Are ‘Cross Functional Working’ and ‘Collaboration’ Swear Words for HR?

Are Cross Functional Working and Collaboration Swear words for HR?Whilst some might like to think that HR is a function that works across the business, given that people are usually spread across the business, in our experience that might be a little optimistic for how some HR functions work!

Have you ever come across the HR ‘locked door’ that only the favoured few get past? Intimidating and excluding is an understatement. Have you ever come across the HR person who insists that process and procedure know best and what happens on the shop floor simply has to be adapted to fit? Have you ever come across the HR person who goes hunting for a new absence management tool without first speaking to IT?

It’s so easy to stick to our comfort zone and protect our own space, but increasingly the world is demanding and needing far more transparency and cross-functional working than that.

Life is of course seldom perfect, but if managers and directors need to learn about boundary spanning, cross-functional working and collaboration for greater success, then the learning probably needs to start with HR.

But rather than tackle this whole subject, let’s focus on how HR works with a couple of other double-digit functions: OH and IT.  We have chosen to start with OH and IT as the learning about collaboration and cross-functional working from these can be applied to many other parts of the business.

Occupational Health

The main players here are GP’s, consultants, OH internal resources and OH outsourced providers. So mostly businesses and people outside the organisation.

The reason for interaction is usually about individuals’ attendance, performance, general employability or in some cases, about general wellbeing.

The main sources of friction or misunderstanding often come from:

  • The time required to produce a report (following a medical exam or discussion with the employee) potentially aggravated by the cost of keeping an employee off sick pending production of the report.
  • The cost of reports, even though some just come back with two or three lines telling you no more than you already know, plus the lack of clarity/guidance contained in the report produced that can leave HR uncertain as to what should be done or could be done.
  • The lack of clarity around the qualifications, practical knowledge and understanding of those providing OH services (such as GP’s) saying they have an OH qualification which, in fact, means they spent a weekend learning about OH – in stark contrast to an OH consultant who studied the topic full time for a year post grad. How on earth do we know what we are really dealing with each time when they all say they are qualified?
  • The perceived bias (an HR view!) of many OH providers who appear to seek to protect/support the employee whilst leaving the employer floundering and equally the seeming failure of many OH providers to challenge the employee’s version of events. Perhaps not always as independent as you are expecting them to be?

So, for more effective working and collaboration given some of the challenges with OH?

It’s essentially about communication and relationships. Communication that leads to improved understanding and improved relationships that give rise to more opportunities for questioning and greater involvement. So …

Make it personal, not remote

Don’t just send an email, wherever possible, pick up the phone, introduce yourself and while you are doing that ask for details of their qualifications, including what those qualifications mean in respect of how much OH training they have had. You are paying the bill so its no problem you asking for this kind of information. And, if you are lucky enough to have access to an outsourced OH function, look to build relationships with them, perhaps inviting your OH provider to come into the business to educate your HR team about some of the different conditions/health issues they might need to work with.

Understand and manage expectations

And perhaps, now you are talking to them rather than just sending off the occasional email, once you start to understand the challenges faced by OH and the doctors you deal with you might start to reduce your expectations regarding the quality of information that will be forthcoming and the speed at which it will be sent to you. In our experience there is often nothing you can do when it comes to dealing with GP’s timelines and priorities to their patients, so manage your expectations and in turn your stress levels will reduce.

Be clear on what you need and don’t settle for less

Building a relationship doesn’t mean that you have to be a pushover. Don’t be. Assert yourself as appropriate and don’t put up with an OH expert telling you that you don’t need to know details of your employee’s health, if you are to work with this individual you often need to know far more than the briefest of reports or forms will tell you. Insist on getting the information you need to do your job. They might be the expert, but you need to know enough to be able to manage the individual. Explain to the OH provider what your needs and concerns are. Get them on side through communication. None of us should have to work blind when it comes to critical information about employees. And if you hit a brick wall with them telling you that you have no right to know details, perhaps its time to reconsider who you use to provide OH support. You need a partner to work with, not a brick wall to argue with.

Get involved

And don’t be afraid to suggest a three-way meeting so you are not left out of the loop. Recently we met with an HR person who said that OH had told her (following a telephone appointment with the employee) that the employee had a disability but at present all was under control. How does that help them do their job when 3 months down the line the employee claims their needs are not being met? Ask, involve and get educated about the different health concerns.

Continual review

And good communication will help you quickly evaluate when you are working with the wrong OH provider. Don’t stick with a Company that says that they can provide the necessary support, but when you check out the small print, or experience the service for real, it becomes clear that all they ever do is a short phone call with your employee followed by sending you a summary of what the employee has said. How is that ever going to be of value to you? If an employee has complex health issues a telephone discussion is never going to be sufficient and again, you are guaranteeing that the only information you get will be unchallenged medical opinions from your employee.


The main players here are either internal IT departments or outsourced IT functions.

The reasons for interaction can be varied from the day to day such as accessing systems information as part of a disciplinary investigation, to setting up e-learning on an internal LMS (learning management system) or intranet to sourcing and installing staff management software solutions.

The challenges for HR with IT frequently include:

  • A reliance on process and procedure by IT even when dealing with issues that are unfamiliar to HR and that would benefit from a more personal touch.
  • A head-butting and uncompromising approach to dealing with issues when two sets of ‘practice and procedure’ from two highly procedural functions of the business collide.
  • Poor or insufficient communication compounded by poor relationships and understanding of each others’ priorities.
  • Lack of confidence of so many in HR with all things IT (including IT jargon and opportunities presented by the digital world) combined with lack of understanding within IT of the challenges of HR.
  • The slow speed of response by IT at times even when HR perceive the issue to be urgent.

So, for more effective working and collaboration given some of the challenges with IT?

Once again, it’s essentially about communication and relationships. Communication that leads to improved understanding and improved relationships that give rise to more opportunities for questioning and greater involvement. So …

Banish the silos

It’s not IT OR HR instead, how about a project where both functions work together in an equal partnership to solve a business issue? It can be done but you have to consciously banish the silo mentality where functions compete rather than collaborate and where functional egos are left at the door.  In the same way, if you are working with an outsourced provider just because you are the client and they are the supplier does not mean you are superior! Banish the silo, lose the ego and learn the value of working in genuine partnership with both sides benefiting from the sharing of knowledge and skill sets.

Collaboration often requires compromise

If it’s become a case of both sides insisting ‘we do it our way’ perhaps it’s time to learn about compromise in order to achieve the greater goal? An easy way to do this is to ensure total clarity of the goal or remit and then to identify behaviours or blockers to achieving that goal. If one of the blockers is a refusal to compromise, then you identify that at the start and work out how to overcome it, before the piece of work ever gets off the ground.

Relationships often improve if we work on our listening skills

In our experience, if you want to develop solid working relationships, learn to listen to the other side and in turn, if you are in HR, coach others about how to listen if this is an evident skill gap. Most people are not naturally great with developing relationships, so perhaps HR can take the opportunity to build skills in this area.

It’s all about organisation and planning

Often what aggravates IT is being faced with an urgent issue that might not have been so urgent had a little planning and organisation taken place. Who actually likes someone else’s stress dumped on us, just because the other person failed to get themselves organised or plan ahead? No one, so HR shouldn’t do this to IT. Plan ahead and identify what IT resources you might need to tap into, what resources that will require from IT and when you will need those resources. Plan ahead and you might find that IT is less inflexible when you ask for support.

Knowledge and learning

As with OH challenges, HR might benefit from saving a bit of the business training budget for itself. Don’t train everyone else in the business up, focussing on soft skills, leadership, diversity and inclusion etc, whilst ignoring that HR might need some training in all things digital, IT literacy, tech options available to the HR function etc. Relationships often work better if both parties feel confident to talk to each other as equals. Feeling you are being ‘talked down to’ because you feel out of your depth is never going to be conducive to a good partnership.

It is essential for HR to work outside its locked door and comfort zone. The world is changing fast and HR needs to change with it. Adaptability, self-awareness, boundary spanning, collaboration and network thinking are the skill set of the future. So HR needs to spend time developing its own skills before then embarking on developing the skills of all others. And one way of identifying if some serious rethinking and training are needed? Just ask your HR team if they are comfortable unlocking that door, letting other experts in, losing the ego that so often comes from having all that confidential information and power at your fingertips. It’s time for a change, rapid change!

Interested in learning more about collaboration and networking, boundary spanning and network thinking? If developing new skills would add value to your business, then talk to us about our collaboration and networking course.

The information contained within this article is for general guidance only and represents our understanding of employment and associated law and employee relations issues as at the date of publication. Jaluch Limited, or any of its directors or employees, cannot be held responsible for any action or inaction taken in reliance upon the contents. Specific advice should be sought on all individual matters.

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