A View From INSEAD

Strategy and Human Resources

Susan Lynch

HR senior executive are critical players when it comes to devising and implementing key strategies. Yet they often lack training in high-level strategy. The INSEAD programme Business Strategy for HR Leaders aims to bridge precisely this knowledge gap. In the following interview, INSEAD professor, Susan Lynch gives her views on the intricate relationship between HR and strategy…

 

How did you develop your interest in the relationship between human resources and strategy?

I came to academia after a long background in strategy consulting with McKinsey. As a consultant, the one issue I struggled with was how to cascade change throughout an organisation. That’s why I went on to do a PhD on the reasons why companies succeed or fail in strategy implementation. And guess what? It turns out that the human resources function is key. Human resources leaders are in a position to reach out across an organisation to make change happen and to drive the entire company to function better.

What is your latest research about?

I look at social networks (in the sense of informal connections between employees, not internet platforms) and organisational change. I’ve found that in companies with a very stable formal structure, informal networks – made up of friends, close colleagues and unofficial mentors – are more important for strategy implementation.  In companies where formal structures change frequently, those formal changes have a big influence on a strategy’s success. It’s not something I use greatly in the programme, but it does come up.

Are there any current trends that make the programme particularly relevant?

Yes, organisations are changing faster than ever before. Whether it’s a case of geographical expansion and cultural differences or technological and industry evolution, HR has a vital role to play. And there’s no other programme on the market designed specifically to bring HR people up to MBA-level speed in strategy.

Is one of your objectives for more HR leaders to become CEOs?

Not necessarily. I’d like to see more HR leaders on boards and for HR to play a more prominent role in companies. But that’s not what the programme is about. It’s about HR executives growing into better strategic partners for the business.

What does the programme cover?

In a nutshell: strategy and how to execute it. Not HR strategy, but all-round business strategy. There’s nothing about pensions and payroll, incentives and talent development, although these may be the day-to-day concerns of many participants. We look at well-known companies, such as Apple and Ryanair, which have done both strategy and implementation well and badly. And we look at cases where strategy and organisational structure have been particularly well aligned. One example in particular shows the key role HR can play in an organization’s successful transformation. Danaher Corporation in the US has grown by acquisition and successfully integrated a number of very different companies.

Who exactly should enrol in this programme?

Participants tend to fall into two main groups. First there are very senior HR executives who already have a seat at the table. We aim to given them the ideas, tools and perspectives to make a significant contribution to shaping strategy – to make compelling statements about strategy. Second there are seasoned HR executives who have just been promoted to a key role. We aim to give them the confidence to see beyond HR and step up to a more strategic position – to ask credible questions about strategy. We’ve developed a five-step framework that works for both groups. And we structure the programme around it.

Can you summarise your five-step tool for strategy?

First, we start with goal setting. Second we move on to industry analysis. Third comes competitive advantage and analysis. Fourth we cover developing strategy. Finally, we move on to a key focus for us, which is executing strategy. They’re all important, though. If, for example, your company is downsizing, as an HR manager you need to be able to ask key questions about the competition and the industry environment in order to support implementation.

Can you really teach HR leaders to have an impact in just five days?

Absolutely. We take them out of their everyday responsibilities and concerns and into the viewpoint of top management. We immerse them in case studies of different companies in different industries without allowing them to fall back into their functional perspective. Then, we pause and zoom back into the HR mindset to see how it’s changed… before a final “what will you do differently on Monday morning?” action-oriented session.

And do they do things differently on Monday morning?

Well, I think it must work, because we get a lot of repeat customers and referrals via ex-participants. We have US and European multinationals that are expanding geographically, African regional banks that are modernizing and Middle Eastern companies that are really investing in HR capabilities… all coping with change in different ways – and using the programme to do so. I’m pleased to say that Business Strategy for HR Leaders is nearly always full.

To gain a new, strategic mindset yourself, consider enrolling on the five-day Business Strategy of HR Leaders programme, which runs once a year in both INSEAD’s Europe Campus in Fontainebleau, France and INSEAD's Asia Campus in Singapore.

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