When HR tries to measure itself it always ends in tears and not just the ones running down the cheeks of the HR department: every executive who has had to endure yet another HR presentation, supposedly demonstrating its incredible value proposition, will know only too well what it feels like. It would not be so bad if HR had learned from its previous mistakes. Measurement is a golden rule for any organisation but the measures must be meaningful to the business and they have to follow the #1 Golden Rule, often ignored by HR departments, of sticking to a well-conceived hypothesis.
Is HR theory and practice founded on sound hypotheses? The list of activities regarded as the unquestionable and indispensable orthodoxy of HR, the ‘givens’, includes -
- Competence frameworks
- 360° feedback (but including 180°, 540° and 473.5°) – OK, that last one was a joke
- Leadership development
- Talent management
All of these have been around for a while now so maybe it is about time someone checked out whether they are under-pinned by any sound hypothesis. Let us take a fresh look, using the logic of EB-HR, to see if any of them really hold water?
The Competence Hypothesis
Every EB-HR hypothesis has to start with an intelligent question about an identified problem: this is called root cause, or cause and effect, analysis. Presumably those who install competence frameworks believe they have a problem with the effects of management incompetence? Yet cause and effect analysis demands that the ‘effect’ be measured, so they can only say they have a problem with incompetence if they have already measured it. That conclusion, in turn, requires them to produce a very specific definition of competence and logically leads into that dreadful labyrinth comprised of the myriad of competencies supposedly exhibited by a multitude of managers in an infinite array of combinations or clusters. Now, even if they were able to unravel this Gordion knot of their own making, there is the equally important question of whether there is any close causal connection between these competencies and performance? This will require an analysis of the competencies of high performing managers, showing how being competent in certain areas (e.g. negotiation, organisation, delegation etc.) causes their performance to reach a level superior to their competence-challenged colleagues. Of course, to do this they would need a definition of performance based on a balanced set of performance indicators that could be compared between two distinct groups of managers over time (performing and non-performing) and we all know how problematic performance measurement is don’t we? This is because performance itself is subject to the vagaries of organisational planning and market dynamics, which never stay constant long enough for meaningful comparisons to be made. These environmental complications then ultimately defeat any attempt to run a controlled experiment where answers to the original questions can be found. Nevertheless, if the HR team soldiers on and somehow identifies a group that need some competence improvement they then incur the next practical problem of how to design individual, competence development programmes. Plus, they would simultaneously have to run a control group of managers, who would be left to their own devices, while the target groups (incompetent and competent) were monitored. Phew!!
If this hypothesis strikes you as simple, and easy to explain to any serving manager, then good luck with your competence framework. But remember – if your competitors are doing exactly the same then neither of you gain a competitive advantage after all this effort.
A simpler hypothesis, that addresses all of the complexities more directly and efficiently, is to regard each manager as a unique individual with their own unique combination of abilities and talents that you will never have the time or energy to fully fathom, explicate, delineate or codify. So instead, why not just ensure each manager is regularly asking themselves a set of simple evidence-based questions:
- ‘What evidence do I have of our performance level today?’
- ‘What measure would I choose to indicate an improvement?’
- ‘What do I require to help us achieve that improvement?’
Please note – if the answer to question 3. is something as broad as – ‘restructure the whole department’, ‘re-design the system‘, ‘re-think the process‘ or ‘change our marketing strategy’ – then this suggestion needs to be treated with respect, systematically analysed for validity and resolved.
This hypothesis is based on 3 assumptions -
- We are always willing and able to improve.
- Everyone is allowed to voice their conclusions from asking these questions, without fear, through a systematic process for organisational problem resolution
- If we keep improving we will read that as evidence that we are becoming more competent.
This evidence-based hypothesis leads me to recommend that you consider ditching your existing competence framework. Would anybody like to submit a better hypothesis for competence or any of the other ‘givens’ on the HR list?