For all the talk of the need for talent and the huge dependence on human capability to compete effectively, HR for the most part is still a dumb industry. It’s dumb not because the people responsible for it are dumb but because the processes of control and conform that worked so neatly in the factory age are still in effect. And they are dumb. They’re dumb because they continue to treat people in ways that are out of sync with what is really required.
The old joke that HR stands for Hiring (Filing) and Redundancy remains sadly all too true all too often. That’s because for all the talk of empowerment and individual initiative, in far too many corporate cultures people are still being put in a place and handed processes, procedures and things to do. OK, so now they’re grouped in clusters and open plan offices and they are provided with ergonomic furniture but they are still being treated as production units rather than as creative individuals. As a result, too many organisations subliminally ask their people to compromise rather than compete; encourage them to politicise rather than perform; and expect them to agree rather than activate.
Too many organisations subliminally ask their people to compromise rather than compete
In a thought-provoking presentation at WOBI, Gary Hamel posited that if organisations were serious about being competitive in the burgeoning creative economy, then they really would change how they changed. Three key observations drove home why a fundamental rethink of the ways that companies marshal cultures is critical.
1. In any company, Hamel observes, there are a lot of jobs that are nothing more than commodities. They are photocopy roles of what is being done at every other competitor. How, asks Hamel, can any organisation expect to differentiate who it is and what it does when the people responsible for thinking through the change are in identikit roles to the very people they’re trying to be different from? “I would hope that in your company, there’s not a single job that’s a commodity job,” he says, “because that means it’s not creating any true differentiated value.”
It’s a superb point. And it raises a fascinating opportunity for HR: to fundamentally redefine the roles and the evolution of roles within the business so that a brand does indeed have people in distinctive roles doing distinctive work and contributing directly to a differentiated strategy.
2. Hamel goes on to point out that getting rid of commodity jobs is not about outsourcing those jobs or driving them offshore – because all that has happened in both cases is that the roles have left the building. The thinking that saw the need for a conforming job and the criteria that shaped how that same-as-others role would be undertaken have not.
Getting the same job done more cheaply may make you a more efficient organisation but it still reflects a wish to compete in the same manner as everyone else. In effect, it still treats people as “dumb” because it sees what they do, and the contributions they make, as fully transferrable. It turns people into a revolving door of CVs, judged not on what they have to contribute but how similar they are to what the organisation has now. When you power your business model with people whose skills are not specifically tuned to how you foresee you will compete, then one of two things is happening. You either don’t have a strategy that is distinctive enough to warrant people with differentiated skills or you don’t believe that people with those skills are worth having in your organisation. Those are not smart attitudes.
3. Finally, Hamel says, the reason companies have peopled the commodity jobs they’ve created with workers they largely perceive and treat as a commodity is that organisations have continued to assume that uninspiring work must be done by uninspired people. That circle self-perpetuates. With instructions to just do as they are asked and no more, and judged on their ability to “fit” that paradigm, people in such cultures quickly revert to a no-action approach. The truism: when no-one’s motivated to change, everyone is unmotivated.
Companies are quick to claim that their people are their greatest asset – but many of the ways they bring their workforce together speak to a different meaning than that statement might initially suggest. People are their greatest asset for the work they want them to do now – not the work they will need to do to be competitive into the future. Under “dumb” HR, the ways in which people are arranged and roled does not make them (or even allow them to be) a significant asset for where the company needs to get to.
The opportunity that’s being missed
“Dumb” HR is cookie-cutter people administration. It undervalues what people can do, and underplays what HR should be doing. And while strategic HR gets an airing in the business press, there has to be more to it than just finding the best people to fulfil the current strategy.
The strategic HR opportunity that’s being missed lies in increasing the creativity of the work being done so that the company can keep generating distinction and disruption. And that’s about not just recognising talent but actively creating and evolving a role for each person that energises and empowers them to deliver work that bears less and less resemblance to what they would do, or be challenged to do, elsewhere.
Nothing dumb about that. Nothing dumb at all.