Kevin Wheeler

Kevin Wheeler

This article comes from Kevin Wheeler, known globally for his interests in learning, recruiting and talent development.  HR is reaching an inflection point that seriously affects the direction and scope of the profession and its practitioners. Kevin notices the trend towards results and away from process management. He echoes the frustrations expressed by may CEOs about the utility and relevance of the HR function. In the end, Kevin sees a future for the profession but one that is different from a straight forward trajectory.

As the months progress, the HRExaminer will increasingly host articles from the brightest minds in HR. It’s a real honor to launch that aspect of the work with this piece by Kevin. There are few in the industry whose views are as broad and global. -js

The  Way It Is
Since at least 1996 when Dave Ulrich published his well-known book, Human Resource Champions, on the state and future of human resources there has been a constant conversation on how HR can become relevant to business leaders. Simply the fact that the conversation takes place, indicates that HR is in a marginal position within most corporations and is not seen as having much relevancy.

Relevancy implies adding value and being in a position to improve profits, efficiency, or quality. Most business leaders, line managers, and even employees are uncertain of the value HR brings to the organization or its people.  Most of them understand the legal and regulatory requirements that HR educates about and enforces, but that is not seen as adding significant value.  At best it is perceived as reducing the risk of fines or negative publicity and at worst it is seen as getting in the way of doing things efficiently. Few believe that HR significantly contributes to employee performance, productivity, sales or profits.

Despite the rhetoric, Human Resource functions at large, hierarchical organizations with traditional manufacturing or service employees remain much the same as they were 10, 20 or more years ago.  They write policies that try to regulate the ways employees can interact with each other and the outside worlds. They try to establish and enforce pay levels, working hours, and decide who gets recommended for hire. They oversee equal opportunity employment. They create performance management schemes and discharge or layoff employees as rules or broken or need arises.  Most of the people who call themselves HR professionals have formal training in the rules and regulations of the country and state or province they work in and many have formal certifications from professional HR organizations or associations.

But this type of HR person and function is slipping into history faster than we may imagine as it becomes impossible to regulate and control people, ideas, or information. A system built on control as a fundamental assumption cannot survive. And, rather than adapt and develop the competencies and attitudes that might allow then to contribute to improving sales, HR people dig in and try even harder to proclaim their worth. They cite the awful legal things that will befall the organization if their rules are not followed and they increase the paranoia that surrounds Facebook and LinkedIn and other social networks or emerging technologies.

The Way it Might Be
HR might instead accept that creative work now means collaborating, sharing, and allowing information and ideas to flow freely. Newer organizations are already using HR in a different way.  While there are usually rules and policies, they are often much simpler and less “policed” than those of large organizations.  Information is openly shared including salaries and bonuses. Employees are asked to recommend friends and colleagues as candidates for open positions. Recruiting and development become more the responsibility of managers than of some corporate office.  Blogs and social networks form the basis of communication both within and outside the organizations and can be harnessed for recruiting candidates, on-boarding new employees, developing current employees and for sharing information.

Does HR Matter?
If we believe, as I do, that innovative and engaged people will be the most important raw material of future organizational and national prosperity, the answer is obviously  “yes.”  No corporate function represents people, advocates for people, or develops strategies to improve people other than HR.

It has never been more important and I think most CEOs and other executives know that. They are just frustrated and disappointed in those who carry the title HR professional.  They don’t see programs leading to improved productivity or profits and that is where HR must improve.  If we cannot develop methods that generate these things, we should move on to something else and let those who can do it.

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