Sunday, March 15, 2009

7 reasons why HR is no home for learning

1. Janus-faced

As HR departments around the world are told to select and fire staff, those who are shown the door may recall with mixed feelings the HR mantra, that ‘people are our greatest asset’. This is the problem with HR. It is, through no fault of its own, Janus-faced. One day they’re encouraging growth and self-development, the next they’re handing you a cardboard box and escorting you to the front door. One day they’re recommending a training plan, the next they’re forcing you to swallow several accusatory compliance programmes, protecting the organisation from your dangerous habits. One day they’re recommending communication and teamwork, the next they’re banning social networking sites. They have a tough job, but ultimately HR is a reactive ‘pay and rations’ function, and when it turns the tables on people, it seems duplicitous.

2. Change averse

HR could stand for Harm Reduction, as it is largely about equilibrium, not disruption. HR has to make sure that the ‘business as usual’ issues, such as recruitment, pay, holidays and absenteeism are managed and reported. When it comes to more radical, disruptive or change events, that throw things off balance, or focus on a new business need, it gets flustered. In practice, lack of experience in change management, often the result of a lack of raw business management experience, leads to initiatives that start but are not sustained.

3. Risk averse

HR could also be seen as Hardly Radical, as it is largely about reducing risk in a business. It’s expected to normalise activity, not suggest or take business risks. So when radical technology solutions are introduced to an organisation, its role is often to identify dangers then react by implementing a ban. This is precisely what happened with social networking. Without understanding even the rudiments of the legal situation, on confidentiality, libel and harassment, they simply banned them. What it needed was some sensible analysis around its business advantages and disadvantages, not a knee-jerk reaction.

4. Course obsessed

HR struggles to move beyond the course. I suspect this is due to its attachment to simple regular processes. Pay, holidays, appraisals, and so on, are timetabled. This leads to simplistic training largely through timetabled classroom events. HR rarely has to move beyond this type of organisational skill to get things done. HR in this sense could stand for Highly Repetitive. Courses are timetabled, attended (or not), weakly evaluated and run again. Failure to recognise that most learning does NOT come from courses, means it doesn’t think out of the box that is the trainer and classroom. It struggles to respond to alternative ways of learning. For example, it’s rare to come across even a single A4 page on informal learning.

5. Research-free zone

Hates Research could be another moniker. It’s a department that eschews science and research, because in ’pay and rations’, research has little impact. This allows all sorts of oddball initiatives to sneak in through the unguarded door, making it a welcome home for faddish and non-empirical theories and practices. Whatever NLP, therapy, learning styles, Maslow, Mozart effect nonsense comes its way, it embraces with open arms. So infused is HR by therapy culture, that counselling, coaching and mentoring have displaced learning. In making employment pathological, people have become patients, not employees.

6. Technophobic

HR is often technically weak and has low levels of technical expertise. This leads to crude procurement and the failure to identify and manage these risks. This, in turn, results in failed projects where the on implementation the whole thing disintegrates. With e-learning, it struggles to cope with the technical demands of online learning.

7. Trainer, not learner-centric

As HR is often about telling and explaining to people what their pay, entitlements, holiday and rights are, they rarely come at training from a learner-centric point of view. It’s a top-down department with a rule-ridden culture. Their knowledge of the psychology of learning, for example, is likely to be way below their knowledge of employment law. It’s a culture of the commonplace, not a culture of innovation.


This is not an attack on HR, only a recognition that its function is at odds with the need for an organisation to nourish itself through learning and innovation. It is has other objectives, other skills and a different mindset.


Rob said...

"Human Remains" tends to be the sobriquet of choice where I work. Make of that what you will...

Mark Berthelemy said...


Whilst I agree with much of what you're saying here, I would argue that you can't tar coaching & mentoring with the same brush as NLP, learning styles etc.

Coaching & mentoring is just about formalising professional relationships that happen already in the best organisations. There's no psychobabble, unless you go to the multitude of independent performance coaches. The best managers already do coaching & mentoring.

Anonymous said...


I have a slightly different view (maybe number 8).

Keep HR out of Change Initiatives - HR should not be involved with doing anything related to change supervision. The problem that I have encountered over the years of consulting is that when you mention change to the CEO, he/she immediately says, "Go see HR." At that point, I pack my bag or I argue that Change is his/her purview and hold my ground. This is not a 100 words or less issue, it is substantive and is the basis of some fun conversations. Len Bertain 510-520-8011 or

I have a whole bunch of other ideas but keeping HR out of any change initiatives that are coordinated thru the CEOs office will be successful. Run it thru HR and "fagetaboudit!!"

Jenn B said...

I don't disagree that sometimes those in HR are the "people-people" that are sometime ineffective when lead learning initiatives. But I am not sure I agree that they should be taken completely out of the learning loop. When effective, HR is a great learning champion.

The upsycho said...

I have never felt as if we 'fit' within the HR umbrella. Our drivers are just not the same as theirs. But, unless learning becomes a separate umbrella, where do we go?

Anonymous said...

I worked in HR for 9 years and I don’t think it matters if training reports to HR or operations. Either way, it can be difficult to affect change across an organization. Web 2.0 may be easily dismissed for a variety of reasons. There are individuals who feel it is just for kids and managers who block social networking because they’re afraid their staff will simply waste their day on the Internet. Like any other function, HR has forward thinking folks ready to embrace change and those who just can’t handle being outside the box. So, I say, make your case, back it up with facts, demonstrate the business impact, and champion others to your cause. I think HR can be a partner or a hindrance, and that is true for basically every organizational department.

vijay iyer said...

As a learning consultant and service provider, I couldn't agree more - there are very few learning specialists managing learning in companies. This leads to a "greatest common factor" treatment to learning needs and solutions are mostly suboptimal.

Vijay Iyer