Getting the Green Light: How to Get Your HR Project Funded

“Our people are our most important asset.” “The knowledge, skills and commitment of our people is our key differentiator.” We often hear these clichés, but for many organizations, they are truer than ever.

Pick up any company’s annual report, or skim any organization’s website, and you’ll find significant reference to the importance of people, culture and employee experience. At the same time, new digital paradigms are changing business models and transforming the way we attract, retain and engage talent.

Yet many HR initiatives that will help address these challenges do not get funded or get cut when budgets are tight. The result is a perilous situation: CEOs and CFOs increasingly expect HR to deliver business results and support rapid organizational change, yet HR departments have been suffering for years from a lack of investment in the tools and capabilities they need.

So how can we increase the chance of securing approval for an HR transformation project?

The answers lie in the way a case for change is constructed and communicated. When working with organizations to build the case for HR transformation there are three common pitfalls I see:

  • Framing the case for change too narrowly (i.e., being too HR-centric) versus framing around the broader priorities, challenges and drivers of the business.
  • Over reliance on emotion and HR jargon when presenting benefits vs demonstrating a rigorous quantitative fact base couched in language that resonates across all functions.
  • Failing to secure buy-in from key stakeholders who will make the funding decision or significantly influence it.

I recommend an approach that looks beyond the borders of HR to tell a robust story that wins the hearts and minds of key stakeholders. It involves going beyond the traditional business case to what I call a value case. Here are the six key steps in that approach.

1. Take Ownership

Most IT departments are used to owning and running projects, and often become the stewards of business transformation initiatives. While it’s important for IT to be on board and intimately involved, it’s critical that HR takes the reins. Projects without HR ownership risk being seen as technology upgrades vs strategic transformations.

2. Get the Big Picture

A value case is clearly connected to the broader organization’s strategy, objectives and commitments to external stakeholders. Focusing only on the benefits for HR is unlikely to win over a cross-functional approval board.

For example, the CEO may have a three-year plan that includes growth targets and productivity aspirations. What are the roadblocks that HR can influence to drive this change? An output of this step could be high level statements such as, “Too many manual processes diverting front line away from customer-focused activities.”  A more comprehensive analysis will highlight quantifiable metrics and benchmarks. At SAP SuccessFactors we have comprehensive HR benchmark databases to help customers compare to peers and quantify potential improvements and benefits.

3. Secure Buy In

Identifying key stakeholders and understanding their expectations of HR will help deepen the understanding of business strategy and roadblocks, and garner support well in advance of any funding request.

Stakeholders in the organization may include the CEO, CFO, CIO, and any other groups or individuals that have direct or indirect influence on the approval for the HR project. Typically, they are part of a steering committee or board that provides project funding.

Key questions to ask of these stakeholders include:

  • What is their current perspective of HR, including strengths and opportunities?
  • In a perfect world, what role would HR play in the organization and in addressing objectives in their business area?
  • What other projects require funding and how might an HR transformation be complementary to those initiatives?
  • What might get in the way of approving an HR transformation project?

Ultimately the case for change must cover the “What’s in it for me?” factor. For the CEO it could be about organizational agility and the capacity to rapidly acquire and integrate new businesses. For the CFO it may be cost reductions and productivity improvements. For the CIO it could be reducing the cost of technology and eliminating numerous ageing and disconnected systems in favor of a single, innovative HR cloud platform.

Continue to provide updates and obtain input from additional stakeholders as the case for change progresses. Validating assumptions and data will help keep key stakeholders on board and reduce the likelihood of disruptive questions or concerns later on.

4. Document the Value Case

A value case is not the same as a business case. It demonstrates how the HR project will contribute to organizational objectives, satisfy the needs of key stakeholders and meet financial objectives.

Our philosophy at SAP SuccessFactors is to always highlight these four benefit areas when demonstrating a case for change:

  • Strategy enablement: How will this project enable the organization’s strategic goals and commitments to stakeholders and/or the market?
  • Innovation: How will this project encourage an innovative culture, foster agility and enable working smarter? For example, a common benefit our clients like to articulate is the ability to enhance real time decision making by leaders across functions. Alternatively, this could focus on engagement and the employee experience.
  • Risk and compliance: How will this project mitigate risk? This is a hot topic for senior executives and boards. Benefits could include reduced workplace safety risks through better tracking and auditing of training efforts, or cover broader workforce risk reduction like identifying skills gaps by location or predicting the loss of high potentials. For some organizations, it’s simply a matter of knowing how many permanent and contract staff are employed, by whom, and where.
  • Measurable benefit: What are the quantifiable, financial benefits that meet return on investment hurdles? When building a financial benefits model I recommend partnering with Finance. Every organization has their own approval processes – getting buy-in and assistance from Finance early on will help to understand these requirements, build a stronger case with appropriate metrics (e.g. IRR, NPV) and reduce the likelihood of being knocked back for weak financial evidence. I also suggest involving IT to understand the current cost of any existing systems that will be replaced.

One further point on building your financial business case – the latest HR solutions also have harder to quantify benefits like reducing employee frustration and turnover, or access to higher quality learning content. While these may not always result in direct “bankable” benefits and may be considered invalid by Finance, they should be included in your value case as important enhancers of productivity, efficiency and workforce engagement.

5. Sell the Vision

Bringing together all the elements – current challenges, a vision for the future, how the HR project will help achieve strategic objectives for key stakeholders and the financial costs and benefits – into one cohesive narrative is not easy. The pitch must be short, simple and precise, yet backed by comprehensive analysis that can be called upon to answer questions or back up key statements.

Story telling is an art. However, every story at its core follows a familiar arc: introduction, challenge, possibility, breakthrough and resolution. Using this framework can help when presenting a case for change. Consider incorporating examples and physical demonstrations (for example, bringing in boxes to represent the amount of paper currently being wasted) to bring the story to life.

The story must avoid HR jargon. Use business language that transcends organizational functions. For example, rather than “Implement a new LMS to improve learning and skill development,” use “Enhance workforce capabilities and increase customer-centricity while reducing costs via a digital learning platform.”

Socialize your value case with key stakeholders before any major decision point. Ask them for suggestions to strengthen the case and pitch, and about their concerns or project risks. Following these steps and anticipating challenging questions will minimize surprises at decision time.

6. Close the Loop

Once the HR project is approved it’s important not to lose sight of the original catalyst. What was the question we set out to answer? And how are we progressing down that path?

As part of project setup and governance, establishing a way to track the metrics identified in the business case will not only help prove the investment was worthwhile, it will increase value and credibility for HR, and garner support for future investments.

It’s widely accepted that HR is rapidly evolving and adopting a more central and strategic role in the organizational landscape. And according to some market observers, the HR function will be the first to fully migrate to modern, cloud-based tools to help fulfill its new role. Organizations that don’t evolve and adopt this new philosophy risk stagnation. Experience shows that if an HR project incorporate the steps outlined here, the chances of success when seeking approval are greatly increased, and the likelihood of being left behind are significantly reduced.

The best run companies have two things in common – good leadership and talent that is connected to their company’s purpose to drive phenomenal results. Shatter old mindsets to turn HR into a data-driven powerhouse for the future of your workforce.

Read the SAP executive study, “4 Ways Leaders Set Themselves Apart,” created in collaboration with Oxford Economics.

Russell Porter is an HR strategy and value advisor for SAP SuccessFactors