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Paul Kearns

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It’s HR, not a magic pill


Continuing his series, Paul Kearns explains how HR can work wonders, but the temptation of ‘magic pill’ quick fixes must be avoided.

Some of us might like to think we can work miracles for our organisations but none of us should ever fool ourselves into thinking we can perform magic. Yet in practice that is often what we end up trying to do. In fact, more than any other indicator, the one thing that distinguishes HR from ‘magic pill’ practices is a determination and an ability to undertake a proper diagnosis of our organisations’ ‘ailments’ before we offer any solutions at all.

Many CEOs and senior operational managers are intuitively aware that they have people problems but they are rarely, if ever, able to articulate them in any meaningful or practical way – they just want ‘productivity’, ‘leadership’, ‘engagement’, ‘performance’ or even just ‘training’ and they want them now. So practitioners reach for the bottles of magic pills in their medicine cabinet and give them leadership courses, engagement surveys, performance reviews and elearning in the same way that some doctors hand out anti-depressants, regardless of the real nature of the problem.

Prevention is better than cure
The true strategist, on the other hand, says there is no ‘need’ until it is expressed clearly in terms of what value it is expected to add. So how much more productivity and from whom? If we had better leadership where would we start to see an impact? Does greater engagement mean greater performance and, if so, where is the evidence in existing performance measures that engagement is not where it should be? Moreover, behind all of these perceived needs are complex, underlying organisational issues that do not lend themselves to instant, quick-fix remedies.

Of course the primary reason managers have become magic pill junkies is that it makes them look like they are dealing with their problems while not actually having to get to grips with their ‘people’ issues at all. It is a great deal easier to ‘make allowances’ for under-performance or just not have the time to take an active interest in someone’s development than it is to put in the amount of effort it really requires. Non-strategic HR and learning teams who offer these ‘pills’ in effect conspire with such management weakness because it means they can get busy on things they like doing rather than be accountable for any organisational impact. If no one is too precise in their diagnosis of the problem, they are unlikely to ever be asked for evidence that the pills have worked. Yet clear and serious evidence of HR and learning failure can be witnessed every day.

Diversity training pills have not helped the Metropolitan Police become more ‘diverse’; professionalisation pills for HR in the Civil Service have not resulted in performance improvements or better capability reviews. In the private sector, talent management pills seem to have resulted in very high rewards for very little results and equal pay pills have bumped up pay bills without actually narrowing the pay gap.

As with all pills though, including placebos, if the ‘patient’ says they feel better then no one bothers to ask too many awkward questions about underlying conditions. Unfortunately for the pill poppers, when times get decidedly worse, we all start to feel pains that we never knew we had and then it is difficult to accept the harsh realities we now face.

A bitter pill
Politicians of all hues are currently finding it incredibly difficult to admit to us what we all know is inevitable – cuts.  The Government keeps wanting to ‘safeguard’ jobs, knowing that when labour costs can amount to 70% of total costs, this is an absurdity. Isn’t it about time politicians and governments learned that the only way out is to get more value out of the people we employ? That throwing money at HR and training initiatives is not only incurring even greater costs but diverting us away from dealing with the real issues.

Magic pills have a tendency to produce many illusions, even hallucinations. Perhaps the only pill we should all be swallowing now is one that brings us all back down to the simple reality that a globalised world owes none of us a living and unless each one of us can add more value than we cost we will not be getting any better?

This series is based around the themes of Paul Kearns’ ground-breaking book on ‘HR Strategy’ which has become a set text on both graduate and post-graduate programmes in the US and also been translated into French. The 2nd edition, entitled ‘HR Strategy – Creating Business Strategy with Human Capital’, was published in September 2009.


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