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HR’s Role in Strategy

Leading The Human Side of Change
By Richard McKnight, Ph.D.1

HR professionals have arrived at the strategy-creating table. This is good, but it is time for HR as a profession to
move past this objective. HR professionals have a unique set of perspectives and knowledge to bring to the strategy-
creation table, but even more important is what they could bring to the strategy-implementation table. HR
professionals, often defensive about their comparative worth, need not apologize for not being financial, engineering,
marketing, or sales geniuses; they can—and should be—strategy implementation geniuses. This article sets forth a
framework for the work of strategy implementation, argues that HR professionals can and should take the lead, and
offers guidance for their doing so.

The marketplace has always punished companies that dawdle in manifesting the promise of their
strategic intentions. But today, those beatings come faster than ever. The good news is that the
basic work of strategy implementation—at least the human side of strategy implementation—is
knowable, and once known, it becomes clear that HR professionals can—and should be—its natural

HR is pre-positioned to make exceptionally valuable contributions to the firm when it comes to

strategy implementation.

• HR has an organization-wide purview, i.e., unlike other corporate functions, HR is involved

in and generally understands the business in its entirety.
• Strategy implementation is inherently a human issue; HR by its very title has deep
responsibilities in this territory.
• The skill set required for strategy implementation and the inclination to use it is more
concentrated in HR than anywhere else in the organization.

1 Richard McKnight is Vice President, Consulting for Right Management Consultants. He can be reached at 215-887-
8775 or via email at

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The term “strategic HR” appears frequently in the HR literature. Articles and books that use this
term generally urge HR professionals to become more active in shaping strategy and more a partner
to line management in running the business. There is evidence to suggest that much movement has
been made in this direction, but there is also evidence that HR, as perceived by line management and
HR alike, is not moving fast enough or getting involved deeply enough in the organizational change
aspects of its role (Walker and Reif, 1999). Clearly, this has strategy implementation implications,
especially when strategy shifts. When strategies change, organizations have to change, and when
organizations have to change, people are making those changes.

For over 20-years, Right Management Consultants has supported HR professionals (as well as line
executives) in their quest to be “more relevant” to their organizations. Often, our HR clients have
sheepishly revealed a discomfort with respect to what strategy implementation consists of and how
organizational change takes place. In these circumstances, HR is vulnerable to fads that purport to
enhance the capability of the organization. Anyone who has knocked around the corporate world
for a long time (or even a short time!) has seen many HR-led programs launched with great fanfare
that have only the vaguest relationship to the strategy.

Lawler and Mohrman (2000) claim that “the HR function should be positioned and designed as a
strategic business partner that participates in both strategy formulation and implementation.” To
convey something of what the present article is about, we believe the word “participates” in this
statement should be changed to “leads.” In other words, in our view, the HR function should be
positioned as, yes, a partner, but a partner that participates in the strategy formulation process and
leads—or at least is a key leader in—the overall implementation process.

This article puts forth a model of strategy implementation that can help HR professionals move
assertively and confidently into an arena where their contribution is sorely needed and likely to be
valued. The model is based on a set of conclusions drawn from 30 years of organization
development experience. These conclusions are corroborated by the recent research of Beer and
Eisenstat (2000) who found that there are steps that every organization needs to take in delivering
on its strategy, no matter the size of the organization, the content of its strategy, or how sweeping its
aims. Our model outlines how HR professionals—and anyone else, for that matter—can lead the
strategy implementation effort. It also offers a roadmap for aligning all HR activities—training and
development, compensation and benefits, culture change efforts, competency programs, etc.—with
the strategic plan.

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HR professionals who wish to become better at helping their organizations implement strategy
should first ask themselves what gets in the way of execution in their organization now. In part,
strategy implementation is a process of overcoming barriers to change.

On this subject, it is important to keep in mind that every strategy will face some degree of
opposition even when everyone in the company agrees that change is completely necessary. In fact,
the more a new strategy differs from the old one, the more resistance there will be. HR can
contribute significantly by helping the organization anticipate and address this resistance.

There are ten predictable barriers laying in wait to foil almost every strategic plan. They are listed in
Table 1, “Barriers to Strategy Implementation.” The HR professional who wishes to be a strategy
implementation leader must know which ones are most operative in his/her organization. HR
professionals can initiate very useful conversations with line executives by asking these questions:

• “Which of these barriers are most likely to get in our way?”

• “What problems result when these barriers persist?”
• “What measurable business benefits would result from removing or diminishing these
• “Which do we absolutely have to address now?”
• “How might we in HR support you in addressing these barriers?”

Note that these barriers are grouped into five “Root Causes” of strategy implementation failure.

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1. The lack of alignment among top executives blocks the cross-system collaboration the
strategy requires.


2. Employees in the organization don’t understand the strategy.
3. Employees don’t feel personally responsible for fulfilling the strategy, perhaps because they
feel powerless to make a difference, perhaps because they’re cynical about management.
4. Employees don’t feel a sense of urgency to execute on the strategy.
5. Employees don’t feel inspired by the strategic goals.


6. Managers are not refocusing the efforts of their work units to conform to the new strategy.
7. Managers operate in a way that kills employee enthusiasm about the strategy.
8. In mission-critical areas, work proceeds as usual even though the strategy requires
significant, rapid change.


9. The new strategy calls for collaboration across operating and/or functional areas, but there
are no mechanisms in place to work through the competitiveness that exists between the


10. The means of measuring progress towards change goals are inadequate or missing
altogether. In other words, there is no way to know exactly what’s changing and what isn’t,
especially in the “softer” human areas.

This list is consistent with a six “silent killers” of strategy found most frequently in the study by Beer
and Eisenstat (2000) referenced earlier. Their term “silent killer,” borrowed from the language of
cardiology, is an apt one: just as undiagnosed high blood pressure can cause catastrophic heart
failure, these strategy impediments when unaddressed can annihilate strategy implementation
without anyone knowing what happened. In the organizations Beer and Eisenstat studied, these
were the “killers” most often discovered when strategy failure occurred:

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1. An ineffective management team (12 of 12 cases)
2. Poor vertical communication (10 of 12 cases)
3. Top-down or laissez-faire senior management style (9 of 12 cases)
4. Unclear strategy and conflicting priorities (9 of 12 cases)
5. Poor coordination across functions, businesses, or borders (9 of 12 cases)
6. Inadequate down-the-line leadership skills and development (8 of 12 cases)


With one possible exception (#4 on the Beer, Eisenstat list) these impediments are reflections of
difficulties or misalignments in the human system, not in technical or financial systems or flaws in
the strategy itself. This fact should be, at least in one sense, good news for HR professionals: where
there is trouble in the human system, there are opportunities—and the need—for HR to show its

Ultimately, successful strategy implementation requires getting three things right: the social system,
the technical system, and the business process system. (See pie chart below.) When making strategic
shifts in their organizations, most executive teams tend to do a better job of bringing business
processes into line with their new strategy and identifying the benefits of new technology, than
aligning the social system with the strategy. This is conspicuously evident in the widespread and
well-known failures of SAP and other technology installations,2 but this generalizes, too. David

The Right
The Right
29% System
The Right

Successful strategy implementation requires getting three things right

2 Nike recently sued a supply chain management software provider for business losses, claiming the vendor over-
promised the merits of the technology. The vendor claimed it was failure of people at Nike to provide needed
information. Added up, this sounds like a social system issue, not a technology issue.

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Norton (in Becker, et al., 2001), co-creator with Robert Kaplan of the Balanced Scorecard concept,
observes that while human capital is the foundation for creating value in the new economy, human
assets are the least understood by most business leaders and therefore the least effectively managed.
HR can help effect improvements in both technology and business processes by helping to break
down silos and enhance cross-company communication, top to bottom, side to side.

Notice the proportions in the pie chart, above. The “people issues” are huge, so big, in fact, that
they often overcome otherwise excellent efforts in the other domains. While these proportions are
not derived from scientific observations, our clients have repeatedly validated them. Frequently, we
hear it put this way: “You can get the best technology money can buy and you can identify the ideal
process ‘blueprint’ for your business, but it takes people to wring the value out of the software and
to align work with the vision. Without buy-in and cooperation, you’re sunk.”

The impediments to strategy implementation discussed above might be thought of as restraining

forces in a Force-Field analysis, a traditional organization development tool. Figure 1, “Jumping the
Strategy Gap,” below, depicts the strategy implementation process as one of jumping a gap of good
intentions. On the right in this graphic are depicted the forces that inhibit successful strategy
execution, on the left, those that support it. Note that, symbolically, strategy execution is depicted as
not only having to jump a gap, but also to jump up to a new, higher place. If the driving forces are
weaker or fewer than the restraining forces, strategy implementation fails. HR needs to help the
organization build up these forces.

Driving Forces of Strategy

Strategy Implementation
Restraining Forces of

Pit of Good

Fig. 1: Jumping the Strategy Gap

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If one transforms the valence (from negative to positive) of the in-common elements of the
common barriers list and Beer and Eisenstat’s “killers,” one comes up with a useful, actionable list
of “To Do’s.” But, to be sure, addressing each of these tasks and managing them effectively is a
daunting task. No wonder effective execution is so uncommon. The good news is that each of these
“forces” represents opportunities for HR professionals to make a contribution—or even lead the
effort—with respect to strategy implementation.

In our experience, there are four essential tasks that all organizations need to accomplish. These
make up the basic work of strategy implementation. We call them the “Four Jobs of Strategy
Implementation.” They are listed in Table 3, on page 8.

Note that the Four Jobs concept is a systems model of change. It identifies the work that leaders
need to do in three arenas of an organization: individuals, work units, and larger organizational units
(departments, divisions, business lines). This is in contrast to much of the “strategic HR” literature,
which quite often focuses on what HR can do to attract and retain individuals, motivate and train
individuals, and enhance the capabilities of individuals. Strategy implementation requires change in all
levels of the social system: individuals, work units, cross-functional relationships, and, yes, HR

The work of strategy implementation does not always follow a predictable, linear path as might be
implied by the model above, beginning with Job 1 and going forward in lock-step fashion through to
Job 4. Still, Jobs 1 & 2 are foundational; without widespread understanding of the strategy, no one
can tell how to apportion their energies or set priorities.

Timothy Galpin (1998), wrote, “What really makes the difference between successful and
unsuccessful strategy deployment is the way management motivates and educates its people to act
on a business strategy.” While motivation and education are important, they are hardly the whole
story. Still, Galpin’s statement speaks both to Job 1 and Job 2—and the two are related. When
groups of employees fully understand the contents and the logic behind a strategic objective, they
tend to feel a stirring inside to do something to achieve it—especially when they can see what’s in it
for them.

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Job 1: Job 2: Job 3: Job 4:

Ensure that employees Increase employee Align local effort Cause cross-system
understand the strategy commitment to the with the strategy realignment
Employees need to Because strategic shifts Although they are essential Job 4 is where the
understand not only the cause dislocations, and laudable implementation magic
strategic direction, but also employees have to feel accomplishments, it is not really starts to happen. Job
the drivers of the strategy, impelled to go the extra quite time for high-fives 4 involves making systemic
the rationale behind the mile to fulfill the strategy, when the entire employee changes needed to fulfill
strategy, and the metrics turning it into reality. population understands the the strategy. In most cases,
associated with it. If Employees have to believe strategy and feels good this means forging
employees don’t that, overall, the net result, about it (Jobs 1 & 2). A improved relationships
understand the game, they despite the pain, will have strategy calls for change in across key organizational
don’t play it very well. A been worth the effort and actual work production. Job units, e.g., sales and
rule of thumb: every sacrifice they will have to 3, then, calls for all off- manufacturing, or customer
employee should make in implementing it. strategy work to cease and service and distribution. It
understand the strategy as on-strategy work either can also mean changing the
well as a well-informed begin or be continued. compensation structure.
shareholder, probably This is the most challenging
more. work because it requires the
“silos” to engage in give
and take, a practice most
functions in most
organizations know nothing
Employees Work units aligned
informed with strategy

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For example, if employees learn about the fact that their company is losing 5,000 customers a
month, they will probably be motivated to take action to stem the tide. It is important in working
with executives to make sure that Job 2—the affective dimension—is not overlooked in favor of the
primarily cognitive concerns of Job 1. No amount of snazzy PowerPoint presentations will motivate
the typical employee to make the sacrifices that a break-phase strategy will require.

Peter Drucker once observed that all the talk about strategy has to, at some point, “devolve into
action.” This is the work of Job 3. If the work done at the local level doesn’t change, the strategy
won’t be fully implemented no matter what people understand and feel. Usually strategy
implementation requires changing not only what local work units do, but also how they go about it.
It’s hard to know how, for example, if reducing waste in a production area is the goal, how this can
be accomplished if the supervisors keep treating the line workers like brainless automatons. The
supervisors have to draw workers into the solutions creating process, an aspect of Job 3.

Unless we’re speaking of a strategy that is confined to a department, a function, or a single work
group, fulfilling it will doubtless require change in the way one or more organizational units work
together and what they accomplish. This is the essence of Job 4. When people speak of “breaking
down the silos,” this is what they’re referring to. New strategies almost always require change in
cross-system functioning, but it is utterly amazing how little is often done in organizations to make
these shifts, by HR or anyone else. In fairness, this is partly because it’s hard work.

Easier to Accomplish Harder to Accomplish

Job 1: Job 2: Job 3: Job 4: Job 5:

Ensure that Increase Align local effort Cause cross- Measure
employees employee with the strategy system progress/
understand the commitment to realignment redirect effort
strategy the strategy

HR Could Do on Its Own HR Must Partner With Line to


Fig 2: Relationship of the Four Jobs of Strategy Implementation to HR

As one moves through the Jobs of strategy implementation, the work gets more and more difficult
(as in Figure 2, above), reaching a crescendo of difficulty with Job 4. To illustrate the point, imagine
the challenges involved if the new strategy calls for making the shop floor people in manufacturing

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part of the sales team like some companies are exploring. What makes it more difficult? There are
several reasons:

• Theoretically, while HR could accomplish Jobs 1 & 2 without in any appreciable way
partnering with the line—and it practice, frequently tries to—it is inconceivable that it could
accomplish Job 3 or 4 without full partnership with the line organization. To influence how
work is done and what work is attempted, HR has to be let in the door. In other words, it
will have to have a willing client who wants the help.

• It is one thing get people to learn something; another to cause them to feel motivated to do
something with what they learned (Jobs 1 & 2). The organization is better off when both
occur. And traditionally, this has been an area in which HR has shined. But just because HR
can cause such shifts among employees entirely within its own sphere of influence, i.e., in
training rooms and new employee orientation sessions, does not mean it should do so
independently of line manager involvement which often happens.

• Another comment about Jobs 1 & 2: it is always a good thing when employees understand
the strategy (Job 1), but it is far more important that they apply what they’ve learned, i.e.,
Jobs 3 & 4. This is where traditional training often breaks down.

• Job 3 speaks not only to individual application but also to entire work units changing their
focus, their work habits and processes, or all three. Further, since most strategies require not
just one but many work units to make such shifts, Job 3 is a pretty daunting task. To
accomplish it well, HR must work intimately with line managers often in circumstances that
HR is not always familiar with, i.e., shop floors, selling environments, laboratories,
warehouses, and so forth.


If doing Jobs 1-4 is the work of strategy implementation, whose work is it? HR’s? The line’s? Both?
HR will prove its worth as it helps the organization address each of these jobs, not to do them all.
HR can and should do what it can where it can on its own initiative, but should forge the kind of
partnership with the line required to do the rest of this work. In other words, HR has to drive or
lead this effort.

Conversely, just because HR can do much of what is required by Jobs 1 & 2 doesn’t mean that the
line can or should be “off the hook.” The truth is, employees want to hear from, learn from, and be

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inspired by line leaders far more than they want to hear and learn from HR. HR can create the
forums which bring employees together with managers and executives, and be leading while never in
the spotlight.

The senior management group most likely to succeed in implementing strategy will, at minimum:

1. Have a common understanding of the strategic objectives. (This is far less common than one
would think by reading the Annual Report!)
2. Agree that the strategic objectives are worth achieving and be willing to make sacrifices to
accomplish them.
3. Share a common view about what parts of the organization have to change, why, and how,
in order to implement the strategy.
4. Commit to a systematic plan of employee engagement, management support, and cross-
system dialogue that will foster efficient strategy execution, i.e., the Four Jobs.

Where any of these ingredients are missing, the senior HR professional can and should press the
group to address the issues involved and suggest mechanisms (offsite planning sessions, external
consulting support, coaching, one-on-one’s with the CEO, etc.) that will bring the group into greater
alignment. Once the group is in alignment (numbers 1-3, above), HR can make a very valuable
contribution by proposing a comprehensive set of initiatives to accomplish the Four Jobs. (For a
best practice illustration of how an HR team did this, see McKnight, et al, (2001) and Barbian


Taking all this into account, below is a set of suggestions for HR professionals who want to get
started tomorrow in working more effectively with the line in manifesting its intentions into reality.

1. Focus on business problems, not HR activities.

Starting today, in every one of your conversations with line executives, ask what is keeping them
up at night. Chances are they will not complain of a lack of competency models or that the
company lacks a list of corporate values. Instead, they will speak of things like retooling time,
customer response time, bottlenecks, production costs, efficiency, waste, regulatory incidents
and observations, sales slumps, inadequacy of forecasting processes, etc. They will also not speak
of cost of new hires, number of training courses conducted.

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Which strategic priorities is it especially useful for HR professionals to get involved in? Should
they be limited to “HR-type” priorities? What are “HR-type” priorities? Teamwork across
organizational lines? Developing a customer mindset? New skills and competencies? Cross-
selling? Does it matter? What matters is that HR is helping the business get results. These are all
legitimate points of involvement if they align with the strategy. But then, so are “non-HR-type”
business objectives such as reducing cycle time, lowering waste, and forging new financial
arrangements with strategic partners.

2. Measure HR—in terms of business results.

The argument we’re making here is akin to that made by Kevin Herring (2001) urges HR to be
more “market-driven.” In Herring’s view, HR will earn the respect it deserves only if it makes
the contribution line executives truly appreciate, bending its efforts to help deliver the most
needed organizational results.

3. Forge a tight, partner-like relationship with the top line executives.

A partnership is one in which both parties are working toward the same goal. Each has “skin in
the game.” Become exceptionally open to feedback as to how you are aiding or not aiding the
line in accomplishing its goals and how the relationship is working/not working. Such a stance is
in stark contrast to the disconcertingly frequent HR habit of telling line functions what problems
they have, what they have to do to solve them, and how they must do so.

4. Be a tenacious coalition-builder.

Of the Four Jobs, Job 4 (cross-system collaboration) is the most important because it drives
more business results. Next to the CEO, HR is better positioned than anyone to forge the
coalitions the strategy requires. “I try to find ways to lock them in a room and force them to
work things out,” one HR friend of ours said. “And usually it works. But I also look at the comp
structure, too, because often this creates senseless tensions between parties that absolutely must
collaborate with one another.”

5. Become more sophisticated with respect to organizational change.

If this article, with its emphasis on organizational change reminds you of the fact that you never
really comprehended all that “OD” stuff in graduate school, do yourself a favor: sign up for a
course on the subject. You won’t regret it. (Some SHRM chapters are now offering courses for
their members called “OD 101.”)

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6. Use outside partners to support your effort.

Perhaps self-servingly, consider hiring and using outside partners to help you put together and
pursue your approach to helping the organization align itself with its strategy. It does not display
inadequacy to do so. In fact, objectivity and creativity may require it. Reflecting the myopia that
can result by being a deeply imbedded part of an organization for a long time, Edwards
Demming, the famed Quality guru said, “A system cannot transform itself.”


The primary intent of this article has been to articulate the need for HR to become much more
effectual in the realm of strategy implementation and have offered a perspective (The Four Jobs) to
guide the relevant activities. We hope we have conveyed our conviction that HR professionals can
be exceedingly valuable to organizations, especially as they draw on sound principles of
organizational change and get away from HR programs for the sake of programs.

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Barbian, J. (2002) “Ensuring Hearts and Minds.” Training. Volume 39: No. 2.

Becker, B., Huselid, M. and Ulrich, D. 2001. The HR Scorecard: Linking People, Strategy, and Performance.
Harvard Business School Press.

Beer, M. and Eisenstat, R. A. 2000. “The Silent Killers of Strategy Implementation and Learning.”
Sloan Management Review. 41:4, p. 29ff.

Galpin, Timothy (1998). “When Leaders Really Walk the Talk: Making Strategy Work Through
People.” Human Resource Planning. Volume 21: No. 3.

Herring, Kevin (2001). “The Market-Valued Model: a New Paradigm for HR.” Workforce Magazine.
Volume 80: No. 10

Lawler and Mohrman (2000) “HR As a Strategic Partner: What Does It Take to Make It Happen?”
Human Resource Planning. Volume 21: No. 3.

Kaplan and Norton. (1992). “The Balanced Scorecard—Measures That Drive Performance,”
Harvard Business Review, 70, No. 1 (January-February.)

Kotter, J. (1996). Leading Change. Harvard Business School Press.

McKnight, Richard. (Fall, 2001) “The Four Jobs of Strategy Implementation.” OD Practitioner.
Volume 33; No. 3

McKnight, Richard, Doele, Jody, and Christine, Kim. (Fall, 2001) Human Resource Management Journal.

McKnight, R., and Zaklad, A. (2002) “ HR Scorecard: Linking People, Strategy and Performance”
(Book Review). Human Resource Planning, Volume 24: No. 4.

Walker and Reif, (1999). “Human Resource Leaders: Capability Strengths and Gaps.” Human Resource
Planning. Volume 22: No. 4.

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