Putting the human into HR

We’re seeing significant shifts in thinking about some long-held policies and practices in HR. First we were hearing about firms like Netflix abandoning policies on things such as holiday allowances, and now a number of major organisations are apparently ditching their performance management processes.

When big companies such as Accenture and Deloitte start to scrap long-enshrined practices like the annual performance review and performance rankings, many managers – as well as those on the receiving end – will probably be hoping their employer will follow suit. But those responsible for performance management, and for ensuring the fair distribution of pay and reward in organisations, will doubtless be questioning what the alternative is. At this point, these businesses are few, but what they are focusing on is the purpose or outcomes of these policies and processes.

The challenge for us all is to recognise where our policies and processes (often handed down over many years) are effective in achieving the outcomes intended, and where they are not. The main aim of performance management should be to improve performance, but it has too often become a ritualised and bureaucratic process that can distract managers from the regular connection, engagement and feedback conversations they should be having, as well as the deeper periodic discussions about development and growth opportunities.

What is also happening is the move towards what some might call putting the human back into human resources: focusing on the person, enabling them to do the best job they can, and giving them the opportunity to develop. That is the wider purpose of much of what we do in HR and L&D. It’s one of the reasons we’ve been stressing the need to get back to a deeper understanding of human behaviour, but also why we need to get better at measuring and understanding outcomes and value. The future has to be a lot less about control, and a lot more about enablement.

The long drive for efficiency and too much focus on so-called ‘best practice’ have constrained thinking into a ‘one size fits all’ approach, in which it’s easy to lose sight of purpose. Good HR is contextual, individually and organisationally, and the world of work is evolving so quickly anyway that focusing on finding best practice versus most appropriate practice, or ‘best fit’, makes less and less sense.

Rather than prescriptive processes and practices, we need to start with broad principles that are sensitive to various stakeholders and are focused on good business purpose and outcomes. They’ll help us all make good decisions when faced with the kind of dilemmas illustrated in this month’s People Management magazine – not only when there are conflicting interests at stake, but also where there is no law, process or ‘best practice’ to tell you what to do to achieve a particular outcome.

The debate about principles and what we stand for is touching an increasingly common zeitgeist for business and society at large. All the established professions, from medicine to accountancy, are founded on core principles. Of course, principles alone do not define a profession – they’re backed up with a solid knowledge base, standards, qualifications and CPD, and a deep understanding of context. But as we debate the future of HR, we think principles are a very good place to start.

Thank you for your comments. There may be a short delay in this going live on the blog page as we moderate the comments added to our blogs.

  • Really thoughtful piece Peter.

    I think the H.R. community needs to give up on the hope that if they build a world of rules, policies and procedures their future is secure, and instead look to help transform organisations into intrapreneurial power houses



    Centre for Enterprise

  • Although I don't necessarily disagree with you, Gareth this is maybe easier said than done.  As Peter says, "Good HR is contextual, individually and organisationally.." and while some may be able to cope, and indeed thrive, with the freedom that having some top level broad principles and boundaries can create, others can become paralysed in the absence of something more prescriptive.

    Finding the balance can be very hard and, whilst I for one am entirely comfortable with the looser approach where everyone is allowed to work it out for themselves, I recognise that others are scared stiff of this and not wired the same way.

    We could of course do some re-wiring of individuals but this is never a 5-minute job.  Maybe we should accept that it's not one or the other and we should tailor our approach according to the individual and the organisation - this is where good HR can make a real impact by identifying the actual need and offering solutions and approaches that are flexible and adaptive.

    As I said, it's not easy but doesn't mean we shouldn't try.


    Head of HR

  • If I can offer a slightly different perspective based on the area of business that I have experience in (business performance).

    The most important element for me is that we do not let policy and process impact on customer experience in a negative way whatsoever.

    It's a fine line between empowering employees to manage their own work, prioritise their own tasks and develop their own processes, but , from a managerial point of view we also must also maximise efficiency, minimise error / risk and generate growth opportunities.

    To me it all comes down to working smart, allow me a slight indulgence here. The company I work for develop training management software, one of the biggest benefits of this is that many duplicated processes can be automated, freeing up employees to focus on high value activities. It also reduced errors and risks. Pre-configured workflows also create optimum efficiency and best practice.

    However, we certainly do not want to lose that human interaction that it is hard to calibrate. It's all about striking that difficult balance between the two...I guess this is the essence of good management and leadership

    For anyone that's interested, here's a link if you want any further information; www.interactivesoftware.co.uk/.../product-details