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Wendy Bruton

Cotswold Outdoor

HR And Training Advisor

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Book Review: HR Strategy – Creating business strategy with human capital


‘HR Strategy’ takes a critical look at people management issues mainly in the UK and US.

The author, Paul Kearns, starts with the premise that much of the work undertaken by HR departments is transactional and bureaucratic rather than strategic, adding that organisations “get the HR department they deserve”.
The major theme is that organisations could greatly increase their value (in every sense) by linking their business and HR strategies together – which he subsequently refers to as “HR business strategy” – rather than basing departmental policies around corporate goals as tends to be the case today.
The book is targeted primarily at chief executives, although Kearns accepts that his audience is more likely to be HR directors who will use his thesis to open up discussions with senior executives.
It is openly sceptical in tone, challenging the reader to reflect thoroughly on their own organisation’s efficiency and effectiveness and place current practices on a spectrum of business maturity.
As the starting point is slavery, one would expect to be sitting comfortably towards the end as the last category is labelled “fully integrated strategic objectives”. But instead the author proposes that the majority of organisations have barely reached the mid-point of the scale.
Therefore, he attempts to describe the benefits that can be gained by ensuring that people, processes and workflows are “joined up” and includes case studies of successful organisations that are working towards this goal.
Human capital management
(Kearns warns against slavishly following their chosen practices, however, as he posits that, if this approach has already been followed elsewhere, the reader has already lost out in competitive advantage terms.)
The first edition of the work was written in 2003 and the author uses this second version to consider the effects of the current global recession on his original thesis, particularly in relation to the demands placed on organisations today, which in some cases, are fighting to survive.
The author holds Toyota up as the organisation to come closest to achieving HR strategic maturity, yet its response to the downturn – laying staff off, introducing short time working and reducing salaries – seems to imply that it has taken a more short-term, less strategic view than might originally have been expected.
Much of the book explores the concept of “human capital management” and considers whether the global recession has enhanced the development of such financial measures in order to better understand the value added by various “people” initiatives.
The aim of such metrics, the author argues, is to enable both CEOs and HR directors to gain the confidence to move away from “HR magic bullets” (the latest must-haves and fads) and only introduce initiatives that create clear value for the organisation.
Simply put, if what they are currently doing fails to increase quantity, quality and revenues or reduce costs, what is the point of doing it?
The final section of the work focuses on developing human capital metrics. The author points out that HR departments already collect a lot of the necessary data, but the missing piece of the puzzle is to add value to it by connecting people measures to the bottom line and linking them more effectively to organisational goals.
Reviewers rating
‘HR Strategy’ made for a very thought-provoking read. The author’s tone and style perhaps reflect his overall themes – he uses his 200 or so pages diligently to dispel and challenge current and past HR thinking and offers suggestions for how to take action in a punchy and informative manner.
But because Kearns packs so much information in, I had to put the book down on a number of occasions in order to consider and reflect on the section that I had just read.
The pace of the writing can be quite exhausting and, because the text challenges the reader to review their own practices; I found it useful to have a notebook beside me in order to record action points as I read.
Having said that, the layout of the book is very clear and the contents pages in particular allow for back-tracking and dipping back into it at a later date.
The author also cross-references many other sources of information, which would make it useful for students, but the work is actually a really interesting read for almost any HR practitioner as well as forward-thinking CEOs. The themes would likewise translate readily across most sectors and into different sized organisations.
I would thoroughly recommend reading this book…..but be prepared to come out with a challenging list of learning points and actions – and possibly a shift in the way that you think about things.
  • Our reviewer this time was Wendy Bruton who is HR and training advisor at outdoor clothing and equipment retailer, Cotswold Outdoor.
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Wendy Bruton

HR And Training Advisor

Read more from Wendy Bruton