HR's Shifting Role Within Change Management

change management, mayra besharov

Leading change can be daunting, but an absolute necessity if an organization is to prosper and to improve its competitive abilities, reputation and long-term prospects. 

As organizations try to cope with continually shifting market conditions, technologies, customer demand, input costs and competition, human resource practitioners find themselves in unique positions to help drive change forward.

HR, a Change Agent

"HR has not had much of a role in leading strategic change and renewal as it could have in the past, and needs to have within organizations moving forward," says Marya Besharov, ILR associate professor of organizational behavior.

"I believe this partly is a reflection of the shift we are seeing in HR, from historically being more of an operational and administrative function to now being more of a strategic function."

According to Besharov, it is essential for HR to be positioned as a partner with the broader executive team as part of leading change management at the highest levels of an organization.

"Being a strategic partner on organizational change is critical to HR providing greater value to an organization, not just technical value, but strategic long-term value," she says. "It's happening already, and will become more widespread in the future."

Top Down/Bottom Up

Though often beginning from the top down, change efforts require employees at all organizational levels to be on board, Besharov says. Engaging and involving people in the process is important.

"There always needs to be a balance between having strong leadership from the top and also enlisting people on the front lines of the organization, because if it's just a lot of talk from the executive team, front-line workers will show resistance to change," she says. "Change cannot simply be handed down."

Besharov notes that many HR issues come to the forefront during a major strategic change, including job security. As a result, communication is absolutely critical. There can almost never be too much communication in major change situations, she says.

"Communication is key. When change is being planned or taking place, there's so much confusion, uncertainty, and anxiety among employees in terms of their future. HR has an important role to play here, helping to calm such fears and keep productivity up."

Implementation, the Hardest Part

Besharov finds that the most difficult piece of change management lies in implementation.

"The process of change is really important. It's not just about picking the right strategy. It's how you implement it that really matters."

Careful management of the process, combined with continual communication and transparency, can help significantly. Problems can arise if employees think change is just being imposed from the top. To be successful, it needs to feel authentic to individual workers.

But with implementation, there is no one size fits all, Besharov says. A change strategy and process that is appropriate for one organization will not necessarily work in another. Practitioners must design a change process that takes account of their organization's specific challenges. This can be quite challenging, Besharov emphasizes, due to issues of power and politic, skills (or lack thereof), and resource constraints.

"It's relatively easy to plan things out ahead of time, but you don't know who is going to resist or what rumors will start swirling among employees," she says. "The rollout of plans, and the need to adapt as you go, is where most companies go wrong."

Learn more about the subject discussed in this article, and how Cornell ILR's Human Capital Development workshops and certificates can help you effectively impact your organization.