Friday 1 May 2009

What is HR really for?


     I know some people (Kris Dunn, for example) suggest that we should ignore the endless rants against the HR profession.  I tend to disagree.  One, these allow us the opportunity to restate our side of the case.  And two, I worry that if we’re not up to speed on these attacks, it further reduces our credibility: (CEO: “You’ve never come across ‘Why we hate HR’???? You must be kidding, right?” [thinks: these HR people don’t even know what’s going on in their own world, never mind mine!]).

So here’s a heads-up on a new shot across the bows from Stefan Stern in Management Today.  Stern argues that HR is still in danger of becoming a bureaucratic pariah and suggests a way forward for HR professionals - ‘if we are bold enough’.

Stern doesn’t make his view about the path towards HR’s ‘glorious future’ as clear as it might be, but it seems to be a combination of two things:

  • ‘HR professionals need to be real business people, with a grasp of profit-and-loss realities’
  • ‘Once some of that precious credibility has been (re-)established, there is an open corporate door for HR professionals to push at. And the prize is large.’


Regular readers may remember I’ve recently proposed very much the same thing myself.  So while I don’t like the tone of the article, I agree with the main recommendations.


The report refers to several pieces of research which support the above conclusions, and which HR practitioners should be familiar with as well:

  • Boston Consulting Group’s research for the European Association for People Management: Creating People Advantage in Times of Crisis (a bit too prescribed for my tastes, and too focused on activities verses outcomes eg focusing on strategic workforce planning vs having insight into how the workforce is likely to change and therefore what can be done to support this)
  • Tomorrow Company’s report: Tomorrow’s Global Talent – How will leading companies create value through people? (I like this one more)
  • The Corporate Research Forum’s report: Configuring HR for Tomorrow’s Challenges (I haven’t seen this one, but I like the conclusions eg to focus on organisational effectiveness and to create a high performance work environment)
  • Communications Management’s research on the use of social networking (again, I haven’t seen this, but I’m surprised with the finding that 80% of HR managers are using social networking to some extent.  And I don’t believe more use of web 2.0 is the answer to HR’s problems, although it can form an important part of HR 2.0),



My favourite lines from the article are those at the end of the report:

“Undoubtedly, the HR profession has brought upon itself a lot of the ridicule that it has had to endure - through pedantry, an obsession with process, an inability to see the bigger picture, and a lack of courage to stick up for what is right.

But it doesn't have to be that way. With the financial and business worlds in turmoil, and with so many of our other preconceptions being shattered, why can't HR arise gleaming and reborn from the wreckage? Why shouldn't the 'people people' step forward to assert their right to speak up? Have the past 10 years of Enron, Tyco, WorldCom and the splendours of the now largely defunct investment banking industry turned out to be a glorious advertisement for the old way of doing things, for 'business as usual'?

Something had better change, and perhaps now is the right time for HR to take a lead.”


If you want a leg up in changing your HR function, and its impact on your business, get in touch!  Or is Stern right about the lack of courage in HR?


jon  [dot] ingham [at] strategic [dash] hcm [dot] com

+44 1344 420 512



  1. A bit like IT I find it sad that people who could have exciting jobs, enabling their organisations and changing the world, get stuck in maintaining the status quo. Can you ever expect to change these people's outlook or do you have to start again from scratch?

  2. Hi Euan, I'm sure you can - if you create enough desire in people to get involved - in order to overcome the inertia for them not too. A bit like you did at the BBC in fact!?

  3. I guess - though were we just making it OK for those who had already been different to "come out"?

  4. HR needs to push for seats on boards, it will be the only way to get more recognition. Some boards don't even consider the valuable input that HR brings to the table.

    If they think about it, it was HR that got them into the job in the first place.

    P.S. I've boked marked your book for a review and we will give it a mention in one of our articles on our Job Board -


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