Buyer Beware: Showing off Business Savvy as an HR Consumer


I attended an HR conference last month where I heard some of the savviest business speak ever.  Speakers from all over the globe discussed “leveraging,” “ROI,” “streamlining,” “interfacing,” “synergy,” and “big data” more eloquently than ever imagined.  I’ll be honest though.  By the time I got to the fifth speaker, I was snoring because my head could not make anything palatable out of this jargon salad.  Everywhere I looked someone was tossing business-speak land mines as if they were trying to make my head explode. 

The worst part is hearing people use terms like “market-driven frictionless acquisition” or “resource-leveling initiatives for plug-and-play solutions.”  It was clear I had no idea what they meant but neither did they.  I prayed they were being paid by the syllable and that this was the only reason they uttered these nonsensical phrases like confetti being shot out of cannon.  It got so bad I resorted to headphones blaring my usual lullabies, Lose Yourself by Eminem and Nuthin’ But a G Thang by Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg (yes, he was only a pup back then and, yes, I like '90s rap for some inexplicable reason). 

While Dre, Eminem, and Snoop took me to another era I pondered why HR professionals frequent the business jargon bingo hall.  After much reflection, I came to one simple answer—HR wants to show off its business acumen but doesn’t always know how.  This is particularly true of young professionals trying to earn their way up the ladder. 

As I pondered further, it occurred to me that young professionals (and sometimes other HR professionals) focus on the wrong ways to demonstrate savvy.  I thought back to every CHRO I ever came across and their desire for someone “strategic” or a “systems thinker.”  This is what they seek in their direct reports but their direct reports want people who make good business decisions.  They don’t want someone who makes horrible business decisions. 

Simply put, business acumen in young professionals is best exhibited by the way they use their resources.  For HR, this is most often exhibited by smart consumerism.

Think back to your early days.  Remember when you were asked to select a vendor for a small project or a tiny intervention.  How did you select that vendor?  How did you pick someone to revamp your HRIS portal or deliver payroll services or train staff to avoid ethical problems? 

While all of these seem non-strategic or tactical in nature, the way a decision is reached says a lot about your business savvy.   For most, making a good consumer decision is a sign that you won’t end being justifying expenditures with phrases like “We went with them because they are the best” or “They were always very prompt and responsive” or “They had the shiniest business cards and spiffiest annual report.”  These justifications indicate a faulty decision-making process method where bad decisions could’ve been avoided had the following questions been posed:

  1. What is the core service offered by this vendor?  In many cases, vendors tend to be in growth or diversification mode.  This means that they’ll often bid projects where they lack core capabilities for execution.  They might spin what they’ve done in the past to support your project needs.  They might have exceptional marketing that says they can do it all.  Either way, you are taking a big risk with an unknown commodity.  Don’t believe everything you’re told or, in this case, sold.
  2. What is the real makeup of the vendor team?  Vendors have a responsibility to generate revenue too.  This means they want to limit costs while delivering results. The easiest way to do this is by using younger, sometimes-unproven talent to accomplish project objectives under the “watchful” eye of a senior partner.  This may be okay under your project parameters but you won’t know until you ask.  Always ask who will be doing the actual work.  It makes a big difference in quality.
  3. What do the vendor’s reviews look like?  We are all familiar with Angie’s List online where you can find vendor reviews for any kind of service.  We all go into Best Buy to hold that new Canon EOS camera, run home to Amazon to read the product reviews, and then buy from the highest-rated internet vendor with low, low prices.  We do that kind of homework for our own products and services.  The least we can do is apply this same level of effort when spending our organization’s resources.  Kick the tires on your proposed vendors and you’ll be amazed what you find.
  4. What are my “must-haves” and “nice-to-haves” and how does my vendor selection stack up against them?  A wise man once taught me that people select contractors, vendors, and the like based upon past performance first and the ability to deliver “nice-to-haves” second.  A good vendor will always deliver on your must-haves.  A great vendor will deliver on your must-haves and find several “nice-to-haves” to help you achieve your strategic goals even in tactical situations.  Always ask yourself if the proposed vendor is working on the “must-haves” plan only. 

If you ask yourself these four questions when making vendor selection you are more likely than not to make good decisions.  Better yet, you won’t have your supervisor darkening your door trying to drop you like you're hot. 

What questions do you ask yourself when making a business decision?  Where do you turn to for information about proposed vendors?  What do you do to flex your business acumen without buzzwords?



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