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So while I cover this topic elsewhere on human resources explained, I wanted to take a different approach and answer what is human resources a little bit differently. In the first few weeks working as a Remuneration Specialist, the HR Manager asked me to present what I understood HR to be in that organization to my human resource colleagues. The other new guy in HR went about searching the intranet and showing our colleagues stuff that they had most likely written in the first place. My approach was somewhat different, I recall with vivid detail the confused and worried look on my managers face when I started talking about the life-cycle of a butterfly – stay with me through this absolutely relates to human resources.

I use the metaphor of a butterfly life-cycle to demonstrate the interactions employees have with HR and HR practitioners, so often what is HR is seemingly answered with employees being almost an afterthought – human resources simply put is the experience an employee has with an organization.

The Egg / Recruitment And Selection

The first stage is the egg, many are laid, and some are good, some are great, and there are some other ones too. This egg metaphor is about recruitment and its focus on getting applicants (eggs) in front of hiring managers, so through a selection process the good, the great, and the other ones can be identified, with a great one being offered a position with the organization.

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The Caterpillar / New (and Not So New) Employees

Now with a new employee (caterpillar), the focus of HR is to assist you with orientation – how things work within the organization: including the culture, the structure, and names you should know (CEO, CFO, your head of department, etc). Depending on the size of the recruitment drive, you may also be part of an orientation event which often includes being addressed by senior executives, most often this event is organized by Human Resources.
Training is also a significant part of what new (and not so new) employees experience, and while not always delivered by HR Practitioners, typically managers will be following professional development guidelines owned by Human Resources. Often HR will hold a training budget, which managers can access to pay for those training events employees attend (particularly training that large numbers go through, such as sales mastery training in a sales-focused organization).
If you’ve read my post on selection fundamentals you’ll appreciate that sometimes a bad egg does slip through the selection process. With these bad eggs, HR will assist managers in firstly turning the performance of these employees around – yes bad eggs have the potential to come good. These interactions will include performance management conversations, a performance improvement plan, and if unsuccessful will, further along, move to terminate the employee. Terminating an employee is actually quite expensive, so managers and HR professionals will work pretty hard to save the employee, hard conversations will be had about where the employee needs to improve, what specific aspects of their performance or behavior are causing concern, etc.

The Chrysalis

The chrysalis stage is all about the sum of the HR parts. This is the stage where the employee has gained the knowledge and experience to be comfortable within the organization, and is performing their role very well. This is where the effort put into induction, training, professional development, and performance management pays off for the organization – and the converse is also true, a lack of investment will see employee performance stifled.

The Butterfly

As a Butterfly employees are highly mobile, they’ve literally been able to take all that HR has to offer (training, development, organizational knowledge), and can fly with it. The employee is now highly attractive to other organizations; hence at this point, HR needs to step up if it’s going to reap the rewards of its earlier work. How we do this is empowering the manager to talk to their staff, what are the promotional opportunities, what are their plans for that employee.

As an aside, I’ve worked in a number of organizations and the most common comment I hear from managers when I tell them I’m leaving is this ‘but I had plans for you’. And that’s a shame, it’s a shame they didn’t tell me their plans, potentially it would have made a difference in my looking elsewhere for opportunities. As a manager if you’re not having conversations with your staff about what the future looks like, then you’re not engaging them and you’re not doing your job.

So often in HR, we focus on the poor performers, what this means is that a steady stream of high performers will exit or fly away from the organization. The reason for this is that often HR doesn’t view its work as part of a system, which is partly why I present what is HR as a life-cycle, each step impacts on the next. As an organization, indeed as an HR team, you need to decide how much effort you can put into each step. Look at the effort you are able to place on retaining your high performers because this will inform the amount of effort you put into your earlier stages. If you don’t put effort into retaining high performers, then scale back your efforts in the earlier stages, don’t provide the best training – because all you are doing is training your competitor’s future workforce. And the converse is also true if you have an amazing retention program, then you need to step up and have an amazing selection program – otherwise, all you’re doing is trying really hard to retain second rate employees that you hired through a poorly conceived selection process.

The Next Stage

In life the life-cycle ends as a Butterfly, however in HR it continues, the Butterfly becomes an egg and the cycle continues. What I’m saying here is that your high performers have some choices to make, some will stay as Butterflies, happy and content with the role they have, others will seek new jobs and promotions – becoming an egg again but at a higher or different level. This is why talking to employees is so important, and the role of HR in this aspect is about empowering managers to have those conversations.

Final Thoughts

And that’s basically it! So, do you think your next career could be in HR?

I hope this has given you some insight into what is human resources. If you’re interested in specific aspects of HR, I’d invite you to take a look around human resources explained and have a read of some of my other articles or join the community by signing up for the waitlist here.

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By Brendan Lys

Operating at the intersection of Human Resources and Data Science, I leverage extensive specialist experience within Human Resources, with the methodologies and approaches of Data Science. This focus on the discovery of actionable insights from data, has been applied to areas such as: remuneration & benefits, workforce planning, recruitment, health & safety, diversity, and training. But what does the application of data science to HR challenges and opportunities actually look like. Within an HR framework the data we work with typically comes directly from our HRMIS, an advantage of using data science methodologies is that we can bring in additional data either held within the organization or from external sources - data which is out of reach from a pure HR analytics approach. Consider for example position descriptions, these contain a wealth of data that we typically ignore as its not in a analysis ready format. A side project I'm working on currently (April 2019) is using text mining on job descriptions to provide insights into which job family the position may fit into. The insights of my work have been enjoyed by organizations across a diversity of sectors including: Government (Australia and New Zealand), ASX and NZX listed companies, utilities, not for profit and higher education.