The biggest challenges facing human capital management and HR practitioners include becoming a strategic partner in business and securing employee engagement.

This emerged at the annual HR Summit and Expo Africa 2015, where delegates voted on the biggest challenge facing HR today: 42% cited employee engagement and 26% said developing new leaders. Issues such as attracting and retaining new talent, and getting C-suite buy-in to HR initiatives, were each rated as a top challenge by 16% of delegates. With the retention of top staff another key challenge, delegates also voted on the most effective retention strategies for top staff in Africa, with 47% citing career mapping as the most effective, 35% saying compensation and benefits were most effective, and 18% saying employee engagement was most effective.

Addressing these and other challenges requires a new model for human capital management, said experts addressing the Summit. Crucially, HR must move from an administrative role to a strategic one, noted Ron Thomas, MD of Dubai-based Strategy Focused HR. “It is important for HR to ‘get a seat at the [C-suite] table, because people are critical for business performance, and HR are the people experts. However, if you want to get a ‘seat at the table’, you have to bring value to that seat,” he says.

Thomas notes that if HR wanted to take its place as a strategic driver of business, it had to understand the business, speak the language of business and gain the necessary business competence. “Among other things, HR has to be financially literate and be able to manage and understand analytics. HR must be able to solve problems, make things happen, and must display skills in change management, consulting and communications.”

Thomas adds that while delegates had voted for compensation and benefits as the biggest driver in talent retention, strategic talent management extended to a great deal more than just compensation. “In a changing business environment, HR needs to know where future talent will come from, what will be the best locations for business expansion – from a talent perspective, and how the business strategic goals align with human capital goals.”

Analytics plays an increasingly important role in strategic human capital management, speakers noted. Malcolm Pannell, MD of consulting firm Hay Group South Africa, highlights how analytics tools allow HR practitioners to effectively recruit, retain and deploy talent, as well as empowering them to forecast future trends and human capital needs. “More evidence-led strategic workforce planning needs to be brought into HR,” he says. “HR needs to harness the right data and know how to conduct meaningful analytics within a competent modelling framework.”

Event chair and HR vice-president for Unilever Central Africa Mechell Chetty says the role played by HR across Africa was changing. “We are seeing the talent and capabilities of HR professionals growing.” But with Africa undergoing significant economic expansion and a surge in its youthful workforce numbers, HR could become more of a strategic player to help position Africa as a net exporter of human capital in future, she said. “What we do now creates the legacy for the future.”