National HR Standards: An opportunity for people-driven innovation – by Marius Meyer

During 2013, more than 1200 HR Managers convened under the leadership of SABPP and HR Future to develop the first set of National HR Standards for South Africa. This is also the first HR standards in the world. It is therefore not surprising that Alan Hosking of HR Future magazine refers to this event as the “most significant HR event since the Wiehahn Commission work in the late 1970’s.” The standard elements ranged from strategic HR management, to talent management, learning and development and HR measurement. This was an historic moment, but now the time is right to reflect on the significance of this occasion and to plan the way forward. The “why” and “what” of the standards need to be clearly articulated, not only to obtain buy-in, but to create awareness and understanding about the standards. These standards are not positioned as a compliance-driven regime, but rather as an opportunity for people-driven innovation in organisations.

An important consideration is to decide how the standards can be rolled-out to the broader market. It is an achievement to have developed the standards, but if no one applies them, what impact does it really have? Thus, we need to be able to first of all internalise the standards as HR professionals, and secondly, to develop a clear focus on applying these standards in the workplace.

Therefore, disseminating the national HR standards to the broader HR community and HR teams in particular, requires a clear focus on why we need the standards in the first instance:

  • Standards provide a framework of what acceptable HR practice is;
  • It sets the objectives, scope and parameters for HR practice;
  • Standards seek to reduce and eliminate inconsistencies;
  • It attempts to identify and fill gaps in HR practice;
  • HR standards help different branches, sites and divisions to follow an aligned approach;
  • Once the foundation of a standard is set, opportunities can be pursued to raise the standard of HR work;
  • With clear metrics in place, benchmarks can be developed and meaningful benchmarking conducted within and across industries.

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However, given the fact that the HR standards initiative is such a new national project in South Africa, and bearing in mind that HR professionals will be change agents in rolling out the standards, we should expect to be challenged by line and HR managers about the relevance and impact of the standards. Hence the need to be ready to dispel some of the myths about standards:

  • Standards take flexibility away: This is simply not true, companies can still adapt the standard to their unique needs, and develop flexible approaches to implementing the standards.
  • Standards ignore industry differences: While standards have indeed been developed based on a national approach to HR, the overall standard supersedes any industry approaches. However, nothing prevents HR professionals in specific industries such as mining or manufacturing to adapt the standard based on industry specific imperatives.
  • Standards stifle innovation: This is not necessarily the case. If used from a continuous improvement perspective, standards can provide fantastic opportunities to encourage innovation around the standard, and even exceeding the standard.
  • Standards are practical and not based on any theory or research: The foundation of the standards has been well researched for years, however, it has never been positioned as national HR standards. Continuous research should be done to build theories around the standards, and universities will be invited to conduct studies on the standards.

Dispelling the above myths will be critical to ensure that all HR professionals embark on appropriate change management interventions to roll-out the standards at their companies. It may also be necessary to view the standards from a holistic and systemic perspective. In other words, the National HR System Standard may be used as a foundation for developing different types of standards according to the needs of organisations, learning providers and individual professionals. For instance, the HR system standard may be used to address HR from different angles based on the needs of several stakeholders. Examples of these different, but also complimenting HR standards are as follows:

  • Professional practice standards: The HR standard elements may be used to improve the quality of HR work in each one of the 13 HR areas identified;
  • Curriculum standards: Learning providers and universities may repackage the HR practice standards for the purpose of developing curriculum for HR qualifications and learning programmes;
  • Service delivery standards: The professional practice standards may be converted to clear service level agreements, for example how long it will take to complete a specific HR activity, or the quality of an HR product or service;
  • Competency standards: The HR Management System and its associated professional practice standards could be repositioned as HR competency standards for the purpose of building HR competence, and should therefore be aligned to the National HR Competency Model;
  • Metrics and benchmark standards: Clear metrics and benchmarks can be developed to conduct proper benchmarking about HR norms and numbers for the purpose of making meaningful comparisons, and to support HR and business decision-making.

As an accreditation, quality assurance and professional body, SABPP will align all five types of standards to drive the HR profession forward. The national HR System Standard Model has set the scene for elevating HR to a fully-fledged profession taking responsibility and ensuring accountability for professional practice.   Recently, the first Audit Framework has been released to audit HR functions against the standards and 40 auditors have already been trained. The next milestone is the release of the HR Professional Practice Standards on 28 August at Sandton Convention Centre. You can download the full programme from


Marius Meyer is CEO of SABPP. He presented the National HR Standards in five different countries. You can follow the SABPP blog on or on twitter @SABPP1 for regular updates on the draft standards and progress with the National HR Standards Initiative. Contact the SABPP office on for more information.

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