies are realising that their people can offer a competitive advantage in a way that a product or a service no longer can.
As technology rapidly changes and consumer habits change with it, a brilliant product can be making millions one day and be obsolete the next. A talented and loyal team member doesn’t lose value in that way – unless they’re not treated well by the organisation they work for.
What does this have to do with managing projects? Farrer says that the role of PeopleOps is to “support the results and the people producing them”, which “requires a specialised set of skills and tasks”. At the very top of her list is project management:
“Fresh from their heritage in operations, PeopleOps managers are responsible for tracking the deadlines, bandwidth and production pace of their workforce.”
That requires an in-depth understanding of risk mitigation, project design, stakeholder liaison and budget management. In the area of IT, especially, it also requires an understanding of the Agile methodology.
No matter how you look at it, and whether you’re looking at traditional HR or “HR 2.0”, skills and knowledge in project management will serve you well as a human resources professional.
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