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.
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.