Broadly interpreted, this figurative description means less of a concentration on traditional "administrative" fiefdoms - areas such as succession planning, reward, recruitment, employee relations, and so on - and more emphasis on how the management and development of people can be used to build competitive advantage.
According to Dave Ulrich, professor of business administration at the University of Michigan, whose 1998 book Human Resource Champions articulated the aspirations, some say "dreams" of many in the profession, HR "should not be defined by what it does, but by what it delivers".
The future, he contended, lay in four main areas: becoming a business partner with both senior and line managers in the execution of strategy; expertise in efficient work organisation and design; being a tribune for employees, representing their concerns and seeking to boost their contribution; and finally, in being an agent of perpetual change in both process and culture.
It is a sign that Mr Ulrich caught a mood that HR professionals often describe themselves in his language. In a new survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, one-in- three practitioners in human resources sees their current role as that of "business partner". One-in-four prefers "change agent".
But the difficulty with such abstractions, says Linda Holbeche, senior researcher at Roffey Park Management College, is that while strategic HR makes sense, attempting to "leverage the intangibles" on a day-to-day basis is a little unrealistic. It has led to an unspoken schism in the profession between those who can realistically lay claim to the tag "business partners" (HR directors, occasionally at board level) and the rest.
Moreover, HR professionals as a breed still have the vestiges of a credibility problem.
"On one hand, they are often accused of lacking vision," she says. "But on the other, they are seen as insufficiently pragmatic to make a difference."
A further trouble with the strategic HR bandwagon is that it is unlikely to sound entirely convincing until the profession sorts out a related, and enduring problem: how to measure the impact of HR on the bottom line.
There are many solutions on offer - Mr Ulrich's following book was a less successful crack at this - but as yet no consensus. Frustration among HR professionals at their inability to "prove" their strategic worth in numerical terms to chief executives is an on-going theme. It is maybe because of such doubts that some senior HR practitioners tend to be more cautious in deploying words such as "strategic" than their junior colleagues. Instead, they point to a moderate future in which HR continues to refine existing responsibilities: reacting to employee concerns and supporting line managers; and defining future workforce requirements, so that organisations learn quickly as change unfolds.
David Longbottom, group director of HR at the Dixons Group, one of only a handful of HR practitioners who sit on their company's board, says he is sceptical about the distinction between "strategic" and "administrative" HR. "The profession has this introspective streak that seeks to justify its existence. No other function goes around thinking 'now, is this a strategic input?'." Basic HR delivery of areas such as reward, holiday and career advancement are underestimated in importance, he says. "Get it wrong, and there can be serious consequences. In retail, HR will always be about getting the best from people."
Clare Chapman, group HR director of Tesco, agrees "basics" play a vital role in winning the staff loyalty that secures customer loyalty. Tesco discusses issues such as talent management, leadership development and capability planning at board level, but Ms Chapman stresses the "strategic importance" of "listening".…