Simon Terry

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The Broken Photocopier in HR. Buy a Scanner Instead.

Human Resources best practices are often widely copied.  Best practices are contextual and the future of work will require us to carefully revisit past practices.

If there’s a broken photocopier in HR, you might want to order a new scanner instead.

The HR Copier is Broken

Much of what we think of as modern HR practices is copied from long ago. Often these copies are from remarkably few organisations. To name a few examples:

  • General Foods was the first client of the Hay Group one of the leading proponents of role sizing and remuneration schemes.
  • General Motors pioneered much of the best practices of the divisional corporation.
  • GE under Jack Welch was renowned for practices like force ranking of employees, high potential talent management and structured leadership development.
  • Even, Google had a widely copied run with its opportunity for engineers to spend a percentage of their time on personal and hopefully innovative projects. (Perhaps Google should rename itself General Intelligence for this practice to be more widely copied.) 

The HR photocopier continues to churn out the same best practice recommendations for widely divergent organisations. Jon Husband has pointed out that many of our core HR role design practices traced back to the 1950s and shape our thinking about roles, hierarchy and knowledge. In the first CAWW webinar, Harold Jarche made the point that best practices in networks are often highly contextual, depending upon the situation of the organisation, its culture and its environment. Often these practices are applied as tools without reference to the culture and entire system of practices that made them successful in the first place. Applying best practices blindly can result in unintended and even perverse consequences.  For example, the diverse results of the application of forced ranking of performance is evident in any search on the term.

Copying any of these practices carries into your organisation assumptions and values that may not reflect those you would choose on your own. Implicit assumptions, like distrust of employee motivation and capabilities, can have widespread impacts and hold back the ability to leverage employee engagement, creativity and innovation. Worse still your culture is likely to subvert the process to suit the normal pattern of interactions.  People make their own unique sense of new HR practices, particularly if they requires actions that are uncommon or uncomfortable in your organisation like hard conversations, transparency of performance and conflict. Perfecting the tool alone will not deliver the promised outcomes in this case.

Disruptive change makes blind copying even more dangerous. Copying competitors and past practices is no guarantee of success in a changing environment. Even the organisations above have reconsidered practices and seen variations in performance over time. The pace of change around organisations, the threats to their talent and the need for people to respond have all changed greatly.

Copying practices from the pages of business publications, recommendations of consultants or piles of management books leads to focus internally on implementation and management. HR skillsets become dominated by the skills to manage these borrowed practices. There becomes a real danger that the practices once implemented will ossify and become barriers to agility and performance improvement.

Buy a Scanner instead

Swap the copier for a scanner. Scan the system, test improvements & learn.

Human Resources can play a critical role in helping an organisation be more responsive to its environment. Few of the practices above are tailored to a digital, social and network era. An organisation needs constantly to be tuning the interactions, practices and conversations of the organisation to meet needs for agility, capability and performance. To play this role, the function will need to both look outwards to the networks around the organisation, contribute perspectives on capability and performance alignment to strategy and deeply understand the interactions, barriers to success and drivers of performance internally. This activity is a critical strategic enabler and major source of intelligence for managers looking for the next competitive advantage.

In an era when continuous improvement of processes and practices is the norm, human resources needs to be seeking ways to drive critical daily improvements in the systems inside the organisation that manage a critical component of performance, people. HR’s scanners should be leading that process. Because people are not just cogs in a process, we also have the opportunity to engage them deeply in the design, implementation and improvement of the practices that directly impact them. 

Most importantly of all HR needs to understand the diversity of the research into new practices and conduct its own experiments, measurement and innovation. After all, a unique culture of HR practices ideally suited to the culture of one organisation is the hardest competitive advantage to replicate.


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