Making a difference must relate to business needs

We all know the feeling: you’ve been happily following a course of action for some time, and everyone seems pleased with the way the project is unfolding. Then suddenly – ‘oh s***!’ – something happens that provides a completely different perspective and, with a sinking feeling in your stomach, you realise that you couldn’t have been more wrong.

My personal ‘oh s***!’ moment occurred in 1993 at a European Foundation for Management Development conference in Copenhagen. At the time I was head of organisational development at a recently privatised utility. I’d read Prahalad and Hamel’s book about the core competence of the organisation, and had been so taken by the idea that I had introduced a programme to identify and exploit the company’s core competencies.

I had support within the business and I had become a leading light in the European Industrial Research Management Association, a European-wide body, where the programme was seen as best practice.

If I had external recognition, then surely I must be doing a good job and adding value?

As I listened to Paul Evans from the international business school INSEAD giving the closing speech, it began to dawn on me that I wasn’t adding any value at all. He talked about his depression over the previous two days after listening to company after company talking about what they were doing, most of which seemed to be disconnected from their business.

Everyone seemed to be going on about their latest management development programmes, but no-one seemed to be speaking about the challenges their businesses were facing, and how they were helping to address them. The ‘oh s***!’ moment came when he talked about “the world being full of solutions looking for problems”. That was exactly what I’d been doing.

I’d read a really interesting book and then thought about how I could implement it in the business. Of course, I’d constructed a business case, as good organisational development people do but if I’m honest, it was post-event rationalisation. What I hadn’t done was really understand, at a deep level, what challenges were facing the business, and what organisational development and HR needed to do to tackle them. You can’t sell electricity on the basis of anything but price, so the basic challenge was to make the business I was in the lowest cost producer – and the core competency networks that we had created contributed nothing to that.

This is the biggest challenge for HR, because we tend to get seduced by the latest management fad, the latest idea from a business guru (I once heard a guru say that the name ‘guru’ had stuck because journalists couldn’t spell charlatan), the latest product from a consultancy, or the latest idea picked up from some conference.

I remember speaking at one such conference a year ago at Henley, and it was intriguing how almost all the attendees were using 360-degree feedback, but few could articulate how it contributed to improving the performance of their businesses. Most were doing it because a consultant had sold it to them, or a company they respected was doing it, even though it was in a different business and facing different issues.

The challenge for HR is two-fold. How do we ensure that what we are doing is driven by the needs of the business, and how do we ensure we are always challenging our thinking?

We need to be looking for the ‘oh s***!’ moment that forces us to question not only whether we’re doing it right, but – more importantly – whether we are even doing the right things.

As long as HR measures its worth in terms of what it’s doing – as opposed to the difference it’s making to the business – it will never be a true business partner.

By Nick Holley, director, Henley Management College HR Centre of Excellence

Have you had an ‘oh s***!’ moment? Tell us about it. E-mail personneltoday@rbi.co.uk

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