Essential reading

What were the most important books for HR professionals in the last millennium? Stephen Overell spoke to a range of key figures in the industry to compile a near-definitive list

Identifying the most influential HR books of the millennium is riddled with problems. First, “personnel” in the everyday sense has only really existed for the past 75 years or so. But if you take “personnel” in its widest sense, its most human sense, you find antecedents of the discipline everywhere you look, looping back to Adam and the Fall – Virgil mentored Dante, Falstaff was brutally sacked after all those years of loyal service, Antony Trollope knew a thing or two about low office cunning, Ovid’s Metamorphoses becomes a treatise on change management, while Christ took some bold recruitment decisions with the Twelve.

Then there is the problem with the terrible truth about the HR profession. It is widely felt by those who do read that many of their peers do not. Reading appears to be either a holiday phenomenon or reserved for work-related reports, which perhaps goes some way to explaining the ubiquity of jargon. In fact one candid business academic betrayed his frustration with HR people by claiming he had come across “more cultured primary schools”. Some are strangely secretive.

A total of three prominent personnel directors begged that their reading preferences should not be revealed, such is the intimacy in which reading is held.

Business publishing is widely held in contempt. Too much low-brow, you-can-do-it, self-improvement, too many exclamation marks. Yet many HR people seem caught between the bibliographic equivalent of a rock and a hard place: they are tired of the “Employment Law in a Morning” type books, yet claim they do not to have time to read anything but synopses; everything has to be filleted but they recognise how unsatisfactory this is.

Ergo, this exercise, like all similar ones, inevitably leaves out most books that have helped shape the profession in the hope of finding one or two that have moulded it profoundly. It is obviously entirely subjective, based, as it is, on soundings and prejudices. Apologies for a million omissions in advance. The selections are not in any order of importance.

Human Resource Champions: The Next Agenda for Adding Value and Delivering Results

• By Dave Ulrich • Harvard Business School Press • ISBN 0 8758 4719 6

This emerged as the single pure HR book that many people said was big, important and germane on both sides of the Atlantic. First published in 1977, it represents a powerful statement about HR as the key to future success transcending the most crucial business challenges of today – globalisation, technology, profitability and change.

Ulrich urges a shift of the profession’s mentality from “what I do” to “what I deliver” and identifies four distinct roles that HR professionals must take on in order to make the transition: strategic partner, administrative expert, employee champion and change agent. It is widely praised as tying together all the most pertinent challenges for the profession and setting out a path. It is also one of the clearest statements of how HR is to assume the much-vaunted strategic role due to its heavy use of case studies.

The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

• By Edward Gibbon • Modern Library

• ISBN 0 6796 0148 1

This epic work of historical narrative was published in six vol- umes between 1777 and 1788 by the dapper British soldier and parliamentarian. It takes the reader from the second century AD up to the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

In his day Gibbon was famous for rapping his snuff box, but his masterpiece is distinguished by its rigorous scholarship, vast perspective and beautiful cadences. The relevance for institutions and organisations is self-evident but in particular Gibbon, in his exact way, reflected at length on questions of values, purpose and especially organisation.

His work has formed a devastating critique of Christianity, with his implicit contrasting of the “civilisation” of the pagans with the “barbarity” of some of the main Christian players. People interested in questions of “value” and “culture” would do as well to start here as with Plato.

The Prince

• By Niccolo Machiavelli • Penguin Classics

• ISBN 0 1404 4107 7

This is, of course, the classic text about statecraft, the Bible of realpolitik. The fact that The Prince is a statement about what governments do, rather than what they profess to do has done Machiavelli no favours in the eyes of history – his name has been identified with Satan.

As a Florentine statesman, Machiavelli admired efficiency at all costs and those who managed to sustain their power – through a variety of techniques. For example, he was keen to set out the limits of how much of a role fortune plays in human affairs and how much fortune can be opposed, or whether it is better for rulers to be feared or loved.

Drawing on the lessons of the ancients who, he believed, had never been equalled in political, artistic and legislative grandeur, Machiavelli set out the rules of behaviour for power – lessons which obviously have their relevance to the workplace.

Machiavelli has inspired much of the crude power psychology of later generations: the division of rulers into foxes and lions and so on. Mussolini famously kept a copy of the book by his bedside.

Competitive Advantage: Creating and Sustaining Superior Performance

• By Michael Porter • Free Press

• ISBN 0 6848 4146 0

This hefty tome is often thought to be the ultimate coffee table book: to be seen, but never read. But those who have read it say it has revolutionised their understanding of competitive advantage.

Porter’s main argument is that a firm can be “disaggregated” into discrete functions that represent the elemental building blocks of competitive advantage, that make up “the value chain”. It aims to provide managers with the tools to be able to isolate the underlying sources of value that will command a premium price. He also argues that value lies in the way activities relate to each other.

The fact that “sustainable competitive advantage” has become a cliché shows the power of the book, but he is also revered for the ability to capture the complexity of strategy in adding to competitive advantage.

The Art of War

• By Sun Tzu • Oxford University Press

• ISBN 0 1950 1476 6

Sun Tzu was a Chinese general from about 500 BC, who cannot have known that his collection of essays on warfare would turn into such a fashionable oeuvre in business, politics and sport psychology. The book is built around the 36 Classical Strategems of Ancient China, but probably the two best known principles are that “all warfare is based on deception” and “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. No surprise then that one man who has done much to propagate Sun Tzu is Henry Kissinger.

The Art of War has given Sun Tzu the dubious honour of being the most quoted Chinese personality, eclipsing Confucius, Lao Tze and Chairman Mao. Its position in this list is really deserved by the fact that many people cite a knowledge of military strategy as a useful tool in the commercial world: union reps be warned.

The Age of Discontinuity

• By Peter F Drucker • Heinemann

• ISBN 0 1560 0061 88

The Viennese sage is the management guru’s management guru. Now a very old man, he is known for inspiring the whole subject of management, and by extension, HR.

Drucker has succeeded in predicting most of the management themes that have subsequently emerged, as well as the biggest economic developments of the age such as privatisation, decentralisation and the role of information technology. Summarising the vastness of his thought is impossible, but the five basic principles are setting objectives, organising, motivating and communicating, establishing measurements of performance and developing people.

While The Age of Discontinuity is credited with inventing privatisation, his 1946 work, The Concept of the Corporation, also remains one of the most perceptive analyses of successful large corporations. Throughout his 25 books, he has always emphasised the effectiveness of managers, especially in making good use of their human resources, which he has long regarded as the key to productive and profitable organisations.

Alice in Wonderland

• By Lewis Carroll • North South Books

• ISBN 0 7358 1166 0

This might seem out of place in this august list but several people said it merited inclusion, not least because the use of the characters of children’s books in development exercises is becoming so popular.

First published in 1865, generations of children have become fascinated by its weird assortment of nutty personnel and learned to grasp the quirks and ticks of individuals through how Alice conquers her obstacles. The Duchess, the Mad Hatter, the Hare, the Cheshire Cat and the Queen of Hearts people dozens of workplaces across the land. It is also a book of great humanity.

The Age of Unreason

• By Charles Handy • Harvard Business School Press • ISBN 0 8758 4301 8

HR people tend to like Handy because of his emphasis on the hu- man side of enterprise and the way he extrapolates organisational principles into wider social implications. Heavily inspired by leadership expert Warren Bennis, who he regards as his “godfather”, he has also been affected by a religious background (born in Kildare to an Irish Protestant clergyman).

Like Drucker, his work has veered away from pure management into areas of social responsibility, the future of work and “when enough is enough”. Within management, The Making of Managers (1988) has been his most influential book, as it crystallised unease about the British culture of amateurism in how it develops its managers.

The Age of Unreason sets out his well-known theories on the future of work – he coined “the portfolio career” – and the core-periphery model, which he calls the “Shamrock organisation”.

Some readers find his work irritatingly mystical and slight.

When Giants Learn to Dance

• Rosabeth Moss Kanter • Simon & Schuster • ISBN 0 6716 9625 4

This is part of a trilogy of books, but has particular relevance for HR. Kanter started her career through discovering that the key attribute US companies valued in their managers was “predictability”. Moss Kanter has led the way in pinpointing how traditional, bureaucratic organisations stultify individual talent and how the “post-entrepreneurial corporation” needs to release and empower talent in flatter, less hierarchical structures.

This is received wisdom, now, of course, but Kanter has had a huge influence on it being so. She has also fearlessly pushed the line that management needs to be opened up to those who are normally excluded, be they women or ethnic minority workers or junior clerical staff – anyone with bright ideas.

Kanter is also a big believer in decentralised authority and autonomous work groups. In this particular book she explains how big companies can be agile: “combining the power of an elephant with the agility of a dancer”.

The Fifth Discipline

• By Peter Senge • Doubleday Books • ISBN 0 3852 6095 4

This book shows the commercial power of meditation and the resulting dull throb of inspiration. Senge claims that he was meditating one morning and he saw the possibilities inherent in the “learning organization” which used “systems thinking”. The tills have not stopped ringing and the learning organisation has snowballed into a movement in its own right.

Senge uses a corporate framework built around “personal mastery”, “mental models”, “shared vision” and “team learning”. He defines the ability to respond to change as the crucial issue of the 1990s and offers a cure for what he calls “learning disabilities”.

Like many fashionable management books he culls from a vast range of sources, from ancient spirituality to science to support ideas that businesses can beat the odds of failure. It could only take on in the America, you might think, but the book is revered in the UK too.


Bruce Warman, personnel director, Vauxhall Motors:

Choice: The Machine that Changed the World

• By James Womack, Daniel Jones and Daniel Roos, • Macmillan

ISBN 0 8925 6350 8

“This is compulsory reading in the motor industry. It pulls together and clearly explains lean production. Western companies did a lot to improve in its wake.”

Andrew Forrest, director, The Industrial Society:

Choice: The Age of Unreason (as before)

“I think there are many excellent business books around but in terms of influence, I have to go for Handy. He has taken HR beyond procedures and into philosophy and I think he has done much to influence its development.”

Linda Holbeche, research director, Roffey Park Management Institute:

Choice: Competitive Advantage (as before)

“He has been immensely influential in shaping ideas about the competitive marketplace. His principles may seem at odds with collaborative ideas about work, but there is no question he has had a real impact.”

Paula Cook, HR director, Bacon and Woodrow:

Choice: The Fifth Discipline (as before)

“This is a truly inspirational, seminal book with so much in it it would take a spell on a desert island to make the most of it.”

Mike Emmott, adviser, employee relations, IPD:

Choice: Human Resource Champions (as before)

“He gets away from the negative anxieties about HR and sends out a very challenging message on turning strategy into action.”

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