06/13/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Acting Like the Future Has Not Been Cancelled

I am writing from Stavanger, Norway, where colleagues and I are leading an HR business partnership workshop for Statoil, the Norwegian-based integrated energy company. For anyone who hasn't heard of Statoil, this Fortune 50 oil and gas giant has a $78 billion market cap, 29,000 employees and operations in 40 countries.

More importantly for this blog, Statoil is a new member of that small group of companies that are turning the concept of HR business partnership into a reality.

We have worked with Statoil HR for the past three years, and watched and supported the HR journey as they went from good to excellent. Jens Jenssen, senior vice president of HR, and his team have done an outstanding job of reshaping HR from administrative and transactional to a strong business partner that is a powerhouse of strategic business support.

If Statoil is not on your company's list of HR organizations to learn more about, your list is incomplete.

Here's my observation of what Jenssen and his team have done to build HR at Statoil (full disclosure: I have not vetted this list with Jenssen).

1. Engage top management. Jenssen is a great example of business partner, specifically to CEO Helge Lund. In fact, the title of this post is taken from a speech given by Lund to the HR community. His opening remarks, in March 2009, in the midst of the great recession: "I am here to tell you that the future has not been canceled. In difficult economic times we need HR more than ever."

2. Capture strategic opportunity. In 2008 Statoil merged with Norsk Hydro, and the HR leadership team recognized the chance for HR to play a new and more significant role. By leading the staffing of the newly-combined organization, HR made a broadly recognized contribution. And doing so through a joint Statoil-Hydro team enabled HR to provide a powerful model of Statoil and Norsk Hydro staff working together.

3. Hire great people, find great partners and adapt the best of what they bring. Statoil HR - like P&G, Google and others - is a talent magnet. Not just from other oil majors like Exxon and Chevron but from non-energy companies like GE and Nokia. HR staff members are encouraged to be talent finders, recommend colleagues that offer a good fit, and like other branded developers, staffing is focused on attracting great people rather than filling slots. (In the next post we'll talk about companies that establish a brand for being strong talent finders, developers and keepers.)

4. Get in touch with best practice. Jenssen and the HR leadership team has made a discipline of identifying and learning from the innovations of others. HR leaders and professionals are encouraged to identify the new ideas and work practices of great companies like GE, IBM, Schlumberger and others, and to adapt best practice to the Statoil culture.

5. Focus on what's strategic and efficient. Statoil has created a unique organization they call GBS or "global business services" which is focused on global delivery. From an HR perspective, it's an interesting variation on the "Ulrich" model (named for RBL partner Dave Ulrich). The uniqueness of GBS is that corporate HR thought leaders don't own the resources or responsibility to implement - this is held in GBS. This keeps the corporate group small and focused. It preserves cost efficiency by avoiding the tendency to build many small HR fiefdoms. And, it forces corporate, business, and GBS HR to work together.

6. Invest in development and community. HR has established HR Academy to ensure that HR staff at all levels and across all functions have the skill and competence to be effective business partners. Even in difficult economic times, Jenssen and his team invested in the development of HR staff, and did so with the active support of the CEO. Almost every member of the HR department has attended some version of HR business partner education in the past 2-3 years, and they have participated in other, related, HR network events. In addition, Jenssen meets regularly with groups of HR staffers to hear what they are thinking and to test emerging ideas, and a "spotlight" program profiles what different professionals are doing and what they and their colleagues are achieving.

If this post appears written by a fan of Statoil HR, you're right. HR management at Statoil is certainly a work in progress but the progress is impressive. The examples above are a subset of some of the more interesting and impactful initiatives that Statoil HR has undertaken over the past three years. But, the HR transformation story at Statoil is broader than these examples. Check it out.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.