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Douglas Board

Choosing Leaders & Choosing to Lead


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Time to blow up H(B)R – and the CIPD as well?


Harvard Business Review (HBR), the world’s premier intellectual business magazine, likes to publish pieces which are challenging, rigorous and readable. For example Justin Fox’s piece ‘What We’ve Learned from the Financial Crisis’ (November 2013) is still on the money today, as the EU political-financial and Chinese stock market crises unfold.

But HBR likes something even better than this. That is publishing articles by professors from famous universities and top leaders of top companies. Unfortunately the two likes aren’t always compatible, as the current (July/August 2015) issue painfully demonstrates.


In three linked articles, HBR ask two professors (from Wharton and USC), the global managing director of McKinsey, the vice-chairman of Korn/Ferry, a global board adviser and the HR director of the Gates Foundation, to lead the charge on ‘blowing up’ HR and building ‘something new’.

With that firepower pitted against, say, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), the result should have been a walk over. Instead Laura Harrison, the CIPD’s Director of People and Strategy, was able to turn the charge away without bothering to get out of bed.

Time wasters

The first HBR piece sees the problem as simple. HR should walk away from ‘time wasters’ like worrying about millennials or diversity. Instead its focus should be strategic business impact.

But don’t let the surge in your excitement prompted by this insight lead you not to notice how…

“…little has been done in the past few decades to examine the value of widely used [HR] practices…” which is followed immediately by, “by separating the effective from the worthless, HR leaders can secure huge payoffs for their organizations.”

If the first sentence were true, the second would be impossible – we wouldn’t be able to tell the effective and the worthless apart.

Troikas and élites

The second piece formulates that companies should be led by a troika of the CEO, CFO and CHRO, and this should come about through the CEO’s command. As Harrison observes, this is hardly ‘blowing up’ HR (maybe puffing up?) – and what happened to customers?

However this piece should lead to radical action in two global companies – McKinsey and Korn Ferry. Respectively their global managing director and vice-chairman have affirmed that, in their observation and experience, “2% of the people in a business drive 98% of the impact.”

Expect any minute now a 98% down-sizing in those two organisations. How disappointing if the 2% insight turns out not to be a HBR-blessed pearl, but a ridiculous, self-serving and corrosive piece of dogma.

The bright scientific future

The third article pleads with HR departments not to fall in love with the latest ‘bright, shiny objects’(intellectual gimmicks) but to think, deep, long and slow. The authors focus on Juniper Networks, which abandoned forced-ranking performance evaluation in the face of ethical challenges from staff and neuroscientific research.

For my money this article is the best of the three. Although isn’t neuroscientific research the latest bright, shiny object? How difficult it must have been for our ancestors to resolve ethical challenges, or to choose breakfast cereals, without an adequate understanding of the neural pathways involved.

The CIPD also like the third article. Harrison is confident that the future of HR is bright, because it will be scientific.

Disappointing realities

So, HBR nul points: perhaps the banner headline ‘It’s time to blow up HR’ was missing a ‘B’ between the ‘H’ and the ‘R’. But I’m not as confident as the CIPD that the future of HR is bright. If HBR disappointed by not being challenging and rigorous, Harrison disappointed by taking the perspective of a self-interested profession, more concerned for itself and its members than for organisations and society.

I wrote in HRZone before about spending 25 years of my career in HR without much advance in its clout in the boardroom. I don’t expect CEO/CFO/CHRO triumvirates to happen on any scale until shareholders really want that third person at the boardroom table in the same way that they want the CFO.

Merge HR and marketing

Here Harrison’s question, what about customers?, may give a clue. Stop and think about the fact that in no other CXO function do we split the world between the inside and the outside of the organisation. We don’t have separate CFOs for money inside the organisation (financial control) and money outside (borrowing and capital markets).

Ditto in production, logistics, information or environmental impact. For some time now the future has not been the creation, at an organisation’s boundary, of Berlin Walls, but a porous and intelligent ‘skin’. The movement has been towards holistic analysis, sophisticated flows and carefully controlled, commercially-savvy integration.

It’s already been noticed that, especially in a social media world, consumer and employee ‘brands’ have to be coherent. But maybe what’s needed is an imaginative leap, to merge HR and marketing into a single function. (For what it’s worth, I’d call its combined head the ‘chief relationships officer’, CRO). After all, the internal anatomy of both functions can already be divided into business partnering, centres of excellence/technical expertise and transaction processing/analysis.

Blowing up HR – for real

An idea too far? Or the wrong idea? Quite possibly. I’m looking forward to exploring the idea at a forum organised by the growth and innovation consultancy The Foundation on 16 September.

At least it really would blow up HR and build something new. Maybe people will become the most important asset of organisations when we put the people outside and the people inside together.

Douglas Board is the author of ‘Choosing Leaders’ and the forthcoming satirical thriller ‘MBA’.

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