Transformation in Human Resources


As we prepare to head to Austin on Sunday to take part in the big shindig that is TLNT’s Transform Conference on Monday and Tuesday, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of transformation is needed in HR.  Because of the circles we run in and the people we tend to bump into, it seems that I hear a lot of talk about how HR needs to change, to evolve, to transform.  But, it’s rare to find a clear, compelling vision of what that looks like to go with the sentiment about the need for change.  It’s as if we know that change is needed, but we aren’t sure where to go next.

I’m not ambitious enough to attempt to put forward that vision in this post.  But I do have some thoughts about the kind of change we need to think about as we collectively work to define the future of HR.   Not too long ago, I prepared a presentation called the “Evolution of Talent Management.”  Part of this presentation was a brief history lesson on the origins of talent management and, really, management practices within our organizations.  As I did my research for the presentation, I was shocked by what I found.  The two sources that were most helpful to me were Peter Cappelli‘s book Talent on Demand and this Gary Hamel Video.  Clearly, I hadn’t been paying attention to the history that had shaped my work because as the story began to unfold in front of me, I couldn’t believe it.

Here’s the cliff note’s version of what I found.  There have been really three major waves of innovation in the field of management since its creation as a profession or discipline in the late 1800’s.   The first wave was in the late 1800’s when things like job descriptions, performance appraisals and the concept of meritocracy (being promoted based on our your performance and abilities) were introduced.

The second wave of management innovation came in the 1920’s as the US was in the midst of industrialization.  Management’s aim in this period and for the next few decades was, as Gary Hamel describes it, to “turn human beings into semi-programmable robots.”  Companies built frameworks (policies, structures, training) that were designed to help a human be less human (consistently do the same task over and over for long periods of time-less thinking, no creativity).  However, it was during this same period that the need to cultivate and develop management benchstrength was realized and a host of new approaches emerged:

  • Formal Management Training Programs
  • Using job rotations as development, formally
  • High Potential Development programs
Then, after a period of stagnation during the depression and WWII, a third period of management innovation emerged in the 1950’s.  Fueled by a recovering economy and the return of soldiers home from war, companies were on the management innovation trail once more.  Due to a variety of reasons, executive leadership talent was very scarce and hard to come by during this time which fueled another round of new approches:
  • Modern recruiting
  • Replacement/Succession Planning
  • 360 degree feedback
  • Force ranking
  • Scientific assessment of talent
Now here’s the problem, we haven’t had another period of significant management innovation since.  I’m sure that there will be some management scholars or gurus who would suggest that our thinking on management has evolved a great deal, and that may be true.  The problem is that our organizations still look and act much the same way they did in the 1950’s.  And sadly, most of the approaches that were defined a century ago to make humans less human are still alive and well in our organizations today.  Regardless of what we try to convince ourselves of, we still largely run our organizations on command and control, top down hierarchy.  Look at the list of management practices I outlined above.  There are still companies today who are implementing some of these programs today as if they were new innovations.  We’ve got our heads in the sand because management is as broken today as it’s ever been.
The problems here are obvious.  The world has changed so dramatically in the past 60 years, that most of these approaches aren’t even relevant today and yet we have yet to replace them and evolve to something more appropriate.  Computers, then the internet, then social technology and the cloud have transformed how we can do business.  The very definition of what we call “work” has changed and continues to change daily.  And, our current crop of executive leaders are a product of this broken system, so many of them can’t see the need for change.
So, when we talk about the transformation of HR as those who can affect some real change, we can’t sit around and think about how to make our current processes work better or make incremental improvements on the current system.  That ship has sailed about 35 years ago.  The time has come to completely rethink how our organizations are organized.  Governments are being overthrown by groups of people that are self-organizing in real time through social media.  So, we have to let go of how we have come to believe that business should be done and study how value and progress is happening–without our “organization.”
Transformation in HR is about reinvention.  It’s about re-imagining and redefining our role and then recreating our organizations from there.  It’s a huge task, but we have no other choice but to step up to it.
I hope that this is the conversation we find in Austin next week.


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