What are the key skills for the HR practitioner of the future? by Colin J McLauchlan

Already the future is here. My experience and reading suggests so. Philip K Dick, Bladerunner, CCTV UK, “War on Terror”, “focus groups”, ASBOs, reality TV and footballers earning £120,000 a week. The hard evidence is cold and deadly. Post- modernism has stolen a march on humanity and delivered its challenges and realities so starkly and asymmetrically post 9/11.

Post-modernism, through the conflict of Security and Freedom, creates the new political and economic polarities and demands of modern civil society.  

Indeed, the debate on what the key skills of the HR practitioner are in essence merely reflecting the same conflict. The all-consuming drive to a better world-class organisation is a struggle between processes and systems and behaviours and values.  Right challenging reason.  Is it the end of the Age of Enlightenment or is technology taking enlightenment to a new level?  Are we better having amazing technology and binary-driven solutions (that get it wrong), or fly by the seats of our pants with a mind filled with organic “one offs”, “red circles”, “without precedent”, “extenuating circumstances” and “trust me this is your only option” (that solve the problem)? Do we want to be world class or just have class?  Do organisations and government want security and control over delivery and resources or freedom to create, innovate and exceed with its employees?

Philanthropy begat Welfare begat Personnel begat Human Resources begat an acronym – HR. Meaningless and emotionless. The definition of the skills for the future HR practitioner is essentially defined as whether the Resources or Human elements of HR become dominant. Already the dominance of the HR business partner model, which is at the vanguard of HR, betrays the success of focus on R.  HR professionals now only work with the “business” or “facilitate technology driven people interventions and solutions”. Employees don’t get a say. What they get is world-class, web-enabled, self-serviced solutions driven by a process chart and call centre. The core skill is “bull-shit”. 

Human Resource professionals and the remaining rearguard rump of personnel professionals stand accused of being both “maternal and paternal” – human.  Organisational secularism is dead and only the “true faith” of HR must triumph.  [David] Ulrich is the prophet, the messiah, and to disagree is to be a heretic. The opportunity for debate and reason is denied within the “profession” and to the “customers” nee employees nee colleagues. In the post-modern service that is HR, human is non-valid and not an option on the call centre answer machine of HR choices. Talent is the answer, not people. Future proofing is diminishing current capability. Getting the right resources in five years is more critical than getting the right resource now. The skill is to identify tomorrow’s problems and ignore today’s.  The skill is to identify and design world-class solutions (i.e. cut and paste) and scare the business to gain approval – then move on before the delivery becomes today’s problem.

If the R continues to dominate and become the security ying to the freedom yang of H then the core skills are easy to identify. HR will be a data and process owner that provides integrated, business-driven solutions through cradle to grave ownership of the resources through world class HR processes and systems. The skills will be data analysis, data modelling, data matching and data mining. Each employee will have a unique data chip that provides verified and identity theft proof of person.  From personal details, education achievements, personality profiles, lifelong test scores, job history, performance reviews from nursery to present, health history, absence and attendance histories, virtual talking heads giving references and performance reviews across 7200. Robotics, virtual networks and holograms will provide in-house access to potential and actual organisational resources and talent. HR will “own” all this.

Like the tentacles of the state ever invading our freedom on the grounds of security, HR professionals,, like the flame holders of the Ulrich inquisition, diminish choice, individualism and flexibility in options for both the employee and the organisation.  HR drives and demands clarity, performance and success through structure, benchmarks, KPIs [key performance indicators], processes and order.  The business demands that HR justifies itself or is it that HR tell the business how justifiable HR is? 
Essentially this is the final stage in the removal of the human in HR. Skills will be mathematical and analytical driven and in essence the post-modern dream will deliver HR from the business and give it not to the employees nor to managers nor even to the business itself but to technology and virtuality. All of HR will be delivered through virtual solutions: planning, resourcing, deployment, learning and development, employee relations, performance management and, of course, release management. HR professionals will simply manage the systems, processes and outputs and ensure that the HR business scorecard shows continuous improvement and delivery

My experience is that I survived an inquisition. Like all good anarcho-syndicalists, I would not go down without a fight. With right on my side, I stood up to the torture of the Ulrich inquisition. Suddenly, as the suicide of constructive dismissal loomed, I was faced by “this is a one off”, “a red circle”, “without precedent”, “extenuating circumstances” and a “trust me this is your only option”.  (My words!)

My view?  Well for every local supermarket there is a farmer’s market. For every winner of X Factor there is The View from Dundee. HR must be about people and also freedom. HR practitioners need to be post-modern organisational shaman, sages, jesters, soothsayers, and minstrels. The core skills will be intuition, knowledge, intellect, insight, storytelling and interpretation. Seasoned intimacy with questions gives deeper insight into the answers. HR is essentially and primarily reactive and responsive and if humanity thrives best with doses of maternalism and paternalism, then so be it. As children we all like good reactions and responses. HR practitioners learn these skills.

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