Let's not blow up HR!

By Laura Harrison, Director of People and Strategy

Those of you who’ve seen the cover title of this month’s Harvard Business Review “It’s Time To Blow Up HR” and/or have read the three pyrotechnical articles in this month’s journal may be out looking for another career, or at least sourcing some fire proof garments.  Here’re a few thoughts from the CIPD to say hold your nerve, douse the incendiary flames of doubt and remember there’s a bright future for the HR profession. Opinions and theories on the role of HR now and in the future are two a penny, and could leave us all worrying what our fate will be. Instead, here at the CIPD we’re taking stock of all these views, sure, and supporting our members in the general direction of travel, but we’re also committed to helping HR shape its own future.

In Peter Cappelli’s article¹  the profession is encouraged to “focus on the issues that matter in the here and now.”  Reading further, he’s not seeking to discourage us from being future focused. Rather, it’s an encouragement to be situational - to understand the business and external context, and to apply judgement and leadership accordingly.  And this means not being driven solely by “best practice.”  As he says “detailed knowledge of practices is essential, but it’s more important to understand what works when and where.”  That’s why we think good HR should be defined in terms of broader principles, rather than prescriptive best practice. Principles provide an overarching framework to enable decision making or situational judgement.  They provide a means to build ethical competence and enable stronger “professional” governance.  They help you decide what to do when you don’t know what to do but when you know that slavish adherence to best – or latest – practice isn’t a great idea. We firmly believe that the HR profession’s ready for its next evolution and that principles for practice will help build the stature and reach of our members in years to come (you’ll hear much more from us on this later in the year).

Cappelli also highlights the need for business knowledge and for clarity around the financial benefits of HR’s work.  At the CIPD we’ve long taken a wide interpretation of what’s meant by “commercial” knowledge - have a look at the heart of our Profession Map for a detailed definition of what we believe forms the basis of good business and contextual (or outside) knowledge.    The dictionary’s definition of commercial is “making or intending to make a profit.”  So at face value for HR practitioners, being “commercial” could mean maximising the short turn return on your investment in resources – human and otherwise.  But it’s a risky interpretation.  A global financial crisis, life destroying disasters in the healthcare sector, the collapse of trust in the media, politicians and other institutions suggests another interpretation’s needed.  We’d say being commercial is to truly understand the relationship between people, organisation and sustainable value creation for all a business’s stakeholders.  Then to translate that understanding into action in a language that’s current in their business.  So in one business that might be to position an engagement strategy as “margin-generating,” in another as an “efficiency enabler” or another as “architecting brand authenticity.”   Use the language that works, but don’t compromise on the long term horizon and the ever present question of sustainable growth.

In People Before Strategy:  A New Role for the CHRO (we’re still in the Blowing Up HR HBR..!) the authors contend that “CEOs know that they depend on the company’s human resources to achieve success” but are too frustrated by poor business understanding and the administrative nature of HR’s work to see HR as part of the solution.  This really strikes a chord in terms of a “knowing / doing” gap.  I frequently attend conferences and read about crises in culture, trust, leadership and the struggle to attract and leverage human capital for competitive advantage.   HR people know how to work in this space, for sure. But the finger of responsibility or blame isn’t pointed at HR as often as it perhaps should.  The authors propose that the CEO has a role to play in elevating the HR function to become part of “G3” – a “core group comprising the CEO, CFO and CHRO.”  It’s an attractive idea (although if I was the CMO I’d wonder where’s the customer’s voice in this triumvirate?) but continues to risk a duck talking to a chicken talking to a hen unless each learns the other’s language.  We’re delighted at the CIPD to be part of the growing HR interest in analytics (see our Valuing your Talent work if you’d like to know more) and if HR’s the hen and it’s talking to a chicken (the CFO obviously!) then taking an analytical approach and using appropriate language (see above) is sure to help.  The key, of course, is to be purposeful.  Not much point in analysing ad nauseam how many people have been through a performance development process unless you’re clear how (or if) it adds value in the first place.  It’s clear from the uptake of courses and conferences in this area that HR’s determined to build its analytical muscle.  So much the better to flex it in the posited G3.

And finally, in Bright shiny objects and the future of HR (yes, still exploding HR), John Boudreau and Steven Rice introduce the challenge of integrating insight by citing David Rock of the NeuroLeadership Institute.  Rightly, the authors point out that HR cannot operate in a magpie like fashion, for example constantly ferreting around for the latest behavioural science findings and seeking to use them in their organisations without recognising that each new idea will connect to a larger system.  It’s a fair point, and I’ll admit to having been part of HR teams that have operated slightly in this fashion – “so much cool stuff we could do, let’s create a leadership programme, a new strategy, a new framework, pay people differently, blow up performance management.”  But the opportunity for HR practitioners to build their knowledge and expertise in behavioural sciences is huge – and brings a new level of expertise to the profession.  We’re beginning to think that it’s time to move on (or back!) to a different theoretical underpin to practice.  Not “best practice” but a real understanding of how people learn, develop and interact with each other, incentives and strategies.  Imagine how different reward policies would be if underpinned by this behavioural science knowledge base, rather than by what competitors do.  And of course the more comfortable you become with this knowledge base, the more able you are to discern, filter and synthesise and really make a difference through a small number of well-developed ideas or strategies.  Less magpie and more dolphin perhaps?  At the CIPD we’ve been promoting the “science of HR” for a year or so now, and as we develop our curriculum and CPD programmes, there’ll be more to come.  It’s exciting and rapidly evolving – and hugely interesting – a great way to deepen your professionalism.

So, let’s not blow up HR.  But let’s encourage in ourselves – as we would in the managers and leaders we work with – self-reflection and a willingness to develop and evolve.  All professions do – that’s what makes them great places to build your career.

¹ HBR articles usually are currently free to read for a short period. After that a subscription will be needed, but CIPD members can access all articles for free here

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  • Great blog Laura. Am really looking forward to seeing how the principles develop.