Desinit in piscem

One of the more important reasons HR fails to deliver as a business function is its addiction to fads. The yearly wealth of new leadership theories and books illustrate HR’s desperate addiction to pseudo-scientific management BS. These fads are nothing more than charming trends initiating a gulf of energy and enthusiasm over a short period. Every other day, there is a self-proclaimed guru with a pseudo-scientific theory seducing the gullible HR community into buying an innovative and groundbreaking approach that will significantly improve today’s HR practices, delivering stronger business results and an increase in competitive advantage. Sadly, the guru proves to be another emperor without clothes and the innovative and groundbreaking approach a measure for nothing and at best of transitory value. The business, represented by the management and employees, see HR fail again and hope (which is the opposite of a strategy) that one day HR will deliver on its promise, given enough technology and leadership.

This doesn’t mean we need to reduce HR to ‘quantified thinking’. HR analytics for example isn’t going to promote HR to a valued business function. This over-reliance on data is fast becoming another fad. It clouds HR’s ability to reason meaningfully about the facts at hand and the complex context in which these facts are imbedded. It leads to simplistic indiscriminate thinking and reduces multifactorial problems to one, maybe two but maximum three causes. These truth-making methods work in spreadsheets and presentations but fail in the real world. The business likes it because it’s numeric. The human factor however isn’t easily caught in an algorithm, let alone a number.

Science however is the way forward. A step in the right direction is evidence-based HR management. It is not the holy grail but it should allow HR to deconstruct all the practices that do more harm than good and introduce value-add initiatives backed-up by scientific research and based on a solid understanding of the organizational context, with a strong focus on the values, expertise and evidence of all stakeholders.

One of the difficulties HR will face is convincing the business that evidence-based HR will not remove the need for interpreting the complexity the human factor causes in companies and that despite technology, HR will deliver erratically. Consider the following example: innovativeness and performance of the company are positively linked. While evidence-based HR research might for example uncover that there is a positive and significant relationship between the use of full-time workers and innovativeness, it might also find that training investments on new technologies, languages and data processes do not have any impact on innovativeness . Do you reduce part-time employment and reroute the training investments? Do you embed this finding in a broader data-driven equation on training design? Or do you do hide behind some business process re-engineering with some new talent management tool? Or do you just try to explain the context to the business?

Clearly, HR management has a long way to go to become the business function it needs to be. First thing, it needs to stop adhering to fads and heresies which are like mermaids, beautiful and attractive at first but ending in a fish tail. Still, like Fox Mulder, I want to believe.

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