Struggling to demonstrate the value of your HR programs. Lessons learned, and fundamental questions.

CSIOP Contributor and I-O Practitioner Tom Oliver notes the challenge of balancing best practice with demonstrating the value of programs and initiatives. He describes three fundamental questions that I-O psychology consultants need to ask in order to deliver and communicate programs that create value for organizations.

I’ve been well intentioned as an Industrial-Organizational (I-O) psychologist practitioner. I’ve run programs that have boosted employee engagement, developed leaders, identified high potentials, and enabled employees to better cope with stress and change. Yet, despite successes at the employee-level, I’ve often struggled to convincingly demonstrate that these programs have added value to the organization. Indeed, demonstrating the value of what we do is a fundamental challenge practitioners face, and one we should continue to work together on to answer.

Why have I struggled to show the value of my programs to the organization? For me, it’s been the lure of ‘best practice’. Many times I’ve come into an organization and been welcomed by a host of ‘immature’ talent practices. It’s too easy to ‘solution’ about what practices ‘should’ be in place for a given talent program, and deliver a long-list of ‘enhancements’ to the business.

Looking back, I need to more frequently ask three basic, but critical, questions in order to deliver programs that create value for organizations.

What is the organization’s strategy?

Just as strong research needs to be aligned with theory, strong practice needs to be aligned to the organization’s business strategy. Organizations with strong strategies will focus on just one or at most two priorities. These can include continuous improvement, innovation, quality, brand, customer focus, increasing scale, and transitioning to new markets. The strategic priorities determine which outcomes will be most valued by the organization.

What is a key challenge that makes it difficult to execute the strategy?

It is worth understanding what key performance indicators (KPI) the organization tracks, and how senior decision makers are interpreting these measures. Where you have influence, the goal is to support senior decision makers to reach more of a shared understanding of the challenge that most needs to be addressed. For example, if your organization’s strategy is to sustainably bring to market innovative products, then a key challenge could be the time it takes to bring new products to market is too long.

How do employees most enable the organization to overcome the key challenge to executing its strategy?

The key challenge allows for a more focused assessment of workforce reports and employee survey results. For example, you may find that your organization is experiencing high turnover on key project teams, whose survey data suggests they find senior decision makers too risk adverse. This information, framed within the context of the organizational strategy and key challenge, gives your HR team a clearer mandate. A clearer mandate creates a more defined picture of value, and points to the employee outcome metrics that need to be reliably captured and reported to measure the success of the program.

It’s not that I haven’t asked these three questions in the past. It’s that at times I haven’t been able to get answers to the first or second question, so I’ve moved prematurely to the third question. Or, at times I haven’t continually asked and revisited these questions during planning, design, and delivery of talent programs. The ongoing conversation of people and strategy, across stakeholders, will ensure that there is a greater alignment with talent practice, key employee outcomes and organizational KPI, and ultimately the success of our organization at executing its strategy. It is the perpetual pursuit of a greater shared understanding of value.

I’m interested to hear from other practitioners. What have been your successes at demonstrating value when asking these questions? What additional fundamental questions should we be asking beyond these three questions I’ve highlighted? In short, how can we best demonstrate the value of what we do?

Dr. Tom Oliver is an independent consultant who supports HR leaders to deliver measurable value to their business. He has a PhD in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Guelph, with a deep expertise in assessment, measurement & analytics, and leadership development. Most recently he has worked with BlackBerry and Cenovus Energy Inc.

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