HR as Change Agent


L. Rajarajeswari
Asst. Professor
Department of Business Administration
Arul Anandar College
Karumathur-625514, Madurai District


The label "change agent" is often accompanied by misunderstanding, cynicism and stereotyping. Managers, employees and HR professionals alike have questioned the value of this role in their organization.

However, as organizations of all kinds face unrelenting changes in their environment, the need for individuals who are capable of turning strategy into reality has created a new legitimacy for the change agent role which is often located within the Human Resource function. There are several reasons for this trend:

  • Human resource professionals have made significant strides over the past decade in becoming business partners; demonstrating the value they can add to the business
  • Executives are looking for where the change process can best be managed
  • Most business strategies require major changes in people-related issues; Human Resource professionals develop and manage the key "people" systems needed to support organizational change

Dave Ulrich in Human Resource Champions (1997) goes even further advocating that creating a renewed organization is the deliverable expected from the "change agent" role in Human Resources. Virginia Murray an Executive Search consultant comments that almost all searches for the senior HR role now include "change leadership" in the job specifications.

But what, exactly is the "change agent" role? Is it to represent management with employees as change is implemented? Is it to introduce and champion new initiatives intended to improve organizational performance? Is it to monitor and influence climate and morale?

Broadly speaking the most important contributions to be made through the change agent role are those that sustain the organization's current performance and assure its future performance i.e.

  • Enabling people to work effectively as they plan, implement and experiencechange
  • Increasing people's ability to manage future change


Despite the multi-faceted and ever changing demands on HR professionals as change agents, there are definable competencies that can be understood and learned. The Hay/McBer group an international consulting firm specializing in the competency field have identified change management as increasingly important for organizations of the future.

Dave Ulrich has completed extensive research in this area as well. His research, validated by HR professionals and their line manager "clients", showed that successful change agents had the ability to:

  • Diagnose problems Understanding both the business drivers and the  organization well enough to identify performance issues and analyze their impact on short and long term business results
  • Build relationships with clients Forming partnerships with mutual  responsibility for the outcomes of the change effort. Because the risk is higher than with most other HR roles the level of trust required is much higher. Management consultant Ric Reichard uses a simple formula to describe the issues which are usually at play

                 Perceived competence + relationship
TRUST = ---------------------------------------

Often the client and the change agent over emphasize one or the other (competency or relationship) especially when the risk increases while the challenge is to balance both to achieve the necessary level of trust.

  • Ensure that the Vision is Articulated Interpreting the hopes and motivations of the workforce through the Vision statement.
  • Set a Leadership Agenda Defining the ongoing role for leaders, such as communications, role modeling, reinforcement of desired behaviours etc. This requires the HR executive to understand intimately the dynamics, history and  competencies of the leadership team and to have the tenacity to insist on the agenda's accomplishment.
  • Solve Problems Recommending solutions, a common expectation of HR professionals is not the same as solving problems. When it comes to the change agent role, the problems encountered are often loaded with emotional and political dynamics. The change agent must possess the insight to recognize the problem, the sensitivity to see its importance to those involved, the courage to take honest and often difficult measures to resolve it and the credibility to be heard.
  • Implement Plans to Achieve Change Goals - Successful organizational change on any significant scale can be attributed to the right strategy and appropriate change in organization culture. Culture change, in turn, relies heavily on aligned and supportive people policies, systems and processes. In short, the implementation plan is an HR plan for both the HR function and for management.


Complementing the competencies identified above, we would add the following as essential for effectiveness as a change agent:

  • superb communications ability in all directions
  • knowledge of the business; products/services and core work processes
  • keeping a business perspective both macro (mission/vision) and micro (what line managers cope with)
  • planning and project management skills
  • ability to tolerate ambiguity
  • managing resistance
  • risk taking
  • managing conflict

It is apparent that these are a blend of personal attributes and developed skill sets. A change agent working at the strategic level cannot be effective without them. Having a clearly articulated competency model for the change agent role is one thing; acquiring the knowledge and skills to function effectively in this role is another. Effectiveness in any role is a combination of competence and confidence Following are four elements that are essential in developing both:

Education and Training

Formal education and training that is comprehensive enough to really equip an HR professional for the change agent role is quite limited in this country. However, several Universities, such as University of Toronto and Queen's University are now offering change management programs within their Executive Development divisions. These range from 3 days to 15 days of professional development sometimes with a practicum component.

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Source: E-mail December 17, 2010


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