Three CAHRS Members Reflect on the past 30 years of HR's history

Human Resource Executive's May 2017 issue -- a special 30th Special Anniversary edition -- features reflections from three Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies members (John Murabito, executive vice president for human resources and services at Cigna, Pam Kimmet, CHRO at Cardinal Health, and Michael D'Ambrose, senior vice president and CHRO at Archer Daniels Midland  in "HR's Epic Journey."

Gone forever is the notion of HR as a second-tier administrative function, tied to negotiated labor contracts or tasked with complying with a raft of federal equal-opportunity mandates. In its place: The 21st century human resource executive, who works closely with the CEO in developing key business strategies that affect the firm's bottom line while creating a culture to retain the most talented workers and attract promising millennials to a vibrant, socially committed firm.

"It's been gradual, but I do think there's been a much stronger realization over the course of that time frame that HR is a critical function to a business," says Murabito, noting the strong C-suite awareness of a concept that barely existed in the late 1980s: "human capital."

Yesterday and Today

To help celebrate the 30-year anniversary of Human Resource Executive®, a half-dozen leaders in the HR field were interviewed to pick their brains about what have been the most important developments in people management over the past 30 years, what major new changes loom on the horizon, and what are some of the skills that will be required for the HR executive of the future.

In 1987, the year that HRE first published, personal computers were just gaining a toehold, and widespread use of the Internet was still a decade away. For HR leaders, the sweeping change in technology has been a defining feature of the last 30 years, drastically changing the workflow within HR.

"I think technology has had a massive, positive influence on our business," says Kimmet. She previously held the top HR positions at Coca-Cola Enterprises, Bear Stearns and Lucent Technologies, after stints at Citigroup and General Motors.

When she first joined the profession, it mostly involved "people administration" -- work that, as Kimmet recalls, took "a lot of arms and legs" to get done. But the ability to perform once-complex tasks such as benefits management with the help of technology, she says, has played a key role in liberating HR executives so they could now focus more on business strategy and getting the most out of the workforce. With the increasing ability to move key tasks such as employee training online, or use social media to connect and motivate employees, the importance of technology has only accelerated in recent years.

"At my company, we have new software that's a search engine for learning on the Internet," says D'Ambrose, who marveled at the tool's ability to instantly connect workers with TED talks, white papers and other learning materials in a few nanoseconds.

Technology has also helped fuel another key development in HR over the last three decades: Dealing with rapid globalization. HR leaders -- particularly at large corporations -- say the modern multinational workforce has hastened the need to develop a companywide culture and norms that can cross the International Date Line. D'Ambrose says that's certainly the case at ADM, whose 32,000 employees work in 160 different nations. He explained that ADM strives to "articulate the difference that we make . . . that we feed the world."

Evangelists for Diversity

Both globalization and the rapid pace of change has made most top HR leaders evangelists for diversity in recent years, believing that a rich mix of backgrounds and experiences is critical for companies to succeed in the marketplace. In the '80s and '90s, a key focus in most HR departments was simply following the new laws and mandates on equal opportunity, affirmative action and related workplace issues. Murabito hailed the importance in more recent years of diversity -- real diversity that enables companies to have a more effective workforce.

Kimmet notes that after business profits had flat-lined in the '70s, the Wall Street boom of the '80s and '90s caused shareholders and CEOs to look more closely at ways that HR programs could help push profit margins higher. In these more dynamic modern corporations, she says "people management had a huge critical ability to control the growth of spending and drive more returns."

Murabito also notes that as HR has become more strategic and less of an administrative function, a science of people management has emerged. He says he's noticed a stronger fellowship of CHROs who talk with each other about the latest trends, often through conventions and other activities sponsored by groups such as the National Academy of Human Resources or the HR Policy Association. "These associations have helped collectively shape how we, as HR executives, contribute to the function, by sharing best practices."

"The conversation about greater social awareness -- about planetary resources and the environment, about social injustice and inequality, about treating people with respect and pay equity -- is a growing drumbeat," Kimmet says. What's more, HR executives are still working through ever-changing ideas about work-life balance. The emphasis on flex time or telecommuting from home has to some degree given way to an emphasis on a workplace that's focused on a shared and fulfilling employee experience

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