It is time to build HR into a true profession

The time has come for HR to become a true profession and to base its methodology on the best scientific evidence available. The days of mindless adherence to HR dogma are over. In the first of three articles, HR consultant Paul Kearns explains the central argument of his book Professional HR: Evidence-Based People Management and Development.

Professional HR: Evidence-Based People Management and Development

This article is based on Professional HR: Evidence-Based People Management and Development by Paul Kearns, published by Routledge (April, 2013). With a foreword by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, it is suitable for managers and students studying HR, and provides the answer for what could be the next iteration of the capitalist system, with professional, evidence-based people management at its heart.

The second article in the series is titled Why HR must be based on evidence, science and international standards.

The third article will be titled HR leadership – putting people at the heart of general management.

Groucho Marx was probably only partially joking when he said: “I don’t want to belong to any club that will have me as a member”, but you have to admit, he had a point. His observation is particularly apt when applied to the HR and learning and development (L&D) professions, which currently accept anyone and everyone as a “member”; not officially, of course, but by default.

Get yourself a business card printed today with the words “HR expert” and you, too, can be up and running in no time at all. If that does not bother you then I certainly do not want to be in your “club”. If, on the other hand, you genuinely believe, as I do, that HR should only be populated by fully accredited professionals, you will find this very disconcerting.

Evidence-based standards

I was only partially joking myself when I wrote a guest blog piece – “If I could change one thing about HR” – for XpertHR two years ago, demanding higher, evidence-based standards of professionalism. The few responses it received generally thought it was funny, but one suggested that a general council for HR was unattainable because: “Behavioural research can never achieve the same level of certainty as that which is expected of pharmaceutical research.” That is a very interesting perspective, especially as drugs development takes about 12 years – and even successful drugs can have adverse side effects. No science is perfect, so HR does not need to be, but we need to make sure that the people side of management is handled professionally; otherwise it could have disastrous effects.

In the light of the report of the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust Public Inquiry in February 2013, into the tragic consequences of a lack of target setting and delinquent management that led to much suffering and many unnecessary deaths, the relatives of the victims are entitled to ask where the NHS professionals were that we used to so admire. What happened to the doctors’ Hippocratic oaths and the dedication and vocation that we used to expect from nurses? Which senior civil servants inflicted nonsensical and damaging performance targets on the NHS? In a future article in this series, we will put the spotlight on general management, but our focus for now has to be on the HR and L&D “professionals” in the NHS and everywhere else. What were they doing, and do we still want them in our club?

A question of priorities

In 1993 I was asked to speak on an NHS HR directors programme at Henley Management College. This programme was specifically designed for the wave of HR directors entering the “new world” of NHS trusts. It was also meant to herald a higher level of management professionalism in the NHS.

Twenty years later we are now witnessing the effects, not just at Mid Staffs but throughout the NHS. I asked these HR directors what their top priority was, to which. they answered, with one voice: “Customer service.” Customer service was the latest thing at the time, but following fads rather than working out the real priorities for themselves was their first big mistake.

After some probing, I found that probably one of their biggest priorities was the cost of litigation (£1 billion according to the NHS Litigation Authority’s (NHS LA) annual accounts 2012), but none of them accepted this was their responsibility and would not have known how to deal with it even if they had. Neither did the medical profession nor the civil servants and managers running the NHS. The Mid Staffs Report reveals, in very stark terms, that they have no better idea today.

This is not just an NHS problem though; it is a generic, organisational, management problem of how to shape organisational culture and behaviour. It has to be managed with greater degrees of predictability and certainty. True HR professionals know that all organisations are whole systems and you cannot improve an organisation unless you tackle the whole system that governs it.

True HR professionals also know how to actually do this in practice. It is a highly skilled job that requires the same level of training and dedication as the most qualified and experienced brain surgeons. Existing education and training for “professional” HR qualifications does not even begin to bring practitioners up to a sufficient level of professional competence for the job required. What is happening in the NHS is happening throughout the whole of HR: elinquent management of human capital. It exists in the pharmaceutical and banking sectors, in the corporations themselves and the regulatory bodies that are meant to govern the entire system. This will continue to be the case until such time as HR and L&D become properly recognised professions.

Certainty of management

If HR professionalism does not mean certainty of management then it has no more meaning than the toss of a coin, and no modern economy can afford to treat its most valuable capital, its people, with the capricious mindset of a gambler. Even the banking sector has finally realised that.

If HR is to achieve the requisite level of professionalism, it has to become as scientific as it can be, and that requires methods based on the best evidence available. The days of mindless adherence to HR dogma are over. The excuses that HR and L&D cannot be scientific are no longer acceptable. The “best HR practice” of copying what everyone else is doing can now be seen for what it always was, a mindless rush towards catastrophe. The day of the true HR professional, within a true HR profession that only allows in true professionals, has finally arrived.

The next article in this series will focus on evidence, science and international standards in HR and L&D.

Professional HR: Evidence-Based People Management and Development is published by Routledge (April, 2013). It is suitable for managers and students studying HR and has professional, evidence-based people management at its heart. Foreword by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer.

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