The Spark That Burnt HR To The Ground

I’m unclear as yet if this is a call to burn HR, or an observation that it’s aflame already, ignited from within. It’s possible that only time will tell. Forgive a slightly cranky piece of writing, but i’m provoked into it by a series of repeated conversations with HR communities which all have a common theme, a common division. There is what HR wants to be, the way it wants to see itself, and then there is the execution of HR, the grinding reality, the sense of endless toil and torment.

HR Aflame

As a background to this, i’m always reminded of the conversations i had at a big HR conference last year, where delegate after delegate told me excitedly that the best session they’d seen was from the organisation who had ditched HR. The irony, quite possibly, was lost.

Except they hadn’t really ditched HR: they’d changed what it did and changed it’s title. They had evolved, as any great organisation should if it wants to survive, if it wants to thrive in the Social Age.

Forgive me for repetition, but this is the ultimate challenge (not just for HR, but for many of the old school vertical entities of control within the organisational space: IT, Compliance, L&D and so on). The old entities are no longer relevant: the ecosystem has changed and they have failed to keep up.

HR and Control

Take learning: it used to be something formal, done to individuals, by organisations. It was carefully controlled and dolled out as a prize or a punishment. Knowledge itself had value, and we segmented, captured and controlled it.

In the Social Age, learning has evolved, as has the very nature of knowledge that sits behind it. Knowledge is now adaptive, distributed, dispersed, co-created and adaptive. And it’s accessed on demand, within communities, through technology, and sometimes despite the very best efforts of the organisations that we inhabit. I still sit in meetings where there’s a discussion about whether access to leadership courses should be restricted just to delegates: as if we are somehow terrified of guerrilla learners who will infiltrate the system and learn for themselves, unsanctioned, uncontrolled, unwanted.

Knowing: Knowledge

Learning in the Social Age should be Social: scaffolded and co-created, a symbiosis of the story learners write and the narrative the organisation creates.

And just as learning has changed, so too must IT: we used to live in a time when infrastructure was everywhere, was complex, and needed to be controlled. But today, it’s all changed: it’s a time of dynamic, adaptive, disposable, App based and low cost, high turnover, rapidly iterating systems. We are finding our way and the worst thing we can do it fossilise ourselves into closed systems, dinosaur legacies of a bygone age.

Social Collaborative Technology

HR sits in this space: superbly adapted for a time that’s fled. Sure: we need gatekeepers, we need systems and controls. it’s just that the systems and controls we have are outdated. Take performance reviews: still carried out annually, still trying to maintain some semblance of relevance, but generally used simply to control us, to prevent giving a pay rise, to come up with some trite list of ‘development activities’ as if the organisation has a better idea of what is needed than your community. In an age when learning is synchronous and co-created, when performance is judged and rated in the moment, absolutely nothing, not a single thing, is measured annually except our performance review.

What’s needed are highly dynamic approaches to taking ‘temperature checks’ of the business, highly fluid means of recognising effort, in the moment, highly adaptive reward environments where the validity of the reward may be negotiated and owned by the community itself, not the organisation.

Performance Support in the Social Age

There are a raft of creative systems emerging to serve this need: systems that let people award respect, award ‘thanks’, recognise effort, give micro feedback, all in the moment. It’s not the technology that prevents us changing: it’s the mindset and the notions of control. Because so much of this comes down to power. Hell, i even stood in a lift with an HR exec bemoaning the hours he had to spend on his own performance review when he could have been doing something entirely more relevant instead.

Like drinking a beer with me: because i bet you that pint that we, two professionals with passionate interest in helping each other succeed, would have provided a better, more dynamic, more relevant return on those few hours.

The tension is internal, which is why i’m unsure where the spark will come from that ignites the whole keg.

HR is a mechanism of control, exerted by the organisation, over individuals, whose entire relationship with the organisation is now governed by an outdated and fractured Social Contract.

Yet HR is full of individuals who passionately want to change it, who want to be facilitating, connecting, enabling and empowering to others. They are just controlled by the same system. They have lost the ability to challenge and change, becoming pawns instead to the system that they serve.

The journey to ignorance was started by the organisation itself: treat people as if you don’t trust them, treat them like fools, and reap the rewards. If we treat people like cattle, what do we expect?

Many of the most Dynamic organisations are not necessarily Dynamic because they are superb: some are Dynamic because they haven’t yet been around long enough to learn how to be constrained. They haven’t yet accreted the monstrous bastions of lethargy and control that plague the most Resistant organisations.

And others are Dynamic because they pulled the wool away from their eyers and adapted: they realised that many of the old ways are simply no longer relevant. They realise that the technology which changes everything should not be controlled and owned, but rather harnessed and let loose to allow us to experiment, to be curious, to learn. The answer lies within the problem, but whether you look at it constrained within the system, or frustrated as the system bears down upon you, the central problem is clear.

The most fundamental challenge to HR, the biggest problem with HR, the deepest risk that HR faces, it HR itself.

It’s not people, it’s not employees, it’s not a horde of evil individuals who are intent to ruin the industry. It’s our own unwillingness to relinquish control and learn to trust people.

The system is the problem that only your brilliant people can solve against, if only we let them.

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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4 Responses to The Spark That Burnt HR To The Ground

  1. Pingback: Vertical Mechanisms of Control: The Evolution of HR | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  2. Pingback: The Socially Dynamic Organisation: Connected, Adapted, Fluid | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  3. Pingback: A New Model for #HR: Enabling, Guiding, Adapting | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

  4. Pingback: Organisational Culture | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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