Chief Chat: HR is not a back-office function, says Megan Smith

The SAP veteran shares how her HR department has evolved for the times.
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· 5 min read

At SAP, Megan Smith has worked in learning and development, been an HRBP, integrated divisions that joined the corporate umbrella via acquisition, and was the head of HR for SAP Canada before taking over in her current role as the head of HR at SAP North Americas. Through that time, she’s learned how people can be a company’s “secret sauce.”

In a conversation with HR Brew, Smith shared how she’s added specialized expertise to her team, while also encouraging HRBPs and others to build their technical skills in order to better support their goals.

As a longtime HR leader, how have you seen the field evolve in recent years?

Over the last decade in particular, there’s been a really strong realization that HR is not a back-office function. It is a role that works directly as part of the effectiveness of the business strategy. [It] comes with the recognition that people are the greatest strength of any organization—essentially the secret sauce, the intellectual property, the talent that can be the differentiator in your market. As companies have had highly volatile economic situations [and] highly competitive market space, things changing rapidly, [so] having really strong talent who can have the resilience and the capacity and the skills to work through those challenging times really is quite a differentiator.

How has this been reflected in the makeup and structure of your HR team?

[We] try to be really open-minded about bringing in diverse experiences, and no longer just looking at someone who works in an HR function…[and also] building out our centers of excellence and looking at roles that are really focused on strategy or strategic impact…It’s the two together: open to diversity of experiences, but also at the same time, really looking at creating some roles that have very specific domains of expertise.

If you had a group of strong HR professionals with a deep background in HR, could you have someone come in who maybe doesn’t have as much of that skill set, but brings in experience in having worked through mergers and acquisitions [for example], and that becomes instrumental to better strategizing how to work through, say, a workforce transformation?

This isn’t even specific to HR, it’s really just the practice of leadership—looking at the balance of skills across any team and making sure that you never lean too far in one way or the other. It’s actually the combined strength of the team that helps you be effective.
With the rising importance of technology and data in HR, how have you brought that expertise to your team?

We have analytics experts who are really focused on the data. The skills of the average HR professional are changing with regards to technology, and there are still roles in HR where you wouldn’t necessarily have to be super technical. Because actually, it’s about understanding the nuances of how to deal with situations around employment law or strategy…[but] even in those roles, you would still have to have a really keen sense of the value that technology provides. And you’d have to be integrating that into any strategy or decision that you’re working on.

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Even at an executive level, you would still consider there to be a really strong connection to understanding technology and knowing the value of it and how to use and implement it. And in roles like HR business partners, or other types of HR generalist types of roles, these are roles that continue to have more demand on them. The more technical those people are, the more efficient and easier it is to do their jobs because they’re quickly able to solve problems or get access to data or figure out what they need to do.
Do up-and-coming HR leaders today have a mandate to get sharper on tech?

I do think that that comes part and parcel with upcoming generations in the workforce and their understanding of how to be successful in these roles. For people who go into HR internships, a lot of the value they provide is being quite technical and being able to help provide some of those solutions to the team, so I think it’s only going to continue to be a role where connection to understanding like that technology component is hugely valuable.

It’s definitely not the only piece. HR continues to be a very strong, empathetic-driven role where you do have to understand people…the technology side really helps in terms of effectiveness at scale.
How can HR continue to advocate for more resources to invest in culture and employee experience?

It’s healthy for there to be pressure on every line of business (whether it’s HR, IT, or operations) to continually look at how to make sure that they’re focusing their resources on the most effective return on investment. It does force lines of business to say, could we automate this? Could this be done by an AI solution? But then to say, what can’t be done by those things? And let’s heavily invest in those resources to make sure they’re effective.

I actually think it will be like the leaders of each functional area of the business, who will recognize what their needs are and if they’re not being met, would be the ones to champion the business case [for HR] because they recognize the value of attracting, retaining, and growing talent in order to achieve their own business KPIs. So, I think that’s a mechanism through which you would have a pulse on if the HR organization is being invested in to a sufficient degree.

Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.