Nero is a role model for doing the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time. The HR profession is focused on doing the old stuff better. Without much debate, HR is moving to perfect its 20th-century mission and mostly ignoring its 21st Century obligations.

Nero was an awful leader. Cruel and inattentive, he misunderstood priorities in a crisis and focused on the wrong things. While he didn’t actually fiddle during the fire (violins came much later), he is a role model for doing the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time.

At Kodak and Polaroid, R&D focused on better film and paper. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley embedded cameras in phones that didn’t use either. The companies are more or less gone. As they tried to save themselves, they focused on the exact wrong things at the exact wrong time. They fiddled while Rome burned

Social and technological change often combine to eliminate ways of thinking, ways of doing and ways of life. The sea changes in retail, agriculture, communications, healthcare, genetics, politics, advertising, and education are just the early stage of a radical rearrangement of our world.

In each segment, the status quo is upended by new players who approach the game differently. The incumbents try to solve the same old problems better (new film) while the new players solve different aspects of the problem. The new solutions almost always look wrong to the incumbents. They fiddle while Rome burns. 

All of the excellence and passion you could have applied to better film and paper could not have saved Kodak.

Something similar is happening in HR.

Currently, a series of new forces are quickly reshaping the HR playing field.

  • The number of direct employees is declining. This is the meaning of the gig economy. Another way of saying it is, “HR’s market share is declining.” The size of the ‘HR Industry’ is proportional to the number of direct employees.
  • Security is the responsibility of every employee. It is the second oldest human relations problem. Low engagement scores may well be a primary indicator of a security problem. HR has a tough mission in keeping the workforce up to speed on the latest techniques for spoofing the organization
  • Privacy, which is a subset of security, is also every employee’s responsibility. The definition and meaning of privacy is changing rapidly. Exactly what constitutes Personal Identifying Information changes as our ability to mine data increases. Keeping the workforce up to speed takes a heroic effort.
  • Education (training) is already real time. If you want to become competent in the latest AI technology (for example), the best way to do it is through an online learning company like Udacity. Employees route around the L&D department. Youtube is a better source of how-to information than the company archives and LMS.
  • Performance management may not be completely useless. But, most work happens in projects and almost no performance management solutions effectively address the problem. Goals do not cascade through projects.
  • Predictions abound. Shortly, every piece of software will be offering predictions and advice. There are no courses available on how to understand and use predictions. If HR isn’t trained and competent on this subject, how will the workforce learn?
  • External data is flooding the organization. From LinkedIn to various news feeds to mounds of quantitative input, data from the outside is being used to drive decision making. There is little in the way of training or guidance about judging the quality of externally acquired information.
  • The individual employee gets more powerful every day. With burgeoning privacy rights (GDPR), personal data factories (wearables and phones), publishing capacities and a seller’s market for talent, the declining direct employee population requires ever better care.
  • Machines make decisions. We have no way to audit the consequences of the decisions we delegate to machines.
  • Data shows us where we were wrong. As measurements accumulate, we are beginning to see the role of individuals in team accomplishments differently. We are beginning to be able to see the underlying social network with clarity. 

Meanwhile, the bulk of the profession’s attention is focused on doing the old stuff better. It’s like making better film or faster horses. Without much debate, HR is moving to perfect its 20th century mission and mostly ignoring its 21st Century obligations.

Be sure to read the response to this article from Michael Kannisto, Ph.D., Nero’s Reply.