The future of HR – are you ready?

To sum up the ambition and approach of the Henley Centre for HR Excellence, here at Henley Business School we aim to equip HR functions and individuals with the ability to deliver real business value, in an ever more efficient way, and in an environment that is ever more challenging and financially, technologically and demographically complex.

There is a view that, despite great progress in recent years, there are still some significant gaps between the capability HR currently has and the capability it will increasingly need, in order to demonstrate its credibility and value for money. Based on the years of research we have undertaken and the experience we have gained through working with world-renowned organisations, we at the Centre would certainly agree with this view. Some of these gaps have been recognised for a while, but not fully addressed. Others have grown out of an acceleration and intensification of what is required from HR, and have created a relatively new set of challenges to surmount. We summarise the most important of these below:

  1. Strategic and commercial capability – although an ‘old adversary’ in many ways, HR in general continues to be challenged around its ability to think and work strategically, its understanding of how business works, and the relevance of its offer. Recent twists on this include strategic workforce planning, where (ironically) skills demand is far outstripping skills supply, opening up organisations to strategic risks on the people side, and resulting in a huge missed opportunity for HR to be seen as relevant and insightful.
  2. A focus on simple and effective ‘vital basics’ – mending holes below the waterline on the engine room processes of recruitment, compensation, training and other operational HR activities. Excellence here is seen by business leaders as a prerequisite for conversations in the strategic realm, but there are criticisms that HR has taken its eye of the ball, while also failing to simplify processes or make them more pragmatic and flexible.
  3. Changes in the world of talent – as Josh Bersin recently stated ‘the war for talent is over, and talent has won’. Changes in the availability of skills, issues with loyalty and retention, the growing power of the employee, and changes in attitudes to career and employment have resulted in talent behaving as a consumer. HR has yet to recognise this trend in its own approaches to attraction, retention and career development, and risks losing control of talent to intermediaries who have fully embraced these trends.
  4. HR data and big data – perhaps the most under-leveraged opportunity for HR. The requirement to move from information to insight, from HR-centric data to business-centric data, and from process measures to outcome measures. In HR, data skills at both macro and micro levels are not where they need to be to take advantage of this opportunity. Key to this is not just having the data, but knowing what questions to ask of it.
  5. A more pragmatic and flexible approach – in order to manage the complexity of the modern HR need, we need to relax our dependency on ‘process polishing’, ‘certainty’ and ‘total consistency’ and become much more comfortable working with ambiguity, much more flexible in design and much more pragmatic in implementation. Modern organisational operating models and structures require the application of judgement and principle-based governance – which cannot be articulated in a RACI chart.

The Henley Centre for HR Excellence has tools in its armoury to assist HR functions and individuals in these areas. In addition to the research we undertake, the Centre provides members with the opportunity to share experiences and learn from best practice at the many HR Conversation events that we host, and our Advanced HR Business Partner Programme aims to equip individuals to play the role that the modern organisational environment requires. Masterclasses in both Organisational Development and Strategic Workforce Planning are offered to shift the thinking of HR, and to equip it to think and act differently. A six-module Strategic Resourcing Programme pulls together many of these challenges and associated best practice. It enables recruitment and talent managers to develop the perspective and toolkits to build resourcing approaches that combine the strategic and operational, and reflect these modern operating challenges. Custom programmes allow us to provide bespoke, practical and highly contextual upskilling for customers, either at Henley, or in their own facilities; and our well developed consulting practice helps a wide variety of organisations to diagnose and address HR and organisational capability needs in their businesses.

As we continue to work with different organisations, and continue to research and develop insights around the world of HR, we continue to learn. As we continue to learn, we evolve what the Centre offers to a function that we believe is pivotal to organisational performance.


Professor Nick Kemsley is a highly experienced HR practitioner, and has led organisational development, resourcing, talent and leadership, performance and L&D functions in a number of major businesses. He has an industry reputation as someone who challenges both HR and wider business to think differently and is a creator of innovative thinking in the organisational arena. He works with Boards and HR functions on a variety of topics including organisational capability and risk, strategy, workforce planning and HR effectiveness.  As Co-Director of the Henley Centre for HR Excellence he contributes to its research and member events as well as the design and delivery of custom programmes for corporate clients.