Strategic HR is no ‘black art’ but it needs new ideas

It’s time to face the fact that HR has never been strategic.  It could be, but that entails a break from
the past and a lot of new thinking

As I watch Personnel Today’s series on Delivering HR Strategy unfold, I am eagerly
awaiting clear evidence that there is real substance to the subject, and that
it is not just ‘vapourware’, as IT specialists call it.

What we have seen so far has been more like an apparition that disappears in
front of our eyes as soon as we try to ‘touch’ it. But there is a very simple
reason for this. HR strategy – in any meaningful sense – is not yet a reality
because as a profession, we have failed to develop true HR strategists.

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), which one might
have expected to take this challenge on, has never had any intention of doing
so. As far back as February 1995, Geoff Armstrong stated quite openly: "In
my view… it is wrong to tie strategic people issues to the HRM [Human
Resources management] bandwagon. They were around before HRM was invented, and
will still be around long after its faddish label has faded."

Subsequent events have shown this was not to be the most accurate prediction
on HR’s future. It also explains why the CIPD is now desperately trying to make
up for lost time and climb on board the strategic HR train before it is too
late. Its conversion to the cause is manifested in its commissioning of
numerous academic studies to demonstrate HR’s contribution to business

The CIPD seems blissfully unaware, however, of the irony of this – anyone
trying to prove their worth retrospectively, is unlikely to produce a very
convincing case.

More recently, Duncan Brown, assistant director general at the CIPD, wrote
in Personnel Today (Letters, 5 November) that: "Neither business nor HR
strategies are wholly rational, planned and top-down-implemented phenomena…
Underneath the statistical correlations between HR policies and business
success, this [CIPD] research unpacks some of the key practical components of
the ‘black box’ of HR strategy."

Phenomena? Black box? This is the language of the alchemist who cannot
explain their methods or actually produce gold. It also reveals that the CIPD
still regards HR strategy as a black art rather than a conscious, clear-headed,
focused and systematic search for continuous improvement through its people.

At the risk of sounding patronising, I would not expect the vast majority of
CIPD members or HR practitioners to have any particular interest in this series
on strategy, because they do not appreciate how it impacts upon their own work.
What they fail to realise, is that HR activities at a purely tactical or
operational level, that are not an integral part of a well-conceived strategy,
have little or no real value.

In reality, HR today is often a series of disjointed practices with no
observable link to measurable, strategic or business objectives. It’s time we
all faced up to the fact that the CIPD and many senior HR figures have ignored
for many years – we are not strategic, and never have been.

Consequently, there is no point looking back at what we did before. True HR
strategy represents a break from the orthodoxy of the past, not a continuation
of it. It presents a completely different challenge and requires a new field of
study and practice.

We all need to learn a great deal more about HR strategy, and Personnel
Today’s series is to be applauded as a serious attempt to help readers through
this time of transition. Those who continue to follow the series should help to
shape it by contributing – openly and honestly – their own experiences and
knowledge of the subject.

HR strategy will lead us into an entirely new era of organisational
thinking. Those who recognise this and have the ambition to rise to the
challenge, should be very excited.

By Paul Kearns, Director PWL

Paul Kearns’s latest book HR Strategy: Business Focused, Individually
Centred) is shortly to be published by Butterworth Heinemann

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