For those of you with a deeper interest in HR and management generally, this page sets out my thoughts about human resource management and its place in the wider spectrum of management.
Human resource management is a managerial discipline, in the same way as financial management, production management and quality management are managerial disciplines. HR is a relative newcomer to the management stable, though not as new as some even more recent arrivals such as knowledge management. When I started my career (around 1980), there was a discipline called ‘personnel management’ which mainly encompassed administration—maintaining staff files, keeping accurate leave records and the like. Somewhere along the line, personnel management morphed into human resources management. In 1989, the American Society for Personnel Administration was renamed the Society for Human Resource Management, which is an indicator of when the transition took place.
Over the years, HR has often struggled to justify its existence. It is still not uncommon for HR academics and practitioners to debate the merits of the contribution HR makes to organisations. As I write this, I have in mind an article in the most recent edition of the HR profession’s flagship magazine in New Zealand. The article describes a recent survey amongst HR practitioners which found that around 10% of them regard the "credibility of the HR profession” as the biggest challenge they face.
There’s no question in my mind that HR has a vital role to play in organisational life. Its credibility should not be at stake. Here’s why.
I’m not an academic or a management theorist, but I have formed a view over the years about what makes organisations tick. I’ve set out this view in the diagram on the right.
Why does this organisation exist?
What difference do we want to make?
Is our structure ‘best fit’ for the difference we are trying to make?
HR contributes by ensuring the overall configuration of individuals, teams and larger units within the organisation, along with the pattern of authority and accountability, is specifically designed to contribute to the achievement of strategic outcomes
Do we have the leaders to get us where we want to go?
HR contributes by ensuring that the hearts and minds of all staff are engaged through good leadership, implementing intentional leadership development, nurturing emerging leaders, and celebrating examples of good leadership
There’s no hard-and-fast relationship between the six boxes in the diagram, other than that there is a logical progression from the top to the bottom of the diagram. The content of each box is fairly self-explanatory, but let me state briefly why each is important:
By far the most important question for the governing body of every organisation to answer is, Why does this organisation exist? What difference do we intend to make? If the organisation is a commercial entity, the answer is probably to generate an acceptable return on shareholders’ funds. If it is a not-for-profit, the answer is to make a specific difference in the lives of those whom it serves. The answer reveals an organisation’s true north, its fundamental purpose. From this answer flows every other aspect of organisational life.
There are many ways to put together the people, resources and systems that comprise an organisation, and there is very little management science around how best to do so. What is certain, though, is that the way these things are put together—the way the organisation is designed—can have a marked effect on whether or not the organisation achieves its purpose.
The older I get, the more I believe leadership to be the key dynamic in any organisation. We’re all wired to respond positively to good leadership. We can all recount stories of organisations we’ve worked in where the leadership was either fantastic or abysmal, and we know the difference it makes to individual performance. It’s often the one thing that sets really good organisations apart from ordinary ones.
Every organisation requires a particular mix of systems, processes and resources to function well—these are the fuel of organisational performance. Everything from equity funding to strategic planning systems to office space to recruitment processes fits under this heading. In small organisations, the mix can be pretty simple; in larger organisations, it can be mind-boggling complex; in both cases, though, formulating and tuning the mix is really important.
In addition to the ‘hard’ dimension of systems, processes and resources, there’s the ‘soft’ dimension of organisational culture and values. It’s much harder to pin these down—an empowering culture is more difficult to identify than (say) suitable office space—but they are just as important to organisational performance. ‘The way we do things around here’ (culture) and the things we most deeply believe to be true about life and work (values) have a huge impact on the extent to which an organisation’s potential is realised.
Finally, the performance of each individual, and of groups of individuals, is obviously important to an organisation. The sum of individual and group performance equals organisational performance. Optimising both individual and group performance is a vital function within every organisation.
The point I want to make is that HR has an important contribution to make to all but one of these aspects of organisational life. (The exception is strategic direction, which is largely the domain of the governing body and which requires little or no direct input from HR.) You’ll have your own view on how HR might contribute to each aspect, but I think immediately of the following (you can also see this by hovering your mouse over the diagram):
...by ensuring the overall configuration of individuals, teams and larger units within the organisation, along with the pattern of authority and accountability, is specifically designed to contribute to the achievement of strategic outcomes
...by ensuring that the hearts and minds of all staff are engaged through good leadership, implementing intentional leadership development, nurturing emerging leaders, and celebrating examples of good leadership
...by ensuring that a range of systems and processes are in place, from HR planning to recruitment and selection to performance management and disciplinary processes; ensuring that the right kinds of people with the right mix of skills and abilities are on board; and ensuring that the organisation is protected from risks arising from the HR sphere
...by measuring, understanding and shaping organisational culture, and articulating and modelling desirable values
...by championing good practices in job design, performance management, personal development, remuneration and rewards, disciplinary procedures, succession planning and teamwork
I find it hard to envisage an organisation being successful without skilful HR input (whether from inside or outside the organisation) in each of these areas, and I’m fairly sure I wouldn’t want to work for such an organisation. That’s why I’m proud to be an HR practitioner, and why I have no doubt about either the value of the contribution HR makes to organisational life or its place on the management spectrum.