The changing role of HR in mining

Abstract Image of metal pipes

In 1997, when Swann Global was a mere four years old, Professor Dave Ulrich of the University of Michigan published Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results.

Ulrich suggested a repositioning of the human resources function, where HR professionals were relieved of the burden of personnel administration and freed to add more value by taking on four core roles:

For those in HR, it was an exciting proposal for how the profession could break free from the shackles of old-fashioned perceptions and take a strategic role in the organisation.

Leadership teams recognised the potential value of this realignment, though some line managers were resentful that the ‘administrivia’ of people management was devolved to them.

I believe Ulrich’s core recommendations continue to provide a useful guide for HR functions that want to be taken seriously by their colleagues. But much has changed in the subsequent decades, and the expectations and responsibilities of HR have evolved.

Millennials and their Gen Z successors now dominate the workforce, and many come with very different expectations from their predecessors. Technology has advanced at an unparalleled rate and is being used on an unprecedented scale in all parts of business and our day-to-day lives. New forms of employment have emerged, and we are witnessing greater globalisation of the workforce.

It truly is an exciting time in Human Resources, and I confidently predict the pace of change will only accelerate, creating opportunities for those who are able to keep up.

In this article, I’ll summarise the areas where I anticipate the most significant changes can be expected.

1 The changing nature of HR Roles

The composition of businesses and workforces will continue to change, and the expectations of employees will increase as they compare their experiences in the workplace with those as a customer served by the like of Apple, Google and Amazon.

HR will be required to take on new roles to meet these expectations. This is at least as critical in mining, where the workforce is ageing, and a skills shortage looms, as it is in any other industry.

1.1 Coaches and consultants

HR professionals will need to become ‘Talent Brokers’ who are focused on coaching individuals throughout their careers, advising on development opportunities and pathways to specific roles. This may involve secondments or even periods in other industries or organisations.

I also anticipate a growing need for HR professionals to monitor the mental health of executive management and all employees. One of the most positive developments in recent years has been the increased openness about mental health issues. Now, there is no excuse for ignoring it.  

1.2 Experience designers

HR will need to create employee experiences that attract and retain employees, building brand loyalty that mirrors their experience as consumers. This means creating environments, designing roles and nurturing communities that result in a workplace which people enjoy being part of.

1.3 Contributors to business success

Building on Ulrich’s proposed Strategic Partner role, I believe HR needs to play an even greater role in setting the vision and mission for organisations as employee attraction and engagement are increasingly recognised as critical to financial success.

This means HR professionals need to develop a deeper and broader knowledge of their organisations and the industry so they can work with the C-suite with insight and credibility and align HR initiatives with organisational goals.

2 The rise of technology and analytics 

HR has felt the impact of technology for many years. It has been instrumental in streamlining and automating many processes, while the analytical data provided has been embraced as an effective way of predicting or assessing employee retention, recruitment strategies and other practices.

2.1 Online experience designers

HR professionals will need to ensure the expectations of employees who are digital citizens are met. This means, as a minimum, that information needs to be easily accessible by desktop, tablet or smartphone, 24/7. 

The interfaces employees use to interact with the business will also need to reflect their day-to-day digital lives. The experience of applying for a role or recording leave on an HR Information System, for example, needs to be as intuitive as posting a social media update.

2.2 Automation experts

AI and robots are in their early stages and yet are still fundamentally changing the world of work. Whole professions are disappearing in the face of automation.

Like all change, this presents both challenge and opportunity. Routine tasks with predictable patterns will be the first activities to be automated. HR’s role, in my opinion, is to anticipate which will have the most impact, prepare the organisation for change and where possible reskill the individuals impacted.

There is a significant opportunity to automate many routine HR tasks, freeing up HR professionals’ time for more value-added or interpersonal work.

2.3 Data analysts

There will be great opportunities for people working in HR who can analyse and interpret the vast quantities of data that new technologies can generate. The C-suite will be looking to individuals who not only present the data but also turn it into information that informs strategic decision making.

This may not sit comfortably with many currently working in the profession, but if there is one skill I would encourage all HR professionals to develop, it would be this.  

3 Preparing for a new workforce and new ways of working

More than most industries, mining is facing the twin challenges of a rapidly ageing workforce with insufficient talent entering the industry to replace it. HR plays a central role here in attracting and retaining new generations into the industry and ensuring they bring in people with the right skills to meet the future demands of the sector.

3.1 PR agents

In reality, it is incumbent upon us all in the industry to change the perception of mining through communication, education and best practice operations. These activities need to encompass a broad range of stakeholders, including communities, governments, regulators and of course, potential employees.

If mining is to attract young talent, HR and the leadership as a whole should work with educators and policymakers to position the industry as a positive contributor to society and a viable alternative to technology careers that may be seen as ‘cleaner’.

This is a broad topic and one we have explored in more detail here: Is mining education failing the industry?

3.2 Proposition developers  

The development of employee value propositions is nothing new to most senior HR professionals, but I predict greater adaptability will be needed in future.

The concept of one-to-one segmentation has been discussed in marketing for decades. Might we see the emergence of benefits packages and EVPs that are customised to the needs of individuals? At the least, I can foresee a need for different propositions for permanent workers, gig workers and contractors.

3.3 Global coordinators 

Increased globalisation will inevitably lead to a more diverse workforce, and HR will need to find ways to facilitate employees from different backgrounds working together effectively all over the world.

This is as much of a technological challenge as it is a cultural one. HR should champion the opportunities afforded by technology for remote working and virtual communications to improve the connectivity and flexibility of individuals, teams and the organisation as a whole.

Preparing for future transformation 

Change will not stop, and the skills required to cope with change will continue to evolve. HR plays a role in identifying future skills requirements and developing or attracting people with these skills into the workforce.

To do this well, HR should build closer links with the operational assets where innovation is driving the pace of change. From this insight, the function is better able to seek out the skills needed and to develop training plans and talent succession maps as organic documents.

Future roles

This article presents some ideas for how the responsibilities of the HR function will change over the next few years. In some cases, I expect the emergence of new job titles to deal with these responsibilities, such as:

  • HR Data Scientist or Analyst
  • Chief HR Technology Officer
  • Employee Experience Specialist
  • Head of Candidate Experience
  • Performance Coach
  • Organisational Psychologist

And probably many more we can’t even anticipate. As the old Danish proverb has it, “Prediction is hazardous, especially about the future”. 

But whatever the future brings, Swann and Cygnet will use our expertise and experience to help our customers prepare for it and thrive in it.

John Murray, Chairman of the Swann Group