Uneasy sits the head that is wearing the human resources crown

It’s become almost a given that the HR director sits on the board. But this could be about to change with the emergence of the chief learning officer and the rise and rise of skills.

Mired as many of us are in the realities of the present and the recent past, we tend to take the structures that contain and shape our lives as somehow permanent. As Louis XVI said to Marie Antoinette over tea and cake: “Some things don’t change, babe, and that includes the divine right of kings to rule.”

Of course, history tells us that structures are ever-evolving, are often anchored in their times, but will change with the current and tides of fashion, thinking and mood.

For about 15 years, large companies have adopted similar board structures: at the helm sits the chief executive officer, once known as the managing director. Then we have a row of other chiefs: chief financial officer, chief operating officer, chief marketing officer, chief sales officer, and so on. Sitting at the end of this row, trying to appear crucial to the business, is the HR director.

Board-level positions for the HR director have an air of permanence about them. Why? Aren’t they really bureaucrats who add little to the business other than raising or lowering the headcount, dealing with tiresome legal issues, providing lists of over and underperforming staff and acting as a fifth column for the equality movement? Training and learning and development is just another function for them.

It’s time for a change. The real business benefit emanating from HR departments is the continuing skilling of the workforce, through the training and learning and development arm. Employee skills and knowledge are far more important to a business than most of the file and virtual paper shuffling that goes on in HR.

This is recognised in many large US companies, where the post of chief learning officer (CLO) is becoming a board norm. And what the US did yesterday, the UK will do the day after tomorrow.

Thus far there are few CLOs in the UK. Last year, learning provider Thomson NETg reckoned there was just one among the FTSE 100 companies. Darren Shirlaws, head of coaching and business consultancy Shirlaws, said last month there are now five. One to five in a year – why that’s almost a surge.

He predicts all FTSE 100 companies will have a CLO on the board in five years’ time. Thomson NETg predicted last year that more than 50% of the boards of UK firms will feature a CLO by 2011.

Whatever – the good news is that this may not be one and the same person as the HR director. It will be someone who has a sound knowledge of training, development and skills issues leavened with commercial, project management and motivational expertise. The even better news is that, in this new structure, the head of HR reports to the CLO.

This structural change offers training and learning and development the chance to try to reclaim ground lost by the rise of the head of HR. This was symbolised by the 1994 merger of the Institute of Training and Development and the Institute of Personnel Management into the Institute of Personnel and Development, which became the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in 2000.

Since then, there’s little doubt that the CIPD is seen as a body for the betterment of HR, with training and learning and development tacked on. At the recent CIPD conference in Harrogate, there was little in the conference stream that was directly relevant to training and learning and development.

We had Greg Dyke and Sir Gerry Robinson being lightly grilled by Jeremy Paxman about leadership skills, but otherwise it was wall-to-wall HR.

Yet the biggest category of exhibitors were those promoting training, learning and development and coaching. I realise the CIPD puts on a separate and worthy learning and development event, yet even that’s called HRD. But really the flagship annual expo and conference should focus more clearly on skills and learning issues. If and when the age of the CLO dawns, it probably will.

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