Anyone who has worked in HR for more than twenty years or so will have become used to seeing regular surveys of executives expressing their views on HR. Two recent surveys that fall into this category are from the Economist Intelligence Unit and, not surprisingly, the CIPD but why are they produced at all?
I have never had any time for these interminable and highly questionable exercises in corporate self-flagellation and have no intention of lending any greater credence here than they deserve. They have always struck me as undermining their own veracity by seeming to incorporate several, implicit but fallacious assumptions, namely: –
- HR people have so little confidence in themselves that they want to know what their executive colleagues think of them
- Senior executives have something intelligent to say about strategic HR
- The people carrying out the surveys know what they are doing
Let us take them in that order but now from the perspective of a mature and highly experienced HR professional.
First, I personally don’t lack any confidence in what I have been doing in HR for the last 35 years: even if many of my ‘professional’ colleagues seem to. The very idea of a professional lacking confidence strikes me as an oxymoron. Surely being a professional means you know exactly what you are doing and why. What would we think of an experienced surgeon whose hand was shaking every time they picked up a scalpel?
Second, if senior executives are not happy with what their HR department is doing then there is a very simple answer – stop moaning about it and get rid of them. The reason executives continue to employ the very HR people that they do not rate highly is the simple fact they are incapable of doing a better job themselves. They do not have a clue what mature, strategic, HR thinking is. If they did they would not be taking part in pointless surveys demonstrating just how big the gulf is between HR and the rest of their executive team.
If boards of directors understood anything about HR strategy they would know that it is not the responsibility of the HR director but one that they all share; and should already have incorporated into their business strategy (assuming they have one). In criticising HR they are admitting their own guilt and signalling, to any investment analysts watching, that theirs is a business that is failing to deliver the full value of its human capital; irrespective of who they blame.
Third, the Economist Intelligence Unit survey was sponsored by IBM and Oracle, the latter a company famous for, how can we put this diplomatically, the micro-management tendencies of its founder, Larry Ellison. Probably not the best CEO to ask about progressive people management? What does Oracle know about strategic people management anyway?
At a Personnel Today conference on ‘HR Strategy’, back in 2001, Oracle’s Vance Kearney (now VP-HR Oracle Europe “responsible for 25,000 employees in 55 countries” according to his Linkedin profile) stood up and happily declared that HR at Oracle was just an ‘admin’ function. I was on the same platform wondering why he had been invited. Maybe this is why Oracle’s HR information systems (sic) have never really been anything more than just HR record keeping?
So what has Oracle done with its latest survey? Perhaps undermining HR’s capabilities was always part of its business strategy?