Why do we clutch at academic musings?

After more than 20 years as an HR practitioner, one thing that has always
struck me as odd is why we so often look to academics for new ideas. Our
profession is fundamentally a job of dealing with everyday issues, with real
people in real situations, so why do we look to HR academics and their research
as a means of legitimising our methodologies?

Rather than formulate new HR strategies in the crucible of the workplace –
where theoretical shortcomings and implementation problems are readily apparent
– we still seem to clutch at the musings of academics as a foundation for the
next big initiative.

Don’t get me wrong, HR academics have their place – but it is called a
university rather than a workplace. Beware of ever letting them loose in the
real world. After all, academic research was quite clearly to blame for the
plague of competence frameworks in the 1990s that infected so many HR
initiatives and rendered them ineffective.

One piece of beloved research by HR academics is the Sears-Roebuck employee
satisfaction/customer service/profit chain case study that everybody seems to
be quoting these days. It is popular because it appears to support what all
good HR people want to believe: good HR practices lead to good business.

One little-quoted aspect of this study is that Sears employed
econometricians to prove the correlation. Why? Is it not that obvious to the
naked eye? As an ‘economist’ myself I must say I have never felt such
techniques were designed or appropriate for the HR field.

Senior HR professionals who understand the real strategic issues have been
agreeing for some years now that there has to be a paradigm shift in HR
thinking. This is partly why the whole debate about harnessing human capital
has moved to the front of the new concept queue. Yet, if there has to be a
shift from existing models, what use is academic research based on existing
organisational HR practices?

When such HR professionals are asked which HR paradigm they want to move to
they invariably refer to Dave Ulrich’s change agent/business partner model. But
does this particular paradigm have a solid theoretical foundation. Has it been
proven? The ‘HR Scorecard’ (Becker, Huselid, Ulrich, Harvard Business School
Press, 2001) which tries to show HR how to align itself strategically appears
to be trying to move HR further down the road to complex answers based on
arcane regression analyses, rather than common sense solutions to difficult HR

Do we really need academics to tell us how to get the best out of people? If
that is their forte would they still be working as academics? Answers on a
postcard (failing that e-mail) please.

By Paul Kearns, Senior partner, Personnel Works

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