Defining Umbrellas

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Do you work for a large organization? … If so, this article will likely resonate will you in a direct manner. On the other hand, if you work for a small organization, or are a stay-at-home parent, it might be a bit more of a stretch. Either way, I ask that you hang with me to the end. You may be surprised that there is something here for everyone.

If you read the trade press, popular business magazines or work for a global corporation, you undoubtedly remember when Human Resources (HR) decided to become “strategic” several years ago. I hope I don’t offend anyone personally, but I find this funny. HR was always strategic (as is every functional area of a large corporation). Why did HR professionals and associations decide they needed to tell everyone they were strategic? It’s like asking your teenage kids if you’re cool. If you have to ask, trust me, you’re not.

In short, the reason HR decided to tell the world they were “strategic” was because many of the traditional functional areas of HR were being outsourced, compensation and benefits for example. So, the HR community declared they were strategic and renamed themselves. They became HR “business partners,” no longer satisfied to be HR representatives.

Two little secrets. First, I love HR and always have. Second, HR was not the only functional area that decided to become strategic and define (or redefine) the umbrella. The sad thing is that I miss the traditional HR reps. Now they REALLY added value. I could go to them with anything and get not only advice, but practical help. They did things. They didn’t just know what number to call when there was an employee relations issue, they rolled up their sleeve and took action. They didn’t just tell me what to do, they co-owned the problem. After becoming “strategic,” they weren’t truly allowed to get their hands dirty in the same manner they did previously.

For what it’s worth, I spent a few years in HR so I’ve been on “both ends of the stick.” Today, the unique, valuable HR professionals are those who are strategic (and, yes, they’re partners in the business along with ALL the other functional areas), but they are willing to roll up their sleeves and own action items in additional to giving advice or counsel.

But what does all this have to do with defining the umbrella? Well, whether it’s HR or Finance or Legal or Engineering or Supply Chain or Manufacturing or R&D or Sales or Marketing, there has been a trend in the last twenty years to define the umbrella in a manner that overemphasizes one functional area over another. Does all this really matter? Is value really being added to the employees? Is the customer really being served better?

Recently, someone asked me about some of the topics I regularly write about in my weekly article, Communication, Decision-Making, etc. They said, “aren’t those really part of other functional areas such as HR or Engineering?” I said, “It doesn’t really matter to me. The umbrella isn’t the issue; the issue is understanding what’s under the umbrella and improving tools, bodies of knowledge, and interfaces under the umbrella.”

It’s like arguing which part of the body is more important. Or which discipline is more important. Ever hear two engineers argue which field/degree is harder. As if it matters. Ugh!

Personally I don’t care how the umbrella is defined in an organization if it works. I do care about functions (often led by national or international professional associations) that define the umbrella in a manner that causes imbalance among all the functional areas or tries to bring undue attention and focus on itself. It’s akin to “navel gazing.” No customer cares about your umbrella. They care about how they’re being served and the value you add to their organization via great products and services.

Some would argue that certain umbrellas result in higher efficiency. I might even agree. Organizational theory suggests that form should follow strategy and facilitate, or even enable, organizational goals and objectives, but it’s not a silver bullet. Value is added not by the umbrella but by what is under the umbrella and how functional areas work together.

How about you? What is your story? Have you seen or personally experienced functional areas that try to define the umbrella with themselves “front and center?”

As always, the floor is open to your comments, suggestions, thoughts, and feedback.

Dr. is an agent of change and is able to balance the needs of the business and the needs of people. Dr. Gerwig believes and practices the values of performance and delivery of business metrics while simultaneously developing and growing people into leaders. You can contact him at RobertGerwig[at]

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