Walking towards the light

Ever had a near death experience? You might soon if you work in HR. Well, the death knell seems to have been sounding louder than ever this year. There has been a lot written recently of the “why I hate HR” and “scrap the HR department” variety.

LightJust this month, the latest issue of New Zealand’s Employment Today suggests that many HR roles will be computerised over the next decade, that we aren’t thinking enough about where to from here, that we need to stop self sabotaging and naval gazing and we probably don’t have the right people working in HR.

So is the death of HR imminent? Will anyone mourn our passing?

Are we walking towards the light? On this evidence we’re bloody sprinting towards it with arms open shouting “take me, take me.”

Meanwhile there are small but expanding pockets of resistance. Growing groups of disaffected, disruptive voices who are finding strength in finding each other, who believe the C-suite stands for collaboration, connectivity, challenge, community and communication. Those who want the forward focused HR – the game changed, unfurled, full of colour model not the stagnant, bureaucratic, ingrained, reactive, barren, competency driven model. These are people who recognise people management is a broad church and that we need to embrace it in all its forms, not seek to compartmentalize, label, marginalize, ignore or attack that which is different or doesn’t fit neatly into a little box.

If you currently feel HR is ready for the last rites, then allow me a brief indulgence and do me a little favour. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that people management is not and never will be all about policies, bottom lines, patch protection, returns on investment, business drivers, institutes, form filling, quotas, grades, ratings and labels or any of that other cliched corporate nonsense. It is actually about people, people and believe it or not, people.

When you remind yourself of that, the bright light you can see in the distance is not the end of life as we know it or an express train hurtling towards you. More than likely, it’s the light at the end of the tunnel.

17 thoughts on “Walking towards the light

  1. Hi Richard, great blog post, very well written. But I’m not sure that I agree. In my opinion, people management is not all about people. In fact you have got me thinking about some of my core beliefs in this area that would have seen me agreeing with you.

    People management is about profit, customer loyalty, customer acquisition, increased margins and various other business drivers. We employ people to do a job to help achieve real business goals. If we just employed people to be really good people, what value would that add to the business?

    I want to be able to help enable people to be the very best they can be. I want to look after people. But ultimately, as a manager I have work that I need them to do. Selfishly, while my efforts and actions are sincere, I have results that need to be achieved.

    By not having key business drivers in mind, I am likely to run the business into the ground and that would lead to people being without jobs or financial reward.

    I do agree with some of the things that you mentioned about grades, quotas etc. However, these sorts of things have come about to measure productivity for management. If we want to do away with this, then we need to provide other ideas around productivity measurement.

    When someone is responsible for building a widget, their efforts are easily measured. They build so many widgets per hour and the costs are easy to understand. When it comes to a knowledge worker in the same company, how do you measure his/her results? How do you assess their productivity? If productivity is low, how do you identify this and enable them to reach their potential?

    New Zealanders are known around the world to be hardworking. However, our productivity is not high when compared to other countries in the OECD. There is a problem with the output per hour. Maybe this is why so many of us work so many hours for little reward.

    • Hi Vaughan. Thanks for the comments and I do like to be challenged on these posts!

      I confess I had mixed feelings writing that part about people because I understand exactly where you are coming from and just recently I told a group of students not to come into HR if they think it is just about people.

      So yes, you are totally correct in that it’s all about the business. The point I was making though is that we’ve perhaps gone too far in the “business” direction and forgotten that nothing gets done without people. And if you treat them well they will work even harder for you and perhaps stick around instead of looking to move at the first opportunity.

      So why is our productivity so low? That’s a whole other issue but I do believe we don’t invest enough in developing the people leadership skills that inspires, motivates and develops people. Most “leaders” in this country are too busy being busy and doing the work instead of leading. Discuss.

  2. You highlight an important point. We don’t invest enough in developing people leadership skills etc.

    Businesses (shareholders, investors etc) look for an ROI. They invest in people by providing them with a job and a wage/salary. However, as you and I know there is a lot more to job satisfaction than financial reward. We also know that reward may include job flexibility, a great environment, training and personal development, just to name a few.

    HR needs to understand how the business runs from the beginning of the customer experience through to the end. They need to understand the sales and fulfillment process. When was the last time HR went to the sales manager to understand what is coming up in the sales pipeline? Is the business going to be busy in the next few months? Is there a skills gap when looking at forecasted sales? Is there someone on the bench who could be trained to help cover a forecasted skills gap? Where should the training come from, a mentoring programme or outsourced training?

    By working with a marketing team, HR can identify areas where the business could proactively make changes based on consumer behaviours.

    A number of things that I have mentioned will deliver investment in the employees, increase employee engagement as they can see direction, increase productivity through better decision making and resource planning etc.

  3. This is an interesting debate and I certainly have had thoughts both ways. Having had a career of over 25 years in HR and coming from the UK, I have reasonable views on how we’re operating in NZ. I believe employee advocacy will do little to achieve business goals, and without a business, there are no people. However I also believe that businesses don’t grow, people do. So in order that the business can grow, we must consider how to increase capability of our resources (people) so that they can be the best they can be.

    I also feel that we are in an interesting place in terms of pushing what has been regarded as ‘HR work’, to the line – if we want the management/leadership tiers of a business to operate more strategically and drive results, then how can we expect them to undertake what could be seen as more admin tasks? Shouldn’t we centralise these activities somewhere – they’re always going to be needed.

    I believe the most effective HR professional is a business consultant who specialises in people, not a people consultant who understands business; that way, we can really make an impact.

    And finally, can we change the name to something everyone wants to be proud of – with all the different names being used for HR functions, it shows that we’re not proud of what we’re about.

  4. Thanks Clare. All your points are well made and hard to argue with. The point about pushing HR work to the line is definitely worthy of further debate. I certainly don’t want is to go back to doing it all for them (like me, you probably remember those days) but I do think it is part of their responsibility. Have we got the balance right currently?

  5. Clare, I think businesses can grow with and without people. Yes, people grow and that is ultimately beneficial to the business, however, sometimes those people are no longer needed and the business will continue to grow. Technology is a significant factor in this space.

    • Hi Vaughan, I agree that people have a lifespan for a business, and then the next level or type of capability is needed – so when technology supports growth, this is because the next phase of growth has started, through the deployment of the right people with the right skills (grown from experience and learning) to do the right things and then removing those (in whatever manner is appropriate), that no longer serve the phase the business is at.

      I’m sensing we’re all thinking along similar lines though – great discussion!

  6. Richard, great blog post thank you. I enjoyed the other posts too. Very thought provoking..

    Having been an HR person and a line manager and I used to think in terms of driving for results, bottom line and managing the people.

    But I forgot that work is a complex social organisation with individuals and groups of people – work is not a thing. I forgot that as people we have an instrinsic desire for self determination,self actualisation and creativity. Its why we aren’t lizards. I forgot that.

    I forgot that my role as a manager wasn’t about managing the people – because deep down people dont like to be ‘managed’ it dumbs us down – we like to think for ourselves. But I was too busy as I had results to achieved!

    I forgot to support the people to own their own work and outcomes, to decide for themselves how they achieved it and that I would work them collaboratively to set the goals and the timeframes. I forgot to cultivate an workplace where failing fast was ok and where curiosity and learning was priceless. But I was far too busy managing the people, recoverables and measuring productivity

    I forgot that employee engagement came from facilitating a work environment where peoples instrinsic needs for self determination, creativity, problem solving and self actualisation were met – not through engagement surveys where I would try to then fix the ‘problem’ without really understanding the real problem lay systemically with the way we were organised to do the work. I was too busy managing KPIs and performance.

    I forgot that managing a ‘poor’ performer was in most cases actually my failure – but I was too busy setting performance improvement objectives

    Really I sucked

    As an HR person I prided myself on having deep commercial acumen and understanding the financials – but I forgot about the people – left them behind the fridge. I set policies and procedures that were compliance and risk focused – but I forgot about the people – I was too busy being a hard arsed business person first

    Now I am neither a manager or a traditional HR person – I am a change agent, design thinker, creative networker and I am focused on agile culture and the new practices of Holicracy, agile leadership and servant leadership.

    These principles throw on its head our management structures, beliefs, styles which are based on 100 year old military notions of pyramid command and control, where we assume that the people at the top are best qualified to make decisions,where leadership is really follow ‘me’.

    This is what I believe to the core of my being

    Focus on the people – you’ll deliver great customer experience
    Focus on the people – you’ll deliver great products
    Focus on the people – you’ll deliver profits

    HR is ALL about the people – if you focus on the people, focus on provding the best employee experience (EXD), combined with working on the right things with the right leadership through all levels of the organisation then this will result in the right results.

    If we just employed people to be really good people, what value would that add to the business? It would be priceless and we would all be rich !! Look at Zappos, Google, Base Camp, Vend & Xero

    What I think is fundamentally wrong with HR is that we are still trying to make stuff happen within organisations that are systemically wired based on 100 year old operating models. I’ve blogged about this before – its like putting water into a car – its just not going to go.

    So here is the challenge for HR – understand the systemic nature of organisations, look at companies like Zappos and Google and Nitrix and understand how they are different, understand deeply the psychological and social nature of work, critically examine how work is structured and how gets done – understand the why businesses MUST be employee centric and why the new HR is a design thinker, systemic thinker, organisational architect, business consultant and work psychologist

    He aha te mea nui o te ao?
    He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

    What is the most important thing in the world?
    It is people! It is people! It is people!

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