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Try Out This Great Tool for Assessing Your HR Department

By Priscilla H. Claman

Before reading this article, please download a copy of the HR Matrix for reference while reading and for your personal use.
(This requires Adobe Acrobat Reader).

Whether you are a human resources vice president thinking about making some changes, a candidate for a senior human resources job looking over a new organization, or an entire human resources team considering what priorities to set for the next fiscal year believe me, the HR Matrix really works. I've used this tool in all three situations, and people are surprised at how happy they are with the results.

In the 1980s, this tool was invented by Lloyd Baird, professor of management at Boston University, and Ilam Meshoulam, then a professor of management at Tel Aviv University, as a way to help human resources professionals take a strategic approach to human resources management. The Matrix is the result of their study of the development of human resources functions in small and large corporations in a variety of industries. The version you see here has been updated a little, with Lloyd's permission.

The HR Matrix suits most organizations better than "benchmarking"

All too often, we in human resources benchmark our departments against the greatest or the "best in class." That GE management development program may not fit a growing law firm. That IBM succession planning process may be entirely inappropriate for a billion-dollar bank. Human resources is not a one-size-fits-all world.

About a month ago, I met with the two partners of a small personal services firm. A total of fifteen people reported to the two of them. They wanted to scale up the organization, but they had some problems with their peoples' performance. One partner had come from a large international firm and had brought with him job descriptions and a performance management system that he presented proudly to me.

At the rate their firm was growing, they would be lucky if those three-page job descriptions lasted a whole quarter. What they really needed to do was to set three-month goals for everyone and hold people accountable, and the performance problems would either go away or be dealt with.

This HR Matrix helps you determine what human resources programs and activities are a strategic fit with your organization at each stage in its development.

The HR Matrix defines what being a business partner really means

Have you ever come back from a terrific presentation about a new human resources practice, all enthusiastic, only to say to yourself, "I'm not sure that would work here?" It's possible that that great idea wouldn't work in your firm, and that might not be all bad.

Too often, we judge our HR functions by how new and exciting our programs are, not by the strategic value they have to our internal customers. It's really easy to fall into the "we have a..." approach. We have a mentoring program; we have leadership competencies; we have a talent retention program; or whatever is in vogue. The Matrix keeps you out of that trap by assessing what kind of HR function your organization needs strategically.

Four Core Concepts of the Matrix

(Please refer to your downloaded copy.)

  1. Strategic human resources management evolves over time, paralleling the evolution of the organization it supports. In other words, there should be a fit between the stage of the organization and the stage of development of the human resources function that supports it. For example, in start up mode, an organization needs the basics. At its most sophisticated, an organization measures the costs and efficacy of its HR programs and chooses whether to outsource them or perform them in house.

  2. Every time a human resources function is in transition between one stage and another, there is a particular problem to solve. Between Stages I and II, the problem is "growth." Between Stages IV and V, the problem is "cross-functional integration." If you can identify what stage your HR organization is in, you can predict what problem it will face next.

  3. The six strategic components of human resources management are: manager awareness, how the HR function is managed, what the portfolio of programs is, how information technology is used, the skills of the HR professionals, and awareness of the business environment. If you assess your HR function along these six dimensions, you can identify both strengths and weaknesses.

  4. Balance is a concept that applies to human resources functions as well as people! All six strategic components should be roughly at the same level. You'll see why when you have a chance to look at the examples below.

How to Use the Matrix

Make a copy of the Matrix. Read the description in each box, and put an X over the box you think most accurately reflects your HR function for each of the six strategic components. Then, draw a thick line on the right hand side of each box you selected and, in each row, darken every box to the left of the line, including the one you selected. This will form your HR profile.

If you are assessing an HR function as a team exercise. everyone should get a copy of the Matrix and draw their own profiles. Is there agreement among the team? When I have used this exercise with HR departments, there is usually little disagreement. That makes it easy to agree on what action steps are needed.

How to Interpret the Results

First, does your HR function fit the stage of development of the organization it supports? In the example of the partners above, one partner was proposing a program that was at least Stage III, but the organization itself was only at Stage I.

Second, is your HR function in transition between stages? If so, the Matrix will identify the next problems you face. When Lee was interviewing for an HR Director job, he used the Matrix to assess the HR department he would be coming into. He had worked with start-ups before and knew how to take HR functions from Stage I to Stage II. This time he recognized that to be successful in this job he would need to control the growth of the department and make it both efficient and more effective. His analysis got him the job.

Third, is your HR function in balance? Look at the profile you have completed. Are there big gaps between one bar and another? Just a few small gaps would show a balanced department. But any bigger gaps will show you what to focus on next. Here are two profile examples that will make that clear.

Profile 1 - Out of Touch With the Customer

This HR department has an excellent VP and very skilled HR professionals. They adopt the most sophisticated programs and approaches using the most up-to-date technology. They work well together. And until they filled out the profile together, they complained about the managers they supported. "They" just didn't understand HR. "They" ignored all the wonderful programs HR had designed and just did things their own way. There were "good " managers who worked with HR and "awful" managers that "just didn't get it."

profile 1

When they filled out the profile together, they began to look at it differently. "Maybe we should look at why managers aren't working with us. Could a survey or focus group help?" The Matrix started the department down a whole new path.

Profile 2 - Starved for Resources

This HR department was led by a dynamic vice president who had worked with the CEO for fifteen years. No question that HR had both access and influence "at the top of the house." But the influence was personal. Perhaps in order to please the CEO, the department as a whole never got the information technology resources or the improvement of the skills of the others in the department.

profile 2

Now that the CEO was thinking of retiring, the vice president was taking another look at his HR function. When the Matrix was filled out in a staff retreat, the vice president realized that he needed to propose investing in HR if he or anyone else in the department was to survive the transition.

By now, I hope you are inspired to try out the Matrix yourself. It's a great tool for HR professionals!

This article appeared in the Spring 2004 issue of Insights, a publication of the Northeast Human Resources Association.