Not really. This series is promoting VALUE, not HR. Conventional HR (i.e. non-evidence-based) is, at best, a means to an end and at worst a drain on resources. This fact of life is one that the vast majority of HR people either do not understand or choose to studiously ignore: a great deal of their work adds little value and some of it actually reduces value (maybe that’s 2 facts of life but it is essentially the same point). Let us first deal with the issue of conventional HR work adding little, if any, value.
Ask yourself what is the value of a laptop to an individual or an organisation but, before you reach for your calculator to work out productivity rates (with and without laptops), stop for a second and consider whether you would bother doing the same calculation for the use of the wheel? No doubt the invention of the wheel gave the Mesopotamians a competitive advantage in heavy-rock logistics 3500 years ago but I don’t hear anyone singing the praises of the wheel these days, do you? Similarly we all take laptops for granted because they do not cost much these days.
A more nuanced point is that whatever advantage was gained from buying laptops in the past, in terms of efficiency, is now enjoyed by all of your competitors and they have all translated those efficiency savings into lower costs and more competitive pricing. Ergo, no one can achieve any more value from laptops.
Of course, the dedicated EB-HR manager in me says – yes, but what about the way people use their laptops? The doctor who can make a quicker diagnosis, the graphic designer who is better trained to use its full potential? Surely that brings a competitive edge and more value? That might be true, again for a short time, but if all doctors and graphic designers are equally well-trained (yes, I accept that is a huge ‘if’) then the advantage eventually disappears.
So why do HR and ‘learning’ people get so excited about their employee engagement scores or their ‘e-learning solutions’? They are kidding themselves that these, in some way, are bringing them advantages – but they are not. What might bring them some advantage though is how they use these tools strategically – first mover societies that seize upon and exploit the strategic or military advantage of the next ‘wheel’ will dominate the world.
With that inspirational thought now uppermost in your mind I am sorry to have to bring you back down to the fact that HR methods can actually reduce value when not deployed correctly. Take the issue of performance management using forced ranking; a method that was once flavour-of-the-month. Here is a quote from an article about the VP-HR of Ford Europe’s experience under the heading – “Ford rethinks cull of its lowest performers”
“Boy did it get a bad reaction. It turned a lot of staff against the company just by the manner in which it was done. We’ve moved away from that now. If you put in a performance management approach, make sure it fits the company culture.”
Paradoxically, while HR is pretending to play a strategic game there is plenty of evidence that it is actually wasting huge amounts of value every day just doing the reactive, transactional work that is the comfort blanket of the majority of HR practitioners. The disciplinary, grievance, legal and contractual work they pretend to dislike is actually the only job they know. Worse still, they have a perverse incentive to ensure they have as many problems to deal with as possible, which has the dual appeal of not only keeping them in employment (for now) but also, simultaneously, making them ‘too busy’ to do the really difficult, but high value, strategic work.
All this nonsense about HR outsourcing or moving to a shared service centre, so that HR can become more ‘strategic’ ( a line Dave Ulrich has been simplistically trotting out far past its sell-by date) was always a con. Outsourcing HR transactions is never going to add value if the value of those transactions is nil or their frequency is not significantly curtailed by adopting a well-conceived and implemented strategic approach (like dealing with strategic employee relations issues and recalcitrant union representatives). Ford were not ready for forced ranking; it was the wrong solution for a poorly diagnosed problem. It was never going to work because Ford shied away from taking the difficult, long-term, strategic HR decisions – and still does so today.
So where does that leave the potential for HR and learning to add value? Could the technological ‘wheel’ of the internet provide greater opportunities? Not if we accept Michael Dell’s earlier prediction that the internet would be so ubiquitous and low cost that it would be just like everyone having access to the same electric light switch. So whenever we hear of the supposed ‘advantages’ of e-HR and e-learning solutions* being trumpeted we are really just witnessing HR and learning departments where the cold light of truth has yet to dawn. They need to get themselves ready for the day when the CFO, who has been trying to get rid of their costs for so long, finally wakes up. Without evidence of value that day cannot be too far away.