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Cath Everett

Sift Media

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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HRD Summit: ‘HR’s biggest failure has been an over-focus on process’


HR’s biggest single failure over the last 10 years has been an over-focus on process at the expense of outcomes, despite there being little evidence that the majority of such processes even work.

This was the key finding of a keynote panel discussion at the HR Directors’ Summit in Birmingham earlier this week entitled ‘Reflections and future challenges for the HR Director’.
Deborah Baker, director for people at broadcaster Sky, explained: “Many HR people are way too focused on process rather than outputs. Instead I work to the ‘so what’ principle– so what about the process if the outcome is positive.”
David Clutterbuck, visiting professor at Oxford Brookes and Sheffield Hallam Universities, agreed. During the course of his research, he had asked the question ‘if succession planning and talent management work, how come so many organisations don’t have the right managers in place?’.
Clutterbuck cited ‘Fred the Shred’, otherwise known as Sir Fred Goodwin, former chief executive of Royal Bank of Scotland, as a case in point.
“There’s little evidence that HR processes such as leadership competency frameworks produce more than random selection,” he said. “I also can’t find any significant evidence to prove that nine box grids measure performance accurately – star performers in one company often aren’t in the next one because the reason that they were star performers in the first place was down to their networks.”
Another myth, meanwhile, is that line managers know the talent in their own teams. “Nonsense. To most people, ‘talent is like me’”, Clutterbuck attested.
The problem was that HR had been “suckered in” because it thought of processes as being linear and simple when instead they were complex, adaptive systems. But it was simply not possible to “put in money and out pops a leader”, he warned.
“Let go of the HR bling. It proves nothing. To free talent, you have to allow people to seize opportunities, not predict them,” Clutterbuck said. “As one HR director put it, competency frameworks are based on men and their behaviour and competencies of 20 years ago. But now because we have women and people from diverse backgrounds so we’re choosing leaders based on the past rather than the future.”
Changing role of HR
But the changing nature of the workforce over the next 10 years will undoubtedly have an impact on the current process-driven focus of the HR function – whether HR likes it or not.
Ed Lawler, distinguished professor of business at the Marshall School of Business at the University of Southern California, explained: “As more jobs are created through projects needing to be done, it works against job descriptions, pay ranges and the like – those things associated with traditional HR. Not all organisations will go that way, but a lot will.”
Channels such as social media will likewise shake things up. As Clutterbuck said: “The way we think about structures will change, for example, from grooming job candidates to asking who has the best ideas for transforming a role. The answer may come from an individual or a group, but there’s more flexibility if you allow it to happen.”
While the traditional ways of thinking saw HR trying to control such situations, in the world of the future, “we mustn’t”, he added.
Jason Corsello, vice president of corporate development and strategy at learning and talent management software provider, Cornerstone OnDemand, believes, meanwhile, that the HR director of the future will require two new skills.
The first will be to understand technology rather than simply defer decision-making to the IT department and the second will be to become “very analytical”, even though such skills today tended to be found more in finance departments than HR.
Corsello cited the example of Google, with has a team of 25 focused solely on undertaking workforce analytics.
“It makes some apparently risky decisions based on workforce analytics. For example, it paid every employee a 10% bonus, which was controversial as it was the same for a top and low performer,” Corsello said. “Most companies can’t afford a team of that size, but they can find analytical skills, for example, in finance.”
Clutterbuck agreed. “The stereotype of HR is about being caring and not analytical. But if you care about the business, how can you not be analytical?” he concluded.

2 Responses

  1. Why the over-focus on process.

    I agree totally with the research findings and commentary in this article, but in New Zealand as I imagine in many other countries, there is a further reason for this happening…………..legislation and the Courts. 

    Ever since the labour market began to move away from almost total Union dominance in New Zealand in the early 90s, there has been a corresponding change in thinking that legislation will fix all the Industrial Relations/HR/workplace management issues.  Following on from this is the obvious next step which is  to  focus on what the law says which inexorably has lead to this focus on getting the process right. 

    We have only recently begun to counter this, with a law change [here we go again!!] last year requiring our legal IR forums to place more emphasis on the substantive issue than the procedural issue. Being of the ‘Old School’ I lament the demise of the Union movement in our country for the very reason being discussed here. ….and I record here that I am and have for 23 years been an Employer’s Advocate.  While Unions were oftentimes counter productive in many issues they took up on behalf of their members, the fact remains that far more workplace problems were solved and with less financial drain on Employers, because Unions operate within an environment referred to as ‘union discipline’………….and it worked.

    I’ll be interested to see if anyone feels similarly in the UK.  Cheers.  Don Rhodes.

  2. Are we creating a leadership environment?

     We spend far too much of our time focusing on the processes and systems and too little focusing on developing the potential of the people.  Following his extensive research, David Clutterbuck asks how come so many organisations don’t have the right managers in place.  I would add to that – what are the leaders in these organisations doing to create an environment that enables people to succeed, and become more outstanding in their role?  Systems and processes canot do that.

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Cath Everett

Freelance journalist and former editor of HRZone

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