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Kuojen Chiang

Quo Vadis, HR?

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(as published on Human Resource Executive Online )

The ship of HR as a profession may be sailing into the sunset unless senior-level executives face up to the failures of the function, writes an HR consultant. No one should spend an entire career in human resources, which must be transformed and moved to the line, he writes.

By Alan Weiss

Once upon a time I was retained by a group comprising retired human resource executives — the top people — from a dozen Fortune 100 companies. They wanted to collaborate on a book. I’ve written dozens, and some of the individuals had worked at my clients, so it seemed like a good idea at the time.

I interviewed them, attended their meetings and created a book proposal. My agent liked it and promptly sold it to John Wiley & Sons, not exactly chopped liver. Everyone was stunned I did what I said I could do (this seems somewhat endemic in HR) and I thought we had a slam dunk.

But then, we dropped the ball. As I assembled the actual material, the group panicked that their names would appear in public attached to actual opinions about good and bad practices, successful and unsuccessful leaders, and their own recollections. I understood not wanting to embarrass former employers, but we’re all adults here, right?

Well, no. They backed out. I wrote a completely different book for Wiley, which had already paid an advance and now had a hole in their catalog if nothing emerged from us.

I believe that HR is going to become extinct unless senior people radically change it.

I don’t know if that’s feasible, since law-firm structure, as an analogy, is horrible, but the people who eventually clawed their way to the top have no interest in trying to change it. (I’ll remind you that attorneys, for the most part, still bill in six-minute increments, and the last statistics I have show that the average lawyer in the United States made about $88,000 last year, which is less than my auto mechanic.)

Moreover, in the last decade you would be hard pressed to name five (one every other year) senior HR people who became CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You’ll find general counsels, vice presidents of every pedigree, general managers, CFOs, even actuaries, but virtually no senior HR people.

There was talk for a long time that HR executives had finally been granted a “seat at the table” in executive meetings and board rooms. This smacks of a supplicant finally being given bread.

Transactional work done by HR has already left the building. There is no reason that I can see for it to return. It can be done more competently and inexpensively on the outside. That leaves transformational work, and that talent is rare in HR and the volition to rock the boat almost non-existent. That’s why there’s so much work for external consultants such as me. We don’t fear the line people.

Here is my recipe for what HR has to do to prevent the comet from striking the Yucatan and their going the way of the stegosaurus:

* No one should spend a career in HR. I wrote about this 10 years or so ago in Training magazine and the villagers came up the hill with torches and pitchforks. Nevertheless, I can’t think of a more isolated, non-credible career path.

When I worked with Tastemaker in Cincinnati, the president at the time, Mike Davis, placed his HR executive in charge of the Mexican operation. Mike’s reasoning was that his HR executive couldn’t help line leaders without experiencing first-hand what they were facing.

His Mexican operation was relatively close, pretty simple, but quite challenging. I thought it was a masterstroke.

* You don’t vie for a seat at the table, you own the table.

HR executives must take the leadership position not in fads and venders’ latest miracle clichés, but instead in integrating the organization’s strategy into its operational fabric. Strategies don’t fail in their formulation (and the nice three-ring binders) but in the implementation trenches where theory meets reality.

No one is yet doing this kind of work well on the inside.

* End the obvious discrimination taking place in the profession. The problem with equal access is not so much “glass ceilings” as “glass walls.”

Too many organizations obviously and shamelessly place women and minorities into senior HR positions to show their dedication to “diversity.” Yet they don’t place these people in leadership positions in manufacturing, sales or R&D.

If HR is to be a powerful force, its leadership should be able to break through lateral walls to lead other operations. That practically never occurs.

* Throw out all vendors and approaches that don’t provide measurable improvements and impressive return on investment. (Don’t forget, you’re hearing this from a consultant.)

I’m weary of hearing people in organizations ask if I’m an INTJ (a Myers-Briggs personality type) or was giddy about “brain dominance.”

The development of people is not about the numbers of employees who endure some number of courses. It’s about behavior improvement manifest on the job with commensurate improvements in performance and productivity.

HR people are still, astoundingly, enrapt with Don Kirkpatrick’s “four levels” of measurement from more than a half-century ago. (Here come the villagers now.) Yet the only measure that means anything is improved performance. It doesn’t matter if I’m an INTJ, expressive aggressive, HIGH G, who likes the learning, if my performance is unchanged.

* Blow up the silo. Move the transformational aspects of HR to the line.

Why do we need a central area when the point should be to have people close to the issues, skilled in change yet part of the local culture, who can react quickly and agilely? Why do we need a learning and development superstructure?

The only benefit in cost accrues because organizations purchase far too much from outside vendors, so the idea that there are advantages of scale are specious.

In any case, most HR procurement is at the behest of some line buyer, who either has the budget personally or whose backing of the need provides justification to use the HR budget. We spend upwards of $60 billion (you read that correctly) on corporate training annually, with scarcely a farthing justified in the long run.

Which leads me to the truly sensitive issue. We don’t need HR as it now is constructed in most organizations. We don’t require a separate hierarchy and set of executives.

A corporate ombudsman can easily handle the work involving ethics problems and harassment claims, along with the general counsel. Certainly, critical aspects of daily operations — such as hiring — are far better lodged in the units needing the people, not in an intermediary which simply adds to time, inefficiency and a lack of urgency.

Increasingly, I’ve found that consultants are doing very well (solo consultants and boutique firms, not the monoliths) because the organizations which they approach do not have the residual talent to provide incisive and bold change initiatives, or the risk-taking to suggest innovative new approaches.

For 20 years, in my books, speeches and consulting communities, I’ve preached that HR should be avoided because it isn’t a real buyer of consulting services. It tends to buy commodities, such as training on a cost basis, rather than true project-based consulting on a value basis.

That approach has been reinforced by thousands of consultants making six and seven figures from such work by dealing directly with line areas, bypassing (and sometimes even infuriating) HR.

I remember an HR woman from a New York City financial firm calling me on a referral about conducting a strategy retreat. It became quickly apparent this was a task given to her, because she knew virtually nothing about her firm’s strategy or why a “retreat” was the answer (it seldom is).

But she haughtily informed me, “You will work through me or you won’t work here.”

I told her good-bye and good luck. Any firm that seeks to hire a superb strategy resource (note that there obviously wasn’t one in HR) in this manner is never going to find that kind of help, nor would it know what to do with it.

There is hope for what we now call “human resources” (nee industrial relations and personnel), but not through another name change. It must become an integral part of divisions and departments, and top-level executives must be responsible for its outcomes, not for perpetuating its current silo.

HR is like an aberrant traffic cop now; it can often say “stop” but can’t really say “go.” That is going to end. It might as well end with a magnificent transition into line accountabilities that create positions charged with being leaders, not police.

Otherwise, I’d advise you not to look up. That bright light approaching isn’t a new sunrise.

Alan Weiss is one of only two people in the world who holds the highest awards bestowed by both the Institute of Management Consultants and the National Speakers Association. He is the only non-journalist in history to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Press Institute. He’s worked with more than 300 organizations and visited 59 countries. His newest book is from Wiley, The Consulting Bible. He can be reached at or

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