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David Evans

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Book Review: Transformative HR by John Boudreau & Ravin Jesuthasan


Title: Transformative HR
Authors: John Boudreau & Ravin Jesuthasan
ISBN: 978-1118036044

Reviewed by David Evans of Burn Bridge Associates.

This is a book that ostensibly has a very clear mission: to champion the cause of evidence-based HR management. There is, however, a ‘sub-plot’ which relates to the need for HR professionals to be able to operate with their colleagues from other functions on a level playing field; one on which they can display the full spectrum of their talents.

The authors lead the reader through a well-argued thesis based on the assertion that the HR function is still evolving; from the personnel department to task-focussed HR, the function is now in the process of shifting its orbit around the centrality of human capital. These authors believe that the emphasis is on decision-making, with a far greater logic and analytical rigour than heretofore.

In truth, this book is really a sequel: in 2007, John Boudreau co-authored “Beyond HR”, in which he introduced the concept of the new science of human capital. Now, with a new co-author, he has laid out the tools by which HR professionals can surely operate with credibility equal to that of other functional executives. As the authors assert in this book, “the idea that the measures should be focused on the business hardly seems extraordinary, but a great deal of the conversation on HR metrics is not focused on improving the business so much as justifying what HR is doing” (page 109).

The book comes in three parts: the first third lays out the central themes and explains why and how they should be applied. This section is logically presented, with five principles outlined and then developed to support the foundation-stone that HR decision-making should be rigorously determined through insight and analysis rather than simply with raw, barely-interrogated data. The five sequential principles are logic-driven analysis, segmentation, risk leverage, integration and optimisation.

Central to the five principles is the need to decide what the vision is for HR and how it is going to support the delivery of the business objectives. From this seemingly-obvious starting point, the development and delivery of human-metrics insight can commence. The authors use examples from supply-chain management to show how existing organisational skills can be deployed within HR. And this is a recurring theme of the book: marketing, risk-management and finance also provide tools and techniques that can be exploited in the pursuit of more robust HR decision-making.

The authors devote a chapter to each of the five principles, supported with detailed case-studies; and each chapter concludes with a paragraph headed “the one thing you should take away” which is a helpful reader-aid. Chapter 4 is of particular value, since it deals with the ways in which HR can be more integrated within the organisation and how synergies between different HR activities benefit HR’s overall contribution to business performance.

The second third of the book contains 6 detailed case studies to demonstrate how evidence-based HR change has made significant impacts in large organisations. These reinforce the work outlined in the first part of the book and enable the authors to show that theory and practice can be combined to deliver robust change.

The final third contains closing thoughts – with a particularly useful summary of leadership characteristics for the function – and-well annotated appendices and references.

The messages that come through very strongly from this book are that HR should be viewed and managed as a science rather than as an art. Furthermore, HR decisions need to be constructed within the context of customer-based outcomes rather than on any framework created from within the function. There is room for intuition and gut-feel – these experience-based decision-making tools are certainly valid – but the organisation and exploitation of relevant data not only gives a more robust decision-making platform; it also enables more effective presentation of the resulting decisions to colleagues and stakeholders.

Reviewer’s rating

I like this well-organised book for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it oozes with passion for the HR function. These authors fly the flag for HR and give the reader cause to think that it can rightly claim to be on a par with other functions. Also, the authors show how HR can usefully utilise tools and techniques from other business disciplines: I applaud this approach, because it demonstrates that functions can be organisationally integrated and that the functional silos which exist in some organisations do not have to be blockers to valuable synergies.

I think that this book has both a philosophical and a pragmatic value – it paints a vision of HR’s future role as well as providing a number of practical approaches. The case-study examples demonstrate this strongly, showing how the principles in the first third of the book can be deployed in practice to add business value.

Finally, it’s easy to navigate and the language and prose-construction used are not complicated or tiresome. You will find that it is easy to pick up and put down without losing the continuity.

However, there is one caveat. Despite its title it is hardly transformative: it talks about evidence-based change but is really actually about operating HR in a more scientific and logical manner, from an outcomes-based and coordinated perspective. In this sense, it describes methods and approaches that a good HR team should already be using.

In conclusion, this is a great manual for HR management and the overarching management of the HR function. I think it should be read and its messages shared with other functional leaders as a starting point for a more constructive HR input.

Rating: 4 stars out of 5.


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