Leveraging Intuition and Information to Become a Strategic Business Partner

By: Barbara Hughes and Cathy Missildine-Martin, SPHR


Let's face it: HR is a people business. It's the reason most of us chose to enter the profession. Our contribution to our organizations largely has been through the selection and retention of the best people for the jobs at hand while simultaneously steering the business decision-makers through the choppy legal waters of human resource management. We have a sixth sense about people, an intuition about human performance; and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.

However, like every other front line or functional manager, HR professionals are being asked to be more "strategic". We must justify our value and contribution to our companies or risk being relegated to the "wish-we-could-do-without" column instead of the "can't- exist- without" column. According to a recent Fast Company article, HR as a function isn't yet a strategic business partner and there is some truth to that view. I suggest that strategy isn't just about access to financial capital but also accessing human capital; that a company's worth is more intrinsic in a service based economy so that brands, reputation, patents and, yes, people, make up the bulk of a company's true value.

'Value' is a current hot button for all organizations so the HR department should not be shocked that it is being asked to quantify the value of a company's most expensive and most potentially valuable asset. That means getting comfortable with information, business metrics and how people add value to the business results. If we can't get on board with this reality, companies will look elsewhere for answers to their questions. HR's value will lie in our ability to use intuition about people and our knowledge of the business to create a sustainable advantage for our companies. We've got the intuition, now where do we get the business knowledge?

First, let's define information and intuition. When you think of information you think of data, numbers, and the "cold hard facts". The typical jobs that come to mind are data analysts, accountants and engineers, not Human Resources professionals. People who typically enjoy applying logic and analysis to their work are considered left-brained.

Conversely when you think of intuition, what comes to mind is a "hunch", "that little voice" or an instinct. Intuition is by definition, the immediate knowing or learning of something without the conscious use of reasoning. Intuition is a right brain function and one that most Human Resource professionals are very good at using. So, does this mean that information and intuition are mutually exclusive? I think that they often are used independently when their power lies in using them together because this is when knowledge is created; when learning happens; and when meaning occurs.

Let's take the example of Susan, an Atlanta-based HR professional whose CEO describes her as a strategic partner in her company. How did she earn that title? She started by getting real about business. Susan began her career in sales and later moved to operations. These positions gave Susan the understanding of how a business is run. She understood how sales were made, and what the customers needs were. She understood how A/R, A/P, Procurement, and shipping played into the overall delivery model. In other words, Susan was business savvy.

Later, she was asked to spend time in the HR department. She enjoyed interacting with people and made the direct connection between HR performance and business performance. Susan was able to use the intuitive part of her skill set, pairing it with her more "analytical" side to become a strategic business partner once she decided to stay in HR. She really had the "big picture" view of her company. At meetings, Susan was informed about customers, the sales process, and how to make operations more efficient. She helped the other executives to understand how some business issues had their root causes in people and she was able to suggest how to measure people-oriented initiatives to drive business performance.

Not all of us, like Susan, came up through the organizational ranks so we have to be more creative about acquiring our analytical skills. I believe there are many opportunities for Human Resource professionals to build their business (information) skills and improve their people (intuition) skills at the same time.

  • Spend time deep inside the business by going to the front line and visiting customers or shadowing the customer service department.
  • Spend some time in the accounting and finance function working on budgets and forecasting. Understand what metrics are used now to measure performance.
  • Volunteer and work on cross functional projects within the organization.
Susan, my strategic HR example, volunteers on special projects whenever possible. Her latest was a special technology project and while she had very little technology experience, she did understand how employees react to change. Susan was able to give the team insights on what to expect when the technology change was implemented. At the same time, she had a ringside seat to gain information about what was keeping everyone up at night on this project and acquired valuable information about the business.

Susan uses both intuition and information continuously to become more strategic. By spending time inside the business she gains the information she needs (process, best practices, data, facts) and overlays her intuition for the people (change, performance, and motivation). This marriage of intuition and information gives her powerful knowledge that enables her to design HR programs which drive bottom line business results. This is her edge inside her company and it is why she has a seat at the decision-making table.

Harriett Rubin, Contributor, Fast Company magazine, sums up the intuition and information relationship well, "intuition can involve a combination of factors -- which suggests that creative acts sometimes depend not only on a person's learned skills and talents, but also on a still-mysterious ability to get information despite what common sense tells us about space and time."

HR professionals are embarking on an exciting time with the focus on people, talent, development, retention, engagement, and performance. Research has shown that leaders unconsciously use both their intuitive and their analytical strengths to make decisions and solve problems. HR professionals have a great opportunity to do the same. If HR is not leading the charge on new people-oriented business initiatives, then who will? We have the perfect opportunity to make a difference in organizations by leveraging our natural talent of intuition and our learned talent for turning information into knowledge.

2006 by Barbara Hughes and Cathy Missildine-Martin, SPHR