shutterstock_163379360The latest edition of Harvard Business Review (HBR) has as its cover story, ‘It is time to blow up HR and build something new’. It is a title that is sure to grab attention, especially if you happen to be in HR!
This message is one that we in TomorrowToday have been shouting about for years to anyone who would care to listen. Of course it was no more popular then as it is now but perhaps now, people are more ready to listen. HR does indeed need to be ‘blown up’, to be reinvented, to be rethought.
Our reasons for the need to rethink HR are not dissimilar to those underpinning the HBR article that describes the problem as being that HR managers ‘focus too much on “administravia” and lack vision and strategic insight’. The foundation for the HBR argument is that when talent is scarce, HR’s value to the business is acknowledged but, when the labour market loosens up, HR ‘seems like a nuisance’.
However, there is an important (and deeper) motivation for promulgating this ‘act of corporate treason’ in suggesting that HR is in need of being dismantled and rebuilt.
When you understand the emerging Connection economy and what it will take to create a competitive advantage in such a context, the need for HR to shift becomes obvious. No longer does a focus on ‘business efficiency’ provide a distinctive competitive advantage with efficiency being relegated to a necessary ‘hygiene’ factor. Of course there may well be some exceptions depending on market and industry nuances at play however, in the Connection economy, the competitive edge is that of relationships. It is all about the quality of both internal and external relationships: why should I work for you? Why should I buy your service or products?
The understanding of the shift in the competitive frontier and the response it demands of both leaders and companies is the HR agenda. Sadly HR in practice is often far removed from such strategic insights and responses. HR is kept busy ‘greasing the internal wheels’ that keeps the organisation moving – although not always moving forward! HR has been consumed with the detail and lost sight of the way forward. “But hold on a minute” you might be saying, “isn’t HR at the forefront of all matters to do with ‘talent’ in most organisations?” Well yes, you would be right on that count but therein sits the problem. Whilst ‘talent’ is an HR agenda item, a big agenda item at that, two problems are immediate apparent.
Firstly, because of the way HR is positioned (and viewed) within many companies the ‘talent strategy’ runs parallel to the ‘main agenda’ and is often not something taken all that seriously by senior leaders. I have seen many talent programmes that don’t have the buy-in of senior leaders and are seen as something that gets in the way of, as is a distraction to the ‘real work’ of the business. The sound bites are all there and everyone subscribes to the talent PR script but it often doesn’t translate to anything deeper than a begrudging sign-off of the ‘talent spend’ that is required to keep the programme going and the sound bites flowing. Sound familiar?
Secondly, the way in which HR has tackled this most important of tasks (engaging ‘talent’) has been done through a filter blighted by an ‘old way of thinking and doing things’. HR initiatives have lacked imagination and have been constrained by the politics and policies shaped by others that prevent what really needs to happen from happening. This is both the fault of HR (for allowing itself to be marginalised) as well something that is unfair to place solely at the door of HR.
The failure of HR to translate what has been seen as ‘their agenda’ into the heart and soul of ‘the agenda’ – into the mainstream of the business agenda, has had massive consequences. It has meant that many businesses are ill equipped to navigate the emerging Connection economy. It is a condition and flaw that could be fatal to many a business as the rules of the game change when it comes to the people inside and outside of our businesses.
There was a time (with some rare exceptions) that HR was the chosen way to the ‘C-suite’. The loss of this ‘HR pathway’ and schooling has produced too many leaders from an operational or accounting background resulting in an imbalanced perspective and leadership agenda. This is a point made in the HBR article. In many companies in which we work HR is fighting to have a meaningful voice in setting the agenda and in many cases, they (HR) are their own worse enemy. They often don’t stand by what they know needs to be said or done and all too often become entrapped in a prevailing ‘way of thinking and doing’ that limits the real agenda. In other words, instead of shaping the organisational culture, HR becomes constrained within the prevailing culture.
Things need to change. And quickly!
So what can HR do to instigate this change? 
Every context is different and of course suggesting a general ‘how to change HR’ list would be both simplistic and insulting. There would be complexities around geography, culture, industry and size/ scale that all would need to be taken into account and that define and shape your particular context. However, if you recognise that you have a problem in this area and something needs to be done, then there are three suggestions as to potential starting points for your consideration.

  1. Rename HR.

    This suggestion alone would precipitate a conversation around the role and purpose of HR within your business. What we name things and the language used is important. A renaming provides the opportunity to do things differently and if you do decide to pursue this starting point then be sure to use some imagination. I was talking to a CEO recently about this specific point and he enthusiastically told me that in his business they had done exactly this – renamed HR. “That’s great” I said, “What have you renamed HR?” “Talent Management” was his response. Such was his enthusiasm I dared not say anything but in truth, I wanted to cry! (Whilst I said earlier that ‘talent’ is an important HR agenda item I don’t believe it is something that should define HR’s purpose and function)

  2. Disrupt everything.

    Start with the current learning initiatives within the business and (really) disrupt them! There is a lot of ‘activity’ around such programmes but therein sits the problem: the activity is often focused on the ‘wrong things’ – the participants’ comfort for one and the logistical ‘programme’ aspects for another. The higher up the ladder the programme is positioned, the greater the HR anxiety around comfort and catering to the whims and fancies of the delegates. This focus and characteristic usually gets in the way of the real learning needed. Service providers (and here we in TomorrowToday can speak from experience) can often be part of the problem. The heavy ‘programme’ mentality where everything has to be pre-determined and scheduled in order to appease the client or justify the expense, serves to reinforce an out-dated methodology and pedagogy that shapes the learning. The overbearing programme mentality entraps the learning process rather than liberates it.

It makes no sense.

Learning how to lead in a VUCA world (one that is volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) through a predictable, safe and structured programme is like trying to build something entirely new by using an old manual. Programmes need to be emergent, organic and be less of a ‘programme’ and seen more as a ‘process’. Both our thinking and practice needs to change. In some instances HR knows this and in rare instances has acted on this awareness. But more often than not, HR has become so entrapped in the prevailing paradigm they are blind to what is really needed. HR needs to partner a service provider that really understands what is needed and will bring imagination to the design and experimentation to the execution of the learning agenda. Having found such a service provider and having established the relationship and conversations, my advise to HR is to then get out the way! Get out the way and let the educators do what they do best. Hold them accountable; participate in shaping the process but stop micro managing and meddling to the point of distraction. For example, in a global leadership development programme for a multi-national client, we (TomorrowToday) were once instructed to change a small (and really insignificant detail) in ‘slide 78’ by a global head of HR. The detail and scrutiny has become a paranoia that suffocates real learning and creativity. I wish this was an isolated case but unfortunately it isn’t. Business Schools have become complicit in this ‘dance’ of ‘keeping the client happy’ at all costs even when they know that this is obstructing what really needs to happen.

  1. Lose the jargon.

    Many hands need to be raised when it comes to accepting responsibility for the jargon that chokes our business language. And whilst HR might not be responsible for originating many of the stupid and meaningless terminology around there is no doubt that they have acted as carriers in spreading and perpetuating this ‘virus of words’. Again this represents a small start but an important one. As already stated, language is important within any context and by challenging some of the language we use, HR can help shift the awareness, conversation and outcomes. As authors Jules Goddard and Tony Eccles point out in their excellent book, ‘uncommon sense and common nonsense’ Business Schools and consultants are responsible for much of the damage done in this area. HR needs to embrace Kant’s statement of ‘think for yourself’ and be willing to challenge the theory and assumptions about ‘the right way’. These are courageous (and in some instances, dangerous) conversations to be hosting. Starting with the ‘jargon’ is a first step in this direction. Much of the formulae and jargon commonly put forward needs to be seen for what it really is – fraudulent. HR needs to challenge the prevailing orthodoxies and be willing to be seen as the business heretics for in so doing, HR will offer real value in helping the business adapt to the changing realities. (And if you were looking for a specific beachhead in this area why not start with ‘soft stuff’ and ‘hard stuff’! Descriptors that are nonsense and ones that have done untold damage within our organisations)

This of course is all part of a much larger conversation. Leaders will immediately recognise that for their business to be futurefit, they will need a healthy HR, one that might just require a heart-transplant and a complete makeover. Smart leaders will be willing to rethink HR in their context and make the deep cuts required by the surgery; they will be willing to do whatever is necessary to ensure that imagination is given a free rein in this undertaking. Business is not about ‘best practice’ but rather about ‘unique practice’ and so the real question is ‘what does this mean for how HR is seen and practiced within your business’?
What is your first step in rethinking HR? It’s your move.
Speak to us to start the change

TomorrowToday Global