HR heavyweights go head to head

The CIPD’s Duncan Brown and HR guru Paul Kearns lock horns over HR strategy
and its influence on UK plc

HR is still not having enough strategic influence on British business and,
as a result, the function is failing to deliver enough tangible commercial value.

This was one point the ‘HR heavyweights’ did agree on at the public debate
on the current state of HR strategy and business influence.

Consultant Paul Kearns, one of the CIPD’s fiercest critics, argued the
function has failed to make any significant ground in actually guiding business
or being genuinely strategic.

However, CIPD assistant director-general Duncan Brown claims some progress
has been made and that Kearns dismisses the process and generalist side of HR
too lightly.

"HR is more strategic than it used to be but not as strategic as it
could be. There are excellent opportunities for HR to add value to
organisations and, increasingly, we are seeing individuals and companies that
are doing this well," he said.

He said Kearns’ criticism of HR being too process orientated was unfair and
that if recruitment and administration were not done well, organisations would
not function at all.

Kearns began with an attack on the CIPD and said the function could only
achieve a certain level of influence in its current form because business was
not convinced of a connection between the HR and the bottom line.

"I have been a critic of the CIPD because if you want to offer any new
ideas or comments, it is like disappearing into a black hole," he said.
"HRM should be about the mature approach to the function adding value to
the line and the business. Unfortunately, HR is still not regarded as a key
point of competitive advantage and is up against a brick wall."

HR directors should be integral to the way companies plan business, with HR
key to driving up profits and beating competitors in the marketplace, he said.

"I would argue that business leaders are part of the problem and that
is why we need to be more strategic. They only see short-term figures but for
these sort of issues you need a long-term strategic view."

Kearns cited the recent strike at British Airways as evidence that HR has
not moved on in almost 25 years, with practitioners stuck in a process

"How strategic is HR in these sort of situations? It has got to start
making a real difference and I’m not talking about saving a few pounds on a
recruitment advert, I’m talking about preventing a £30m strike," he said.

Brown hit back by claiming HR professionals were already contributing to the
business and said CIPD research proved the link between people and business

However, he admitted there was still a long way to go, with HR strategy
often little more than an "illusion in the boardroom" that was well
intentioned but poorly implemented.

He urged HR directors to rethink their current role in the context of
strategy and think how the people contribution could be measured more

"The two big problems are perception and implementation. The profession
has often talked itself into an HR ghetto instead of getting out into the
business. They are happier talking to each other than other departments,"
he explained.

Both speakers concluded by calling on HR to widen its influence and become
more strategic.

By Ross Wigham

on Kearns

anyone is stuck in a time warp, he is. Kearns seems blissfully unaware of the
changes that have occurred in the profession.”

self-appointed HR strategy guru seems capable of doing little other than
misrepresenting what other people write.”

backward-looking, curmudgeonly pessimism doesn’t reflect the reality of HR
today. What has Kearns ever done to help?”

on Brown

would not expect the vast majority of CIPD members or HR practitioners to
appreciate how [strategy] impacts upon their own work.”

the CIPD may be the voice of the personnel profession, it is not the voice of
HR in business.”

has always struck me as odd why anyone should seek a qualification from a
professional institute that commands so little respect from the business
community or the Government.”

The showdown

Although it failed to live up to its ‘clash of the titans’
billing, despite the pre-fight bickering, the public debate was a valuable
forum for two different schools of thought.

In the red corner, Paul Kearns berated HR for failing to have
strategic input and not adding and real, measurable value to companies.

In the blue corner, CIPD assistant director-general Duncan
Brown argued that Kearns was being too hard on the profession as a lot of
progress had been made in becoming more business focused.

As a public slanging match, the event was a bit of a damp
squib, with Kearns admitting he had "warmed to Duncan since meeting him
face to face", and even loaning his opponent a copy of his latest book to
help prop up his projector.

Somebody obviously forgot to light the blue touch paper as both
men were more jovial with each other than earlier insults would suggest,
although almost nobody escaped Kearns’ wrath, from accountants to the trade
union movement.

Brown was slightly more jovial than the charismatic but
intimidating Kearns and, in reality, the two men have closer views on HR than
either would probably care to admit.

In boxing parlance, the grudge match was probably a points draw
with both men coming across as passionate about the subject.

clear message to HR was "stop backing off and get out there and do

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