Justifying HR’s existence

If the folksy-yet-focused Bill Byham wasn’t one of the best-known HR consultants in the US, he’d probably be an undertaker. “Well, it was my family’s business, it had been my family’s business for generations and I went to university with a view to joining the profession,” he says.

But as the eventual co-founder of training organisation Development Dimensions International (DDI) was to discover, it was the behaviour of the living that lured him from dealing with the dead.

“I discovered psychology, and now I’m here,” says Byham with a chuckle, over lunch in London recently.

After developing his behaviour-based interview system, ‘Targeted Selection’, in 1970, Byham spent the best part of the next 34 years pioneering training techniques and strategies for workers and managers.

From assessment centres and behaviour-based interviewing to results-based training, Byham has been at the cutting edge of an industry constantly looking at ways to improve both itself and its clients.

Despite the changes, the improvements, and his passion for HR and training, the state of the industry still manages to put a furrow in his brow.

HR managers must transform themselves so they can bring people together in organisations or risk becoming obsolete, he says.

“HR needs to change itself from being a counsellor or manager to being a catalyst between trainees and managers. That could mean something as simple as making sure the right people turn up to the right meetings.”

According to Byham, getting people together, facilitating communication, managing change, and being able to inspire and train staff are the skills HR managers need to nurture.

“Now, I’m going to go against all kinds of truisms in HR,” he says. “But if you go and ask HR managers ‘Who is responsible for development?’. What do you think they say? They say the individual being trained is responsible. But they’re completely wrong – it’s a shared responsibility between the trainee and the boss.”

This type of training must also evolve with the different demands made in an ever-changing workplace, Byham says.

“When we began training in the 1970s, it was all lecture-based. But there was also this sensitivity – people standing up on a table and falling backwards and all those touchy-feely things.”

Byham believes that this type of training fails by not providing the practical skills people need to succeed at their jobs.

“How do you get people to act on their training? Only 5-10 per cent of people act on their training, so how do you make things stick?” he asks. The answer, according to Byham, is behavioural modelling.

“This is about teaching a leadership skill in the same way you teach a sports skill,” he says. “If you want to play tennis, you don’t just go out and watch someone playing. What you do is you go out and have someone show you how to hold a racquet. They demonstrate and then you swing and practice.”

Byham says there are four simple steps:



  • Decide what to do
  • Watch it being done
  • Practice doing it
  • And then do it yourself.

“Ask managers ‘Where did you learn the skills that have got you where you are?’, and they never say they learned it on a training programme,” he says. “What they always say is ‘I was given this assignment early on where I could make decisions and get things done’.”

Byham believes that realism is the key to effective training.

“We are experimenting all the time with our assessment processes – how to make them more effective, how to make them more realistic,” he says.

The problem, as always, is management commitment.

“All executives say they believe in developing people for the future, but if you go into organisations and see what they are really doing it is often very different.”

Byham thinks part of the problem has been HR’s inability to show consistent, tangible returns for its investment in training.

“It’s no wonder that HR is the first to complain that its budget is the first to be cut in bad times,” he says. “It is because when you ask managers what percentage of people who went through your training programme actually changed their behaviour, the answer is always between 10 and 20 per cent.”

According to Byham, it’s no wonder managers feel they can afford to cut the training budget when times are tough.

“What HR people need to do is show real return for investment and they can start doing that by changing the way they train,” he says.

Probably the most important development in training has been the use of the internet. This can be seen in its ability to speed up communication between people-enabled training organisations, to process data faster and to save time and money.

“We’re doing things on the internet at executive assessment level now. We’re able to do a faster and better assessment in one day, compared to the two-and-a-half days it used to take,” says Byham.

So, in his 30 years or so of training hundreds of thousands of people, has all he predicted in the industry eventually come to pass?

“Ah, well, no. I didn’t get it right with robots,” says Byham. “Back in the Seventies and Eighties, factories were becoming more ‘roboticised‘. We became very interested in what we thought would be a growing complex interaction between people and robots.

“Well, it didn’t happen and it probably won’t happen for a very long time,” he laughs. “When it comes to robots, things just haven’t progressed as fast as we thought.”

Byham in a box

Bill Byham developed the first behaviour-based interview system, ‘Targeted Selection’, in 1970. It is used by more than 3,000 organisations worldwide and is available in 10 different languages. As the acknowledged authority on assessment, Byham published the first book of assessment centre exercises and founded the International Congress on Assessment Centre Methods. Each year his company assesses more than 5,000 leaders at all levels. Byham co-developed ‘Interaction Management’, the first saleable leadership training programme using behaviour modelling. More than 20 million people around the world have developed leadership skills using these programmes.

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