E-learning may be all the rage, but when it comes to HR,
author and consultant Paul Kearns thinks it’s time to relearn some lessons from
the old masters


HR needs to relearn some old ways of thinking. The Chinese
symbol for "learning" (lao tse), from the 5th century BC, translates
as: "If you tell me I will listen, if you show me I will see, but if you
let me experience I will learn." Learning from experience makes sense,
but, more specifically, when we see results we quickly learn what works and
what does not. Perhaps those rushing after the "fools’ gold" of
e-learning would do well to heed this old lesson rather than continue to be seduced
by new technology.


The broader question here though is "What has the HR
profession learned about people and organisational effectiveness?" Have we
unearthed any new, fundamental truths or paradigms? Have the latest HR
"techniques" added any significant value? Or is there actually
nothing new under the HR sun?


American Peter Senge, one of the main proponents of the
"learning organisation", wrote the seminal work The Fifth Discipline
– the art and practice of the learning organisation. In The Fifth Discipline
Fieldbook, the follow-up, which gives practical advice on how to move towards a
learning organisation, you will find the following on "systems
thinking": "…how closely [his] work on learning organisations
dovetails with the ‘Total Quality’ movement É [because] organisations seriously
committed to quality management are uniquely prepared to study the ‘learning


Do you understand the connection between total quality
management (TQM) and systems thinking? If you do, maybe you could point out to
the authors that perhaps the real credit for systems thinking belongs
elsewhere. My guess is that American W Edwards Deming, the father of the total
quality management movement, knew all about systems thinking. He may not have
called it that, but the concept is in his work if you are prepared to look for
it. But how many of the organisations who followed Deming ever realised that
learning and organisational improvement were just different facets of the same


Organisations that really understood TQM knew it had to
become part of business strategy. It was deeply embedded in their culture and
they moved from improvement to learning, creativity and innovation. More
importantly for HR, a strategic and integral element was the concept of
lifetime employment. This is probably why Deming’s ideas were received far more
warmly in Japan, where he was responsible for helping them get industry back on
its feet after World War II, than they ever were in the US.


The best evidence I have seen that organisations did not get
the strategy right is the current resurgence in disciplines such as "Six
Sigma", a statistical approach. No doubt they believed they had done the
"TQM thing" years ago. 


HR professionals know that to get their HR strategy
"right" it must be totally aligned with the business strategy. Some
may need to learn that organisational effectiveness is about having the right
fit between strategy, methodology and organisational culture. However, one
lesson that has eluded many in HR is that competitive business strategies are
all meant, by definition, to be different. It follows therefore that HR
strategies should all be different. But if that logic holds true, why is there
such a widely held belief in something called "HR best practice". I
think we may have stumbled on something fundamental here.


Generations of HR professionals have subscribed to the myth
of best practice and this is where the real rethinking has to start. Take
competencies – one of the main planks in many current HR strategies – as an
example. If all your competitors are doing "competencies", is that
not a good reason in itself for you to develop a different approach? 


Often the reality behind the talk about aligning HR and
business strategies is a welter of ad hoc fads, with no link to the business
and scant evidence of any value being generated. Meanwhile, the real irony in
all of this is that many of the best examples of effective HR strategies are to
be found elsewhere. Maybe this is why even the legendary Jack Welch, CEO of
General Electric, sought out the advice of Eiji Toyoda (the founder of Toyota)
when he started to transform GE. Welch turned the company round completely,
taking its worth from $12bn in 1981 to $280bn in 1998.


So, if you want to learn how to formulate and implement a
brilliant HR strategy where do you start? Would you be able to spot the
difference between a truly effective HR strategy and mere hype? If you think it
is worth copying Motorola’s corporate university, make sure you realise that
they soon discovered that one of their first priorities was to provide much of
their workforce with the basic education they should have received at school.
If that has made you think again, then how about their policy of five days’
training per annum for all employees? Is that an example of best practice or
worst practice?


Maybe the new paradigm for HR is that there is no paradigm.
Now if that makes you feel very uncomfortable, great, it looks like we might be
getting somewhere.


Paul Kearns is senior partner at UK-based consultancy
Personnel Works. 

Comments are closed.