RETHINKING HUMAN RESOURCES
A couple years ago I conducted a small research project with an HR colleague, Marcie Schorr-Hirsch. We were feeling particularly disheartened by the state of most Human Resources functions and wanted to do two things: verify if things were so bad and, if so, what is an alternative.
We asked HR executives in the Boston area what was going on in their worlds. Here is a high level summary of what they told us:
- Employee engagement is the number one concern of the executive team. That’s the good news. The bad news is that, in spite of efforts primarily led by the HR staff, the employee feedback has been poor and trending in the wrong direction over multiple years.
- Elimination of management training programs has had a dramatic, but little discussed, impact on organizations. HR has been hustling to fill the gaps in supervision and employee development left by managers who are not prepared to guide their (ever larger) teams. This phenomenon is a significant driver of poor engagement feedback. The draconian training budget cuts that began 10 years ago gutted high value programs.
- Beyond filling in for managers, HR leaders and staff spend their time on primarily tactical activities. The CEO and other executives demand that the trains run on time, that the data is clean and accessible, that employee complaints are handled without escalation. All this is to be done faster and for less money. HR has reworked its priorities and deployed precious resources to respond to these demands.
- The CEO’s agenda is almost exclusively bottom line driven. HR has been unable to get on their radar screen with creative solutions that address the human issues in their organizations and mitigate the unintended consequences of this narrow focus.
- In general, this is a hard working but frustrated group of professionals. Even if they sit on the senior team, their input has been hijacked or falls on deaf ears.
Honestly, we weren’t surprised about anything we heard. But we were concerned. Based on our shared experiences as consultants, managers and HR executives this data confirmed our own notions. And we strongly believe that continuing down the current path does not successfully deal with the present and looming concerns of the employees the HR function has been charged with addressing. The gap seems to lie in the failure to recognize what Daniel Pink calls “the mismatch between what (social) science knows and what business does” to motivate and engage people.
Organizations desperately need to recognize and integrate this valuable knowledge. We believe the answer lies in the creation of a new role: Chief Social Scientist. This function would be filled by someone who is a deep expert about human behavior and how to construct the best policies, practices and environment to create the most productive and satisfied work force. We recommend reassigning most traditional HR administrative activities (along with HR specialists who deliver them) into other operational aspects of the business and leaving the CSS and her/his team free to focus on the critical content of engaging people. Allow the CSS to be a unique voice on the executive team who is not burdened with running the trains. Let this person speak through a social science lens, teach others how to bring this into view, bring solid human behavior data to decision making and guide the organization to a new standard of productivity and engagement.
To give a better sense of what this would look like in reality, consider how a CSS would approach the issue of inadequate management capacity. Today it is an underground discussion in organizations and HR is not getting much traction.
A social science approach to this challenge would be conducting an in-depth debate with the executive team about the value of good management. This discussion would draw on the team’s experiences and the best research on management and adult development. Once grounded in a sense of shared commitment, a CSS would then shed light on the 2-3 most critical skills to cultivate in managers and then co-create a process with the extended leadership group to demonstrate and coach these few requirements. No more 25 competencies, in-class training at the senior levels and forms and checklists to provide the metrics. In its place would be a sharply focused, up close and personal approach to developing leaders and managing the work.
Social scientists know that there is limited long-term value in many of the tools currently used to train or develop people. But they also know what methods are effective in creating growth and success in individuals. In today’s organizations, much of the talent management effort is focused on the high potential employees; this is largely because of the cost of scattershot efforts when they are delivered to the wider employee group. A CSS would scrap many programs in favor of delivering sharply focused, high-value initiatives across the workforce.
There are plenty of Conference Board reports acknowledging the dire state of employee satisfaction. We believe that staying on the current course will make those numbers even worse. Organizations must commit to a fundamental re-framing of their understanding of their people and the structures and resources that support them. Failure to do so will continue the trend toward employee disengagement, and, as the economy revives, create an issue of retention—including that of the most valued workers.
Whether or not our organizations would like it to be so, people are not capital. (And just when did we begin to call people Human Capital???) They are not a commodity. If we don’t take a dramatically different approach to how we treat our human resources our organizations will soon be facing Talent War 3.0.
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