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I am not sure if it’s the time of year or if I am just coming across a number of interesting and challenging articles at the moment. Here’s a fascinating one about HR: http://businessvalueexchange.com/2014/06/06/hr-department-defunct-digital-era/?utm_source=taboola&utm_medium=referral

The article’s argument is nicely summed up in this paragraph:

‘So critical was the role of a static workforce traditionally, that organisations employed an entire department to oversee it. The recruitment, retention and remuneration of the workforce was a methodical, process-driven effort that was staffed by a dedicated team and supported by a bunch of in-house systems. The new style of workforce calls for new styles of management and support. […] we ask: Is the HR department defunct?’

Now in my career I’ve had a strange relationship with HR. In my youth the relationship was quixotic; I even, when I graduated, felt like I wanted to work in personnel (as it was called then). Yet during my life, as an employee and manager, I have found it to not live up to those ideals. Why? Well HR functions are not really trained in the things they are meant to do. They are not accountants so struggle to do budgets and financial planning of staff benefits. They are not lawyers, so struggle with HR legislation; they are not risk management trained, so struggle with HR risk management; they are not psychologists, so struggle with recruitment; so what they do – in many cases, is fall back on low quality administration. Now of course this is a characterisation, as an academic at a university once characterised them as ‘human remains’ view was.

Now we have the challenge from the article above. People and staff no longer follow detailed rules and processes. This makes sense in a knowledge economy and modern workplaces. So HR departments to oversee rules makes no business sense. Well I do buy this. Most HR departments I have met are overly prescriptive in preventative controls and weak on detective ones. There is always a gap in control whenever I have audited HR processes between what the central HR department thinks is occurring and what the line management are doing – always – every time. HR processes are always ‘rich pickings’ from an internal audit perspective. Why is this though? Well I believe it is that the HR, and personnel department before it, has wanted to see good HR practice embedded into line management. This is a position I agree with. Few HR departments have really found a way to make this happen, other than the application of hope, and even fewer have checked back in to really see if it is being embedded. This has been a constant in my career across clients, sectors, and geographies.

Yet I can name the really great HR people I have been supported by in my career, particularly as a manager. Those sensible people who can bypass the nonsense HR rules, be human (a trait you would have thought embedded into HR) and provide support. These are the people who recognise that HR skills and understanding the myriad of do’s and dont’s  is but a thin slice of a manager’s week, and that a little navigation and regular coffee and chat is really valuable. My clients’ HR departments have generally withdrawn back from supporting line management directly, as too much support denudes us as managers in the first line from learning and becoming better at it; learned helplessness if you will. A good HR business support manager will, in this model, intervene at just the right time and support a struggling manager. At my current client I have been lucky and identified a set of ‘good HR eggs’ who give me support as and when I need it.

I do think the HR profession needs to step back and articulate a new vision for its role, as suggested in the article. In particular to decide what skills it needs to really manage human resource in the 21st century. In particular it does need to have a greater grip of finance, of the law, of good recruitment. Most of all it needs to move away from means and focus on ends. Processes are there to provide frameworks, not strait jackets. The industry of grievances and investigations the profession allows (I accept legislation does not help with this) is not good. This needs to be taken back to common sense to allow people to be human and to make mistakes (for we are all intemperate, impatient, stressed, and even rude to our colleagues at times).

Overall though, my key entreatment to HR, is to be more socially scientific. To focus on culture, not rules; outputs, not process; people, not just human resource. Do I value the HR department and will it survive? Yes I value the ‘human’ bit of HR, and yes I think it will survive. My caveat is that this will only be if HR really takes a step back from practice and really looks with strong objectivity over the reality (not theory) of what it manifests as in most organisations. For HR is ultimately a thinking, not ticking, process. Certainly as an internal auditor this is the model I would suggest when I next review an HR process.