HR’s role was on the agenda once again at Harrogate. But is it time for the
profession to accept an important supporting role rather than the lead?
As someone who bears witness to the enduring popularity of people management
subjects in higher education, it is of constant mystification that the
profession is viewed with such low esteem.
Is it the preoccupation with attaching value to careers in monetary terms
rather than the intrinsic value? Has job satisfaction been sacrificed at the
altar of high rewards and large bonuses? It appears to be a difficult ethical
Constant bickering over the terminology of a job title does little to
enhance the perception of HR. Accountants and marketers do not appear to have
the same crisis of identity. The generic titles of finance manager and
marketing manager are understood outside the professions and have stood the
test of time.
The people management profession appears to lack the same clarity of
purpose, however. The continuous infighting between the various disciplines
does not help dispel the image of a confused profession. It is important to
note that the professional institute chose to keep personnel in its name.
In addition, many employees do not relish being regarded in the same way as
physical assets – they have feelings and an intellect.
Could sector commentators be partly to blame for the confusion? The current
movers and shakers in the profession have been bombarded with the "I want
to be strategic" mantra – they have latched on to HR management rhetoric
of assets versus liabilities and have been engaged by spiritual intelligence
and knowledge management exponents.
While these elements serve a purpose at a particular time and place, none in
isolation can contribute to the development of a profession which has long been
searching for a respectable, more durable role in an ever changing business
If you subscribe to the belief that people management will always be a
second-order strategy in many organisations, then we may begin to find a more
comfortable role to embrace.
A consultant anaesthetist once said to me, "We follow what the surgeons
do", and this appears to be the role anaesthetists have accepted. Although
experts in their field, they have come to realise the one main obstacle in the
race to be top dog – they are not qualified as surgeons, so they do not attempt
to take on the role.
Instead they carry out their function with meticulous precision and clarity
of purpose, developing techniques and the use of drugs with the same precision
that the surgeon uses the scalpel. Surgeons trust and rely on their
anaesthetists. Mutual respect and admiration has forged a lasting relationship
between the disciplines and ensured the development of the role of both
There could be a lesson here for HR professionals. Why continue to compete
against accountants and marketers for the top role? Instead we should look
within ourselves, assess our strengths and weaknesses and forge a role as a
strategic partner. We should encourage staff to play to their strengths and
develop their expertise in their areas of natural competence, not everyone
HR shouldn’t follow the fad of the day. It may have to rethink its strategy
and work on a partnership agreement with flexible service level targets and
goals. The role of partner is just as important as top dog.
Audrey Bland is a senior lecturer in HRM at Middlesex University Business