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Paul Kearns



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HR and learning: Should we be one big, happy family?


In a series on HR and learning strategy, Paul Kearns asks whether it is about time learning and HR specialists were seen to be working much closer together as one, single, coherent source of expertise in people management.


It is amazing that HR and learning professionals do not work more closely together. Anyone seriously involved in trying to improve ‘learning’ in the organisation is at the mercy of its strategic approach to people management. If the selection and reward policies are not producing people of the right calibre then learning professionals have to work with raw material that might not be up to the job. 

If the organisation is badly structured or has inefficient processes then the potential benefits from learning are going to be strictly limited.  If the organisation has built a culture of fear or blame then this is not a platform on which organisational learning can be constructed.  In short, learning professionals cannot add much value without an effective HR strategy in place.

Likewise, ask any HR professional about their ‘strategy’ and they will talk about talent management, career development, reward and recognition and all of the other very positive aspects of people management. But ask them what they spend most of their time doing and it will be pay and grading queries, grievances, disciplinaries, managing vacancies and interviewing. Ask them what they are doing to create a learning culture and you won’t hear much about the installation of learning systems, how to link performance reviews to learning opportunities or how they are ridding the organisation of managers who crush initiative, creativity and innovation.


No connection


We also don’t have to look too far to see what happens when HR and learning are completely disconnected from business strategy. Let us look at one organisation that was feted for its HR ‘strategy’ up until recently – the now ‘state owned’ Royal Bank of Scotland.  Neil Roden, its HR Director, who has so far survived the management cull at the bank, said at the Economist Talent Management Conference in June 2009: "In the good times we just thought we could buy who we wanted…. We are now going to change that.  …. We need to change leadership development and do more growing of our own." 

Roden believes he has a strategy to do just that, but RBS’s track record is not on his side. Only three years ago Roden set up RBS’s own business school, costing millions of pounds. This ‘strategy’ did not last long because it so obviously failed. So has anything been learned about the connections between business strategy, HR strategy and learning strategy?

RBS’s mission, in its own words, was "to become one of the most admired global financial services organisations" and yet, when it came to setting up the business school, they completely disregarded one the most basic tenets of their own banking principles – to calculate what their return might be.  So who is going to admire a bank that spends money without calculating a return on investment?


In it for the long haul


Proper strategists do not judge organisations by short-term profits. Getting the best value out of people is always a long-term game. We have all seen what happens when a get-rich-quick culture infects the banking and financial services sector. True HR and learning strategies can only be judged by the principles they subscribe to and the long-term, sustainable performance that follows.

You cannot just buy in great people and expect them to perform brilliantly. Premiership football clubs prove this point time and time again. Organisations are a ‘team game’ and the best teams not only build on peoples’ natural strengths but also their relationships with each other.  No organisation will thrive when it hires mercenaries who are always on the lookout for the highest pay packet. 

Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin, RBS’s former CEO, probably has many talents but they do not apparently include getting the best out of people.  According to the Sunday Times (8 February 2009) he operated a "culture of fear", where even senior executives were afraid to speak up.  Meanwhile, Roden’s HR department were trumpeting their annual employee engagement survey results.

These are the challenges for HR and learning strategists, and organisations will not change their ‘spots’ unless they create a positive cycle of feedback and learning. That often has to start openly and honestly, acknowledging that mistakes were made and having a genuine willingness to learn from them. There are no signs yet that RBS has either the appetite or the strategy to bring about the sort of learning culture that we as taxpayers, never mind as learning and HR professionals, should be demanding.

RBS is only one stark example of a serious problem in the worlds of HR and learning. Over the next few months I hope to generate a debate that crosses the boundaries and asks how can HR and ‘learning’ work more closely to focus on real value creation? One thing is for sure – the world economy can no longer afford to keep getting its strategic people management so badly wrong.



Paul Kearns’ ground-breaking book on ‘HR Strategy’ has now become a set text on both graduate and post-graduate programmes in the US and has also been translated into French. The 2nd edition, entitled ‘HR Strategy – Creating Business Strategy with Human Capital’, was published this month.

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Paul Kearns


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