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Janine Milne

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The HRZone Interview: Jon Ingham on where HR is going wrong


In the view of Jon Ingham, HR consultant, author and blogger, the current obsession of HR practitioners to be seen as business people first and HR professionals second could seriously backfire.

The danger is that, by becoming too much like everyone else in the business, HR will lose sight of what its key focus should be: to help steer organisations towards new ways of working, in which people are truly at the centre.

Ingham talks to HRZone about how he thinks things need to change, the problems with the concept of employee engagement and why HR really must embrace social media:

Q. You take issue with the idea that HR people should consider themselves business people first. Why?

A. I think HR does need to be business-oriented – clearly that’s what needed. I just think it’s hugely overdone. I understand why people say it but worry when they do and whether it indicates that they haven’t thought through the impact of that.

Q. In what way?

A. My real issue with it is that I don’t think the way business works really offers organisations a long-term, sustainable way of operating. Levels of trust and engagement are not good.
To me, HR absolutely needs to generate credibility and have an impact on the effectiveness of the business but, much more importantly, HR also needs to engage business executives with the possibility of doing things differently. You need to design your organisation for people.

Q. What do you mean by that?
A. Create organisations where people have relative autonomy over what they do, where they are trusted and developed, where they speak to each other as adults and have effective social relationships, where people are more of a collective and community.
The logic of organisations dictates that, if you bring two people together, you will create more value than they could independently, but very often the opposite feels true. Organisations can constrain us from being effective.

Q. So is it a question of engagement and of finding ways to motivate staff and increase loyalty?
A. It’s about HR professionals being business people first and taking on the mindset of the rest of the business, which loses them an opportunity to change the organisation. Engagement is such a business-oriented word – it’s about managing people as resources and manipulating them in practice to help the business be more effective.
There’s no big win for employees in that, so engagement benefits are self-limiting. It’s not encouraging when you see bosses earning 100 times your salary.

HR literature, including HRZone, says that HR people need to understand the business and talk business language.

That’s absolutely fine – you need to do that, but if you’re in HR, you should also be focused on creating organisations that could help create valuable skills sets and that rely on things like psychology, sociology, anthropology and managing complexity, which are not highly valued as business skills.
It’s losing sight of HR’s biggest opportunity. The focus should be on a complete shift away from the delivery of products and services to create a compelling and effective environment for people.

Hays’ and others’ surveys say the biggest issue is aligning people with organisational purpose. Often it’s not that people don’t know what they should be doing, but that the organisation interferes with their being able to do their jobs. So they are able to contribute but not to their whole potential – the organisation constrains them.

There’s a growing focus on the need for company culture to be customer-centric. I don’t disagree with that and yet I think there are two different focuses: people need to be part of what you create. The idea of business first, HR second really worries me because HR is starting to wear that as a bit of a badge of honour.

Q. You’re also adamant that HR should take more of an interest in social media, why is that?

A. Technology is never about technology – it’s always about culture. If it’s an important ERP project, then it’s absolutely right that IT should do that, but with social technology, success or failure is not much to do with the technology itself.
There are plenty of examples of organisations using cheap systems to very good advantage and those that forked out for big, expensive systems that haven’t got any traction. So the issue is whether the systems are matching a need, how they are introduced and how involved they make people feel.

IT professionals are doing some wonderful things in the social technology space, but my biggest gripe is the lack of involvement of HR folk. HR is just giving one more stick to the rest of the business to beat them with – one more example of HR being out of date, out of touch, and HR is often the last to get involved.

It’s different from five years ago, but any use of social media is usually about recruitment, learning and communication. But there’s also a big opportunity for performance management

Q. How can social media help with performance management?

A. In a sense, performance management is the most obvious candidate for social media because, in most organisations, it’s so absolutely terrible. Performance management tends to be designed for businesses, not employees.
There’s very little engagement for employees, very little ownership. It’s something done to the employee, not something they own. It also deals with the performance of individuals, but most organisations are run on the performance of teams, so there’s obviously a level of cognitive dissonance.

It’s not fun, it’s not compelling and it’s not easy – all of the things that mean it doesn’t work. As I started off saying, technology is never about technology – it’s about culture.

It’s useful to have a range of social technology in organisations, but they can be used in more meaningful, compelling ways. Systems like Rypple and Worksimple allow organisations to do performance management in very different ways. Social media can be used pretty much across the whole HR architecture.

8 Responses

  1. Employees First

    Jon, I agree with so much of what you said. I also believe that HR should be proud of its "profession". We are here to focus on people so that both business and employees benefit while delivering work.

    A few years ago, Vineet Nayar, the CEO of HCL Technologies, wrote a book about how he used the concept of Employees First, Customers Second to bring his company to success. Maybe all HR people should read it !

  2. Engagement –

    Steve, thanks very much for the provocation.  I’d firstly like to stress that I am firmly in favour of employee engagement as a strategy.  I am playing a role in the launch of Engaging for Success this month, and I believe strongly in the case I’m promoting.  I just think there’s more as well…

    The problems with engagement, as I see them, are firstly, as you suggest, about the way it is implemented.  I think the focus on business benefits can lead organisations, managers and some HR professionals to interpret engagement as being about exhorting people to ‘come on, get engaged, work harder!’.  Unfortunately this ultimately leads to the deterioration of what they’re trying to create ie lower engagement and worse results.  I think you can see the consequences of this in the report about people fiddling their taxi fares in their expenses reports – they’re motivated but clearly not aligned with the objectives of their organsiations.  I think an approach which is more about the individual (people first) would work best – both in terms of raising engagement and through oblique means, leading to better business performance too.

    Secondly, I don’t think that even implemented well, engagement goes far enough.  That being said, the bulk of organisations can probably get a lot of value out of it, but at some point, the extra benefit comes from liberating your people, not harnessing them even tighter to achieve business goals.  This is the point I made about the ‘business person first’ issue as a whole.

    Thirdly, I think there’s a wider problem in that the word engagement is fundamentally disengaging.  I’ve long argued that we (organisations and especially HR professionals) need to use the language of people rather than the language of business:

    Eg take a look at these lists from Gary Hamel:  Engagement is firmly part of the group of words on the left rather than the list on the right.  It’s just not a word that’s going to get people emotionally ecxcited ie engaged.  So I think that part of becoming more people centric is changing the whole language we use in our organsiations.  ‘Business person first’ determines that HR be able to talk the language of business ie Finance.  ‘People person first’ requires the whole organisation talk the language of people.  We get some benefit out of talking the language of business.  We get much more benefit by getting the rest of the business to talk more of the language of people.

    And we could probably get much more engagement by encouraging managers to talk about joy, truth, honour and love (as Whole Food Stores are already doing) than we can get my pushing ‘engagement’.


  3. Engagement

    Jon, thanks for raising this, it’s an intersting, stimulating perspective, and like others I go along with you for most of it. But I think we may part compnay (in a very friendly way!) on the engagement bit. For your comment "Engagement is such a business-oriented word – it’s about managing people as resources and manipulating them in practice to help the business be more effective. There’s no big win for employees in that, so engagement benefits are self-limiting" to be true, one needs a view of engagement that it is something the organisation does to the employee, ie it is driven by the organisation. How negative is that?!

    Personally, whilst I acknowledge that many organsiations do have this view of engagement, I think they’ve got it the wrong way round. I believe that it is very dangerous to foster a culture in which employees are waiting for the organsiation to engage them. Engagement belongs to the employee, not the organsiation (or at least it  need to if we are going to see genuine benefits from truly engageed employees).

    I found Timothy R Clark’s "The Employee Engagement Mindset" compelling on this – it’s defintitley worth a read. So whilst I agree with you regarding the place of HR as ‘business partner first and foremost’, I’d like to encourage discussion – and more importantly practice within HR – that focuses instead on showing employees how they can ‘own’ their own enagagement. That requires a significant shift in thinking in many organsiations, but what a difference it makes! Then, there’s the possibility that organisations will really be able to excel, because engagement won’t be self-limiting (as I agree it inevitably will be when its focus is the wrong way round).

    That’s my tuppence-worth: Discuss!

    Steve Short

  4. Thanks everyone

    Thanks Janine for the interview, and Cath for the opportunity.  I liked the way the interview folded round on itself ie we started talking about people centricity, then social media and performance management which brought us round to people centricity again.

    I would like to clarify my response to the question about engagement:

    Q. So is it a question of engagement and of finding ways to motivate staff and increase loyalty?
    A. It’s about HR professionals being business people first and taking on the mindset of the rest of the business, which loses them an opportunity to change the organisation.

    My answer to the previous couple of questions about creating organsiations for people are, partly at least, about motivating staff and increasing loyalty.

    I am a big proponent for employee engagement, because it’s so lacking in so many organisations.  I’ve got big hopes for the Engaging for Success launch next month.

    But I do think engagement is unfortunately self-limiting because it is so business focused.  I personally prefer the concept of wellness because I think it’s a more people-centric term.  See:

    Again, this isn’t about reducing focus on the business, it’s about achieving more for the business buytransferring our focus to the employee.

    Chris, thanks for the comment.  I agree, I think it can be inferiority / lack of confidence.  But I also think a lot of it is just lack of thinking.  There’s so much in the ether at the moment about HR being business-centric, that it’s easy just to accept this as a philosophy, and to adopt all the other belief that come with it, around the importance of measurement, talking the language of business ie Finance, HR being a support function, etc, etc.  I think it’s a brave soul these days who stands up and shouts out ‘we’re going the wrong way’ and therefore risks being seen as unstrategic (which absolutely isn’t what this is about – in fact I could / do argue that the only way HR can truly be strategic is by being people centric) – so thanks and well done!

    Having said this, I do think there’s more to this than understanding the business and having strong HR capabilities and personal qualities.  Yes, we need these, but you could still have these and a laser like focus on meeting business needs, and to me, will have a reduced potential impact.  The key is where you get your energy from, and if it’s all from the business, you’re missing the most important source of power in your organisation.  I’m not saying just focus on people – the business is generally going to be the much bigger influence on the way you manage your people.  But for at least some of the time, your strategy should be based upon what your people can do, or could do, with the right strategy, which enables your business to do new things or achieve more stretching goals.

    Mike, some nice points in there, as ever.  And it depends what you mean by ‘HR’ but I do think there are dangers in seeing ourselves as ‘HR first’ too.  Creating value for our businesses doesn’t come from focusing on the mechanics of our own function (you make that point too).  But I also don’t think it comes from focusing on what we need our businesses to achieve – that’s the business first thing again.

    The way of squaring this circle is to focus on the outcomes we produce, not the impacts these have in the business (operational excellence, customer loyalty, financial results and so on).  These outcomes are human capital, organisation capital and social capital (which is another reason why social media is so important).  If we focus on these, which is the value that are people can provide, I think we’re in a much better position to be more strategic, increase our impact and raise our credibility too.

    Christina, I love your points on mindset shift, human relations and internal customer service.  I completely agree this is what HR needs to be about.  And actually, I think it brings us back to social media again.  We used to be able to get away with treating people like resources.  These days, we can’t.  I’m hoping’s entry into the UK will be a huge enabler for HR people to be braver, because actually they’re probably risking more if they carry on in their old ways.  Greater transparency is coming, if it’s not already here, and customers won’t want to buy from or do business with businesses where their employees don’t advocate the company’s products or services or even their work experience.  I believe it’s yet another powerful argument why we need to put people first.

    David, I agree there’s probably too much focus on enforcement, though that still needs to have a role.  And actually, rather than being something else where HR is going wrong, I think this is a consequence of the same thing – that the business person first approach is of necessity largely about enforcement whereas people centricity has to be about encouragement and enabling.

    Thanks all for commenting – I’m pleased to see so much support and agreement, and actually this is my frequent experience too.  The general tone of conversation (from the CIPD, the magazines, most blogs etc) tends to be about business person first, but I’m convinced this doesn’t match the views of many, if not a majority of, our profession.

    That said, there will be plenty of people who disagree with me – some strongly, and it would be good to have your comments too.

  5. Value-add or process policing?

    Like others, Jon, I agree with the sentiment that HR experts should focus on delivering what they’re good at. What they’re good at should be value-adding to the business (since HR is a fundamental driver of good business practice), and therefore they will be part of the commercial ‘engine’ that delivers the organisation’s objectives. 

    A criticism I’ve often heard, though, is that HR personnel spend too much time ‘enforcing’ HR policy and process, at the expense of adding commercial value. The challenge is not – IMHO – about excessive business focus versus sticking to the HR knitting: it’s about making it simple for transactional HR to be delivered so that the HR experts can focus on implementing their functional skills in a way that enhances business performance.

    One of the barriers to this – amongst many – is an impression that some people in the HR function prefer the comfort of HR enforcement rather than the challenge of embedding value-adding HR expertise. Perhaps some are not expert enough?

    Sorry if this sounds provocative!


  6. head.. tail. wag?

    Some interesting thoughts Jon.

    It should not be business first, HR second, but HR first, business second, but with a robust business awareness.

    With any change, we tend to "swing too much" in the opposite direction, before we return to where we should be.

    Unfortunately (IMHO) too many HR people have failed repeatedly to acknowledge the business impact before attempting a particular approach or initiative.

    Do we as HR forget what we are here for, no, but i do think that a percentage of HR people are not clear about their role and focus. The simple reality is if we want to do something we need to be able to put together, and present a cohesive business case. this takes understanding, competence and vision.

    HR is now at the same risk the L&D profession made a few years ago. Increasingly by failing to meet the organisations needs and expectations, it has drifted into an "optional" function in many organisations, Rather than a key business function. HR is starting on the same road.

    — Mike Morrison

    RapidBI web 
    Twitter @RapidBI 

  7. Inferiority Complex

    Jon, agree with much if not all of what you have said in your interview.  Well said.   The thing about HR wanting to be seen as business people first and HR people second, does seem rooted in the functions’, and some individuals, lack of confidence in what HR does.  The key seems to be that HR professionals need to genuinely understand their business and business in general (how can they help contribute if they don’t), have strong HR capabilities and knowledge (no short cuts)  and then a set of personal qualities (intelligence, presence, confidence, clear communication, interpersonal skills etc) that instil confidence and credibility when dealing with other executives.  Then the issue simply doesn’t arise.  Best Chris


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