HR transformation: Why partnering with internal communications is critical

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Working life and corporate cultures have shifted in dramatic ways since the 1990s. Yet human resources hasn’t always kept pace with those changes. Even as recently as a decade ago, HR was still primarily focused on “payroll, benefits, and procedure,” according to the Society of Human Resources Management.

Human resources is still largely locked into a transactional approach to employees; in fact, the biggest misconception of the conventional approach to HR is that employees are still just “employees.”

The most advanced HR professionals recognize they need to become more strategic. They also recognize employees today are more like customers, and they’re taking steps to serve them accordingly. This is the HR transformation currently underway at companies working to ensure future success.

Because HR is a function that supports employees, managers, and leaders, HR teams must think of employees as their customer segments. By creating a service model that recognizes employees in the same way marketing and sales teams recognize different customer segments, HR will provide more strategic value to employees and to their companies.  

Meeting the HR transformation challenge

Meet Erika Migliaccio, an innovative HR executive with 20 years of experience guiding large, multinational teams through a variety of business cycles. A managing founder of Upstream HR Strategies, her strategic approach has driven significant business results while inspiring and engaging employees.  

On June 26, Erika joined Jason Anthoine, managing founder at Audacity, for our webinar, HR + IC = The Secret Sauce to Transformation and they discussed:

  • Why HR needs to partner with internal ommunications
  • How HR can become the strategic leaders they need to be to engage and connect their workforce
  • How to set the right KPIs to prove the value of your communications and HR initiatives

What is HR transformation?

Erika and Jason discuss HR transformation and how HR professionals must move beyond the traditional, tactical HR initiatives and instead build real relationships with employees. (Note: Erika refers to employees as “customers” frequently throughout the interview.) Here’s a transcript of that discussion.

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Could you talk about Frances Frei’s Uncommon Service book and how you use it for HR?

Yes. That’s a resounding yes, because it’s one of my favorite things to talk about.

Uncommon Service changed my entire approach to HR. I have to thank Frances Frei for that. But when Frances talks about building service businesses, the concepts in the book are really, they’re not very complex. Really, anybody can use them. That’s one of the things that I really love about it. She says, “Most businesses, service businesses, product businesses, whatever it is, understand their customers, and really want to please their customers. In the process of doing so, try to serve every single need that the customer has in some way”.

When you’re in a world of limited resources like we are, and you only have a certain amount of money, a certain amount of headcount in the company, a certain number of employees, a certain number of leaders, if you try to offer all things to all customers with a finite level of resources, what are you going to do? You’re going to end up being mediocre and exhausted.

Frances makes the point that if there are 10 services that [customers are] interested in or 10 parts of a service that they’re interested in, probably there’s going to be three or four of those that are most important to those customers. The other things probably aren’t going to influence their [buying] decision as much.

What Frances really stresses, and what she says that you should do, is first of all, segment your customers. Understand what they really want. What’s really most important to them. What are the things they don’t care about? What are the things that might be hygiene factors for them? Meaning they’re only going to care about it if it’s bad, but it’s not necessarily going to influence their decision if it’s good.

Then design your service model to be great at the few things that are most important to your customer. While, and this is the part that everyone gets wrong, allowing yourself to be bad at the things your customers don’t care about. Again, what most people do is, no one ever wants to be bad at anything, right? They get the survey and they say, “The store wasn’t immaculately clean,” and they say, “Well, we’ve got to make the store cleaner.” But guess what? People who shop at Walmart aren’t really as concerned with the cleanliness of the store as they are with the selection and the price and the location.

If you try to have selection and price and location and cleanliness and atmosphere and all of these other things, you’re going to end up being mediocre at all of them, and not great at the few things that are really going to influence the decision. It’s the concept that we use when we do these HR transformations.

Honestly, the first thing we do is we go and we survey. We segment our customers, and we survey them. We ask them to take a list of HR services. To put them in order of importance. Most important, not so important, really not important. Then we ask them to rate the current HR team on the level of service that they provide. From, “You guys don’t really do this at all,” to, “You do it but you’re not good at it,” to, “You’re okay at it but it could be better,” to, “You’re good or you’re great.”

Then we use that data. We start to analyze the data to see where the needs are similar, where the needs are different. Where are the areas that we might be underperforming? Where are the areas where we might be over-performing, where we’re investing too much in something that’s not important to the customer? We try to reframe and redesign the service model to provide focused and expert support to each of those groups based on their differing needs. Which means that we allow groups to be bad at some things that another group will be great at.

Could you tell me exactly, in your words, what you call an HR transformation?

I think this gets a little confusing because in many cases the term HR transformation is synonymous with a systems change as well. That is not what I focused on. I tend to focus more on the client support aspect, and how we’re better aligning the roles, responsibilities, and approach of those who are doing client support work to better serve our customers.

When I talk about HR transformation, I understand that the tools and the systems and the processes that you use, and having a strong center of excellence structure is incredibly important to all of this. My specialty is actually in guiding the HR teams through the client support piece of that. Many times I’m kind of partnered up with someone else who’s leading more of the system’s end.

When I talk about transformation, I’m really talking about the level of service you’re providing to your internal customers and the way that they view that service. The value you’re bringing to the organization.

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You talk about partnering HR with internal communications (IC) from the start. Could you talk a little bit about that? Why that’s important, and your experience with it?

I can tell you from experience that before I started independent consulting, every time I took an HR leadership role, the very first thing I did was find out who my internal comms partner would be. If there wasn’t one, I would finagle my way into hiring one. Many times I actually even got the leaders to hide some of these people in their budget. If the communications team said, “Well we don’t have budget for that,” we’d do it anyway.

Why do you think there’s a lack of budget?

Well, I tend to find that communication teams, internal comms teams, are very thin. Especially in supporting some of the other internal functions. Usually, I’ll find there’s one person who’s supposed to support finance and HR and legal and IT. They kind of bucket those altogether.

I think perhaps there’s just a lack of a realization on the power that can happen when you really dedicate a focus toward communicating, and putting this trifecta of your business leader, your HR leader, and your communications leader together. I think once teams see how powerful it can be, it’s hard to take that away afterward. But you’ve got to have someone who has seen it before, who’s going to fight for it.

You know, and I kind of mentioned this before. We tend to think of HR being involved in engagement and retention and culture. But HR doesn’t own those things alone. Right? We can own awareness. We can upscale people and teach leaders and managers and employees how to impact all those things. But a huge part of it is actually communicating the value. Communicating the expectations. Communicating the why behind the what.

You can have a really great engagement strategy. But if you’re not out there talking about it and really demonstrating it to people, and showing examples of how we live and why we do it, you’re not going to have the same impact. That goes for anything, right? The greatest strategy in the world is useless if you can’t figure out how to bring other people along with you, and share your story.

I think storytelling is a very critical and underrated skill that the most successful leaders have. Or they find out how to get someone who supports them, who’s very good at that.

Once you find an IC leader, or you’ve hired one, what’s the next step?

The next step is to really sit down with the leader and understand, what are the goals of the organization? What are the leader’s personal goals? What is the leadership brand that that leader is trying to build for themselves?

I also will, along with the internal comms person, dig into and segment our audiences in kind of a similar way. You’ve got employees. It could be just managers within the organization. Or all employees. You could have employee segments even by region or by country. Then also ask the employees is something that I often do. “What are the messages you expect to hear from your leadership team? Are you hearing them today or not?”

Then try to pull that all together into a plan that’s going to make sure that we are doing the basics really well. When I talk about the basics, it’s keeping employees informed. Making sure that they know the basic things about the status of the company and the team that they need to know. Then doing a few special things really well. That might change by the year. That might change based on what’s important to the leader, and what we’re driving for. But you’ve got to get the basics done really well, in an engaging way. Then focus on one or two more special topics for the year.

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What do you see as the role of technology for human resources and internal comms?

I think technology is giving us so many more creative ways to tell our story. I think we need to embrace them all. Understanding that people are going to be attracted to different vehicles. Some people are going to prefer some over others. I think we need to be flexible and experimental with how we’re getting those messages out. We’ve got so much technology now, that we can really figure that out and experiment.

But it takes an experimental approach, and a mindset that it’s okay to try something and fail. As long as you’re going to learn from it and then pivot and adjust.

Do you think that’s lacking, that kind of experimentation approach?

I think, and I can’t believe I’m going to say this out loud. But I think people still default to, “I will send an email,” and they actually think people are going to read it. I think they actually still get upset when people don’t. Yeah, I think that everyone is incredibly busy. The world is not gaining any more free time. I think when that happens we default to, “What’s comfortable for me.”

I also find there’s a lot of people out there whose reservations [about], “How do I look on camera? How do I sound on camera?” cause them to not try some of these other vehicles. What I try to tell people is, “Listen. When you’re communicating out to an audience, it’s not about you. No one cares what you sound like on camera. They hear you all the time. No one cares what you look like on camera. What’s important is that you’re getting your message out to people in a way that they’re going to respond.

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