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HR’s Evolving Role: Deep Dive.

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The "evolving role of HR" refers to transforming the Human Resources function from its traditional administrative and operational roots, focused mainly on payroll, hiring, and remaining compliant with laws and regulations, to that of a more strategic partner in organizations. This evolution emphasizes the alignment of talent with business goals, a focus on continuous learning and development, the cultivation of organizational culture, the enhancement of employee experience, and the leveraging of data analytics to drive decision-making. As businesses navigate rapid technological, societal, and economic changes, HR professionals are increasingly tasked with driving initiatives that foster innovation, adaptability, and sustainable growth.

This evolution is about becoming a strategic HR organization with a seat at the executive table, participating in high-level strategic decisions and directions, and ensuring that human capital considerations are included in the company's long-term strategy. Strategic HR organizations actively listen to employees and collaborate with business leaders to validate the high-value initiatives to prioritize. This can range from focusing on the rising importance of remote work and employee well-being as a company's central concern to delving into areas like workforce planning, leadership development, and shaping organizational culture. Such HR teams utilize a strategic HR management approach to designing and executing solutions that anticipate the needs of the business and maximize the impact of its workforce, acting as a growth engine for the company and a strategic partner in driving organizational success.

HR functions are transforming with the business and the times

From well-established to more emerging, many HR areas of expertise have undergone a significant transformation shaped by new technologies, increased demand for strategic integration among functions and across the business, and evolving needs from the workforce and the workplace ecosystem in general. In this context, strategic HR organizations recognize the need to be ahead of the curve, transforming their main capabilities to remain relevant and deliver maximum value. How exactly. then, are HR functions, capabilities, and practices changing?

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  • HR Strategy: Previously centered around compliance, policy creation, and reactive problem-solving. Crafting an effective HR Strategy now revolves around proactive assessment and alignment with business goals, ensuring HR initiatives directly inform, support, and drive the company's strategic direction.
  • Workforce Planning: Before, focused on short-term staffing needs based primarily on current vacancies. The practice has evolved to ensure it incorporates long-term talent forecasting, considering future business expansions, market changes, and technological advancements.
  • Organizational Design: As organizational models have also changed significantly, designing organizations has moved from reflecting traditional hierarchical structures with rigid job roles and descriptions based on departments. These designs now showcase adaptive and flexible organizational constructs that promote agility, collaboration, cross-functional teams, and fluid role definitions. They also include more fluid, sometimes project-based roles that allow employees to work cross-functionally, adapt to changing business needs, and develop a diverse set of skills.
  • Recruiting / Talent Acquisition: Once primarily about filling vacancies focusing on experience-responsibility matching. The function has evolved to incorporate strategic talent sourcing and talent pool development, emphasizing skills and capability alignment, cultural fit, potential, and positioning to support future business needs.
  • Onboarding and Orientation: Previously limited to required paperwork, basic company policies, and facility tours. Today, onboarding and orientation play a critical role in providing incoming talent with a comprehensive introduction to company culture, values, and strategic vision, teammates, and critical cross-functional partners, ensuring faster integration and role clarity.
  • Learning and Development: Historically, the function provided generic training programs, often one-size-fits-all for a wide range of presumed skills requirements. Now, it emphasizes tailored learning pathways, and continuous development opportunities through reskilling and upskilling in alignment with business objectives, future skill requirements, and individual career aspirations.
  • Performance Management: Previously, annual reviews focused on past performance and subjective assessments. These practices have transformed into continuous feedback loops, forward-looking development discussions, multi-source evaluations, and objective metrics-driven evaluations. Yet, there are still aspects of performance management that continue to undergo experimentation and evaluation, such as talent rankings and calibrations in connection with compensation practices.
  • Compensation and Rewards: The function has moved from standardized pay scales and bonuses to customized reward systems, including non-monetary benefits, spot bonuses, recognition programs, and alignment with individual and business performance.
  • Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion (DEI): Used to have a limited focus, often restricted to legal compliance. While it is still maturing to expand into actual needle-moving practices with strategic emphasis on creating diverse and inclusive work environments and workforces, the function is progressing in helping organizations recognize the business value and innovation that diversity brings.
  • Leadership Development: Once about occasional workshops or external courses for top management, the area has gained relevancy by incorporating continuous, signature programs and tailored development paths emphasizing early identification and nurturing of potential leaders across all levels.
  • Coaching and Mentoring: If practiced, it was often informal and sporadic. Now, the benefits of these practices are recognized widely, creating structured programs that pair experienced professionals with high potential (HiPo) and newer employees to facilitate growth, knowledge sharing, and skill enhancement.
  • Career Development: Largely the individual's responsibility with limited company involvement, developing employees’ careers has evolved to be an active partnership between the organization and the individual, with clear pathways, opportunities, and support for career growth (lateral and vertical).
  • Succession Management: In the past, succession definitions were conducted ad-hoc or solely focused on C-suite roles, often resulting in leadership gaps. This process has become a highly strategic mechanism to systematically identify and prepare internal talent at all levels for both senior and critical roles, ensuring operational and organizational continuity in alignment with future business needs.
  • HR Metrics and Reporting: Before, this area provided basic data collection and reporting with process-centric metrics around hiring, attrition, and training. It has morphed into a cross-functional endeavor that produces advanced analytics and data-driven insights that inform strategic decisions for both HR and business leaders. These efforts generate more robust people-related insights outcome-focused metrics, and deeper workforce analyses, as well as track HR's contribution to business goals and forecast future trends.
  • HR Technology and Human Resources Information Systems (HRIS): It has evolved from basic systems for payroll, people, and attendance tracking to advanced HRIS platforms that integrate various HR functions, use AI and machine learning for insights, and enhance data-driven decision-making. These platforms improve efficiency, employee self-service, and reporting capabilities.
  • Change Management: Often reactive, it produced occasional communications during major shifts in the company. At present, organizational change management is a proactive function that generates clear communication strategies, training, stakeholder engagement, and support mechanisms to ensure smooth transitions, whether from technological, organizational, cultural, or strategic shifts.

There are newer areas and functions that have emerged where strategic HR organizations are focusing.

  • Employee Experience (EX): Historically, this was limited to employee satisfaction or engagement surveys. Nowadays, there is increased attention to a comprehensive focus on the entire employee lifecycle, from recruitment to exit, ensuring that all touchpoints enhance the overall employee experience. This includes focusing on well-being, work-life balance, and creating a positive workplace culture.
  • Employer Branding: While it was before limited to generic company branding or recruitment advertising, it has now become a strategic effort to position the company as an employer of choice, highlighting culture, values, and unique, tailored selling points to attract top talent and critical role segments.
  • Workplace Well-being and Mental Health: Previously, the focus has been primarily on physical health and wellness programs or events conducted occasionally. It has evolved into holistic well-being programs that encompass physical health, mental health, financial well-being, and more. A significant focus is placed on supporting employees' mental health, given the rising awareness of its importance.
  • Remote and Flexible Work: Pre-pandemic, it was limited to occasional work-from-home allowances or part-time or job-sharing arrangements. As the dynamics of the workforce rapidly changed during and post-pandemic, it forced companies to adopt more comprehensive programs and policies supporting remote work, flexible hours, and hybrid working models as organizations recognized the value and feasibility of such arrangements.

Evolving and emerging HR roles

The Human Resources function has undergone significant transformation over the years, shifting from transactional to critical in strategic business alignment and enablement. This metamorphosis is reflective not just in the broader understanding of the evolving HR model but also in the nuances of its primary roles. Each of these roles has developed a deeper connection to the core business strategy and adapted to meet the new challenges of the modern workplace. It is essential to understand not only how they have transformed but also what other roles have emerged, their shifting priorities, and the skills now required to excel in them.

  1. Chief Human Resources Officer (CHRO)/HR Leader/Director/Manager: Historically seen primarily as an administrative function, the CHRO's role has transformed into a strategic partner to the C-suite, emphasizing alignment between human capital and business goals. With this transformation, the priorities have shifted towards a strategic focus on fostering company culture, leadership development, and ensuring organizational alignment. Emerging skills for this role now include strategic thinking, data-driven decision-making, technology adoption, and a deep understanding of employee experience, well-being, and engagement metrics.

  2. Human Resources Business Partner (HRBP): The HRBP was once predominantly a support function but has evolved to serve as a bridge between HR and business units. Its main concern now is to align HR initiatives with business objectives, requiring them to be adept in understanding business operations. Critical skills for HRBPs today encompass business acumen, HR centers of excellence (COE) expertise, consultative skills, and proactive problem-solving.

  3. Talent Management Manager: Previously focused merely on recruitment and basic personnel management, this role has evolved to oversee the entire employee lifecycle. Priorities now include succession planning, leadership development, employee engagement, and figuring out the implications of the "Future of Work". Essential skills encompass strategic planning, an understanding of modern assessment tools, a firm grasp of employee development techniques, and talent capabilities augmentation through AI and other rapidly evolving technologies.

  4. Learning and Development Specialist: While traditionally centered on classroom training, the emphasis now is on continuous learning, personal development, and digital learning platforms. Their role has become vital in reskilling and upskilling employees in the face of rapid technological changes and business model transformations. They now require expertise in e-learning platforms, embedded development options, an understanding of adult learning principles, and a knack for innovation in educational techniques.

  5. Talent Acquisition Manager/Recruitment Specialist: From posting jobs and screening resumes, with a focus on hiring volume, this role now focuses on employer branding, creating a positive candidate experience, quality of hire, and leveraging technology for sourcing and assessment. Mastery of digital recruitment tools, data analytics for talent sourcing, and understanding of employer branding are emerging as crucial skills.

  6. Compensation and Benefits Specialist: Beyond just crafting compensation packages, the emphasis now is on creating competitive, flexible, and holistic packages that cater to diverse workforce needs. Analytical skills, a deep understanding of generational differences and job market trends, and the ability to design diverse, inclusive, and segment-tailored packages are now paramount.

  7. HR Generalist: While they once handled basic HR functions, the role now demands a deeper understanding of various HR disciplines. Their evolving focus includes employee relations, benefits administration, and HR technology. Strong interpersonal skills, familiarity with HR software, and a comprehensive understanding of HR laws and regulations are essential.

  8. HR Coordinator: Initially tasked with administrative chores, the priority now is to ensure smooth HR operations, including onboarding and offboarding processes. Efficiency in HR systems, project management skills, and an understanding of HR best practices have become necessary.

  9. HR Technology/HRIS Specialist: As businesses increasingly rely on technology, this role has transitioned from managing HR databases to implementing and integrating sophisticated HR tech solutions. Mastery of HR and broader business software, understanding of data security, and technical troubleshooting abilities are required, as is an understanding of the evolving role of generative AI and its diversified applications in the workforce are now emerging as needed skills.

  10. Employee Experience Manager: Beyond traditional engagement measures, this role emphasizes creating a holistic, positive employee journey throughout the employment lifecycle. Their focus is on designing meaningful touchpoints, from attraction to exit. Design thinking, feedback analysis, and understanding employee needs are fundamental skills.

  11. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) Manager: Earlier an afterthought limited to meeting government regulations, DEI has become central to business strategy. The role now champions creating diverse and inclusive workspaces and ensuring equity. Cultural competence, bias training, and strategy development are critical skills.

  12. HR Analytics and Data Specialist: Historically a background function, it's now front and center in shaping HR strategies using data-driven insights. They are now part of cross-functional teams where not only proficiency in data analytics tools, statistical analysis, and the ability to translate data into actionable strategies but also business acumen is vital.

  13. Organizational Development Specialist: Instead of addressing structural issues and limited team-building activities, the role now delves into improving organizational health and performance. Their focus includes change management, team and organizational dynamics, and leadership development. Critical skills involve systems thinking, organizational psychology, and strategic planning.

  14. Change Management Specialist: As businesses undergo rapid transformations, this role ensures smooth transitions, prioritizing people. Their scope now includes cultural shifts, digital transformations, and mergers. They need strong communication and project management skills, integrative thinking, an understanding of behavioral psychology, and strategic planning abilities.

  15. Wellness and Health Promotion Coordinator: From basic health programs, the emphasis now is on comprehensive well-being, addressing mental, physical, and emotional health. Their role is crucial in fostering a culture of well-being, requiring an understanding of the science-driven principles behind the different health categories, skills in program design, holistic health practices, and empathy.

Every transformation is a workforce transformation

Every business transformation fundamentally alters the way its workforce operates. As we navigate through rapidly changing business landscapes, several business transformation trends that organizations are grappling with stand out, necessitating the increased involvement of strategic HR teams as drivers of change. 

Digital Transformation: As technology evolves at a breakneck pace, businesses are increasingly pivoting towards digital platforms and tools. Whether it's adopting AI and machine learning, cloud computing, or the Internet of Things (IoT), the integration of these technologies is revolutionizing operations, customer interactions, and product offerings. With these transformations, there's a pressing need for skill development and reskilling. HR must identify these skill gaps and develop training and development programs to ensure the workforce can leverage the new technologies effectively.

Sustainability and Social Responsibility: Companies are under increasing pressure from consumers, investors, and regulators to adopt sustainable practices. This trend towards eco-friendliness isn't just about 'going green' but involves a holistic approach to sustainable business, encompassing everything from ethical sourcing to carbon footprint reduction. For sustainability, resilience, and customer-centricity to be embedded in a company's DNA, HR must drive cultural change. This involves not just training but also redefining company values and ensuring they're reflected in every aspect of the business.

Remote and Flexible Work: The pandemic accelerated the adoption of remote work, and this trend will likely stay relevant in the foreseeable future. Companies are re-evaluating their work models, with many adopting a hybrid approach that combines remote and in-office work. HR will be at the forefront of defining and implementing new work models. This includes everything from setting up remote work policies to reimagining office spaces for hybrid models.

Resilience and Agility: Recent global events have highlighted the need for businesses to be resilient. Organizations are seeking to build operations that can adapt to shocks, whether they're economic, environmental, or public-health related. With these challenges, employee well-being becomes paramount. HR will need to establish programs that address both the physical and mental well-being of employees, as well as establish organizational models that increase engagement and agility to become sustainable.

Customer-centric Models: As consumer behavior shifts, businesses seek to become more customer-centric. This includes a more substantial online presence, personalized marketing, and tailoring products and services based on data analytics. The trends will also impact the kind of talent companies seek. HR must revise talent acquisition strategies to proactively find individuals who align with new business models and can drive transformation.

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Enabling Practices & Resources

Advanced HR Strategy Practices to Plan for Delivery of Impactful HR Services and Support.

Advanced HR Strategy is a refined approach to planning long-term HR priorities. It involves increased specificity of plans and goals around key employee groupings and uses detailed workforce data and projections to clarify the needs and trends impacting those groups.

Evaluating and Selecting an HR Service Delivery Model that Optimizes Short and Longer-term Impact.

Before determining how to structure an HR team, a set of considerations should be reviewed regarding the "operating or service delivery model" to be implemented.

HR Coaching and Consulting Relationship with the Business.

HR organizations have successfully transitioned from a predominantly administrative role to an essential advisory one for the business.

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