Do HR professionals let their own personal development slide, and is their
tendency to rely on HR ‘tools’ rather than developing business understanding
holding them back in their careers? Personnel Today teamed up with Ashridge
Management College and senior HR people to debate the issue. By Phil Boucher
Why would a senior HR person overhaul her approach to HR? "It was the
overwhelming sense of being a fraud – which is a sense that I think many HR
people tend to feel," is one answer. The comment was made by Julie Holden,
founder of the Spring Consultancy and previously director of internal
consulting at Ernst & Young. She was taking part in a roundtable debate,
organised by Ashridge Management College and Personnel Today, on how to develop
senior HR people.
So what was it about the HR profession that made Holden feel like a fraud,
and what new approach or philosophy has she since adopted?
"There I was, running programmes that at the time were fairly vital and
centred around managing change, and I guess I was thinking, ‘There must be more
to being an organisational development consultant’. It can’t just be about
feeding solutions that are rapidly gobbled up so that the minute you hit
someone with an idea they want another one."
Holden’s view that HR people can find themselves throwing ready-made solutions
at business problems, was one of the central themes to emerge from the debate.
The discussion centred on whether HR managers, as the people responsible for
the development of staff throughout an organisation, sometimes fail to take
care of their own development.
All the participants were members of the Advanced Development for Developers
programme at Ashridge Management College, and the programme director Martyn
Brown talked about the need to free HR from the pitfalls of relying on
ready-made HR "tools" with an almost evangelical fervour.
The consensus was that many HR professionals have not experienced a form of
personal development that will equip them to respond to the challenges of
So what philosophy and approaches should HR people adopt so they can rise to
the challenge? The first action should be to stop relying on the familiar tools
in the HR kitbag, containing such instruments as 360-degree appraisal,
psychometrics or benchmarking, as ready-made solutions to problems.
"Unfortunately, HR in many organisations has been into situations where
it has to do things, because of its lack of influence, that it doesn’t really
want to do, by using over-mechanistic and instrumental approaches to change,
which it knows won’t work, but it is afraid of the CEO who’s trying to roll out
this stuff," argued Brown.
Holden supported this, and added that HR people felt under pressure to
provide solutions to organisational problems before they have time to
understand the nature of the problem.
"You can be fooled into a situation where you approach something from a
solution point of view rather than looking at the problem," she said.
"A lot of HR people say, ‘Look, I’ve got this tool, I’ve got to make it
fit’, as opposed to saying, ‘I don’t know what the problem or solution
is’." Brown described this as "an addiction to tools".
The key point here is that an over-reliance on HR tools is an impediment to
developing an understanding of business. Not only that, but ready-made tools
and instruments do not allow HR to respond to the rapid pace of change in 21st
But how can HR people equip themselves to move from the solutions-driven
approach to one based on understanding the needs of the organisation in depth?
The message from the panel is to simply study the business. Work out where
you need to improve. Forget about hurling tools at a problem and realise
exactly what is going wrong and how you can solve it. This approach is far more
reflective than the traditional HR route.
But you also need to get permission from the board and colleagues to invest
in your own development.
Steve Williams, HR director at Powergen, said the key is to push the
business case to the board. "Our organisation puts emphasis on people
taking responsibility for their own development," he said.
"But there has to be a business rationale for it. I recognised there
were pieces of the wider HR portfolio that I had to dip into in a bit more
depth. The key issue was that it matched the business and my personal needs.
Had it not then, rightly, support may not have been there."
But the panel also argued that CEOs are as guilty as HR for rolling out
tools rather than getting at the heart of the problem. The issue is how HR can
influence the board to support a different approach.
"Personally, I think it’s the finance director that you have to get in
with," said John Pedley, people development manager at Halfords. "If
you can get that guy to motor, you’ve got real influence on the board."
One of the issues that arose was whether HR needed to be on the board in
order to influence it.
Williams argued that HR board representation is a red herring. "What
does the board actually do?" he asks. "To me, the real issue is about
the influence you can have in relation to the executive management teams inside
"HR has to gain influence at the level of executive decision-making to
have influence and that can occur inside an organisation at two or three
What exactly are the approaches that HR should adapt in place of the toolkit
of mechanistic HR solutions? The approach favoured by the panel is intensive,
open, group discussions about real workplace issues combined with action
The participants agreed that managers should be wary of a preoccupation with
planning, and not assume that experience and qualifications in HR are grounds
for believing you have the answers to business problems.
Pedley suggested teams should take some time to relax, reflect and be
honest. "In a situation like this, and in working life generally, there is
a desire for certainty all the time," he said.
"Much of the time, this leaves you lying flat on your face. A lot of
the time, we don’t know what’s going to happen. If we let ourselves believe
that we know what we’re doing, we’re kidding ourselves."
Williams made the point that a balance had to be struck between taking time
out to reflect and responding to the urgent demands of business.
"Certainly, in our business you can’t spend too long really understanding
where you are today as you’ll ignore a lot of the stuff going on around
you," he said.
Light years behind
The panel members were critical of the current approach to training people
for HR. "CIPD qualifications are light years behind," said Holden.
"People on my team who have done CIPD qualifications keep asking, ‘How
does this help me?’
"I think the CIPD will have a future if it continues to adapt, evolve
and change along with the rest of the world. If it doesn’t and tries to keep
things as they are, then it won’t."
Williams said the narrow functional mentality is particularly true of
younger HR specialists, which is worrying for the future of the profession.
"It is frustrating in our organisation," he said. "Many of
the people at junior levels are the ones who are more steeped in the functional
position rather than the business position. I think that it’s partly due to
them getting qualifications and the way they are taught, which is very much
from a functional point of view.
"It is to some extent about a kitbag, but you have to wonder if that’s
The risk in abandoning the HR kitbag, however, is that HR could lose its
identity as a separate functional specialism, and this begs questions about the
survival of HR in the future. Was the panel worried about this?
"I think HR gets too hung up on labels. Particularly, the label of HR
itself," suggested Holden.
"At the end of the day, you are operating as a business partner, and if
you can sit down and offer suggestions on how people can look at things
differently, and have a conversation about the business without talking
poppycock, it doesn’t really matter what you call yourself."
Brown pointed out that the emphasis on recruitment and the "talent
wars" in business was already leading many companies to abandon the HR
"You notice that directors are popping up on some of these boards with
interesting combinations in their job descriptions such as ‘reward, measurement
and recognition’ and ‘chief talent officer’.
"When you stop laughing, you can see there is actually something behind
it all. Director of intellectual capital will become a far more common job
title at senior line management level," predicted Brown.
Often it is IT companies that are leading these trends. This prompted
Williams and Powergen’s executive management team to go on a fact-finding tour
of Silicon Valley last year.
"One of the things I learnt is that the function as it exists today –
certainly in my role where you have a number of specific elements – may not
remain. You wonder whether it will fit into the future," said Williams.
"I’d be amazed to find any organisations out there (Silicon Valley)
that are structured in the relatively bureaucratic way that most of our
organisations are today."
The result, he says, is that "you question the way you develop HR
people, because what is a HR person?"
It might even mean HR is axed altogether, Brown warned. "There are many
highly successful, competitive organisations that don’t come within a mile of
HR in the professional sense," he said.
To sum up, unless the development of HR people is tied into the real changes
in organisations, their skills and qualifications will become irrelevant,
whatever they call themselves.
For more information on the Advanced Development for Developers programme
at Ashridge Management College phone 01442 843491.
Programme director on the Advanced Development for Developers programme at
Ashridge Management College
HR director, Powergen
Editor, Personnel Today
Consultant, previously director of internal consulting at Ernst & Young
People development manager, Halfords