The Agony of Human Resources

I’ve worked with a handful of terrific human resources executives over the years, and they are remarkable in their scarcity. All of the outstanding ones sought me out—to my good fortune—because HR is not a place I go softly into the good night.

All of the current bloviating about a “seat at the table” and the “strategic nature of HR” is just that: gaseous evasion. Every time I get a call from an HR person telling me she has been “tasked” to find “venders” and “you’ll work through me or not at all,” the experience just supports my belief that consultants should be permitted to pack. (No, I don’t mean for trips.)

Let me ask you something: How many HR executives can you name who were promoted to CEO of their company from that position? I’ve seen vice presidents of sales, marketing, actuarial services, European operations, and scores of others ascend to the top job. I’ve seen general counsels and CFOs promoted to CEO.

It just doesn’t happen in HR. It doesn’t happen because the department has been marginalized and rationalized. It’s the place where companies park females and minorities to show how diverse they are, rather than give them positions running sales, manufacturing, R&D, operations, and so forth. It’s the area where people are sent whom the company doesn’t know what else to do with. Why would anyone spend a career in HR? It’s like a career shoveling mist.

The transactional aspects of HR have been, correctly, outsourced. The transformational aspects are the main reasons there is so much work for external consultants. HR departments can’t get it done. They have very little credibility and quake at the sound of the footsteps of a real executive.

Consider this: HR and their training brethren are spending fortunes (in excess of $40 billion annually, I believe, according to the American Society for Training and Development) on training programs from training venders. People march through these courses like lemmings, with virtually no metrics or measures of whether there is actual improvement on the job. In fact, you’ll find an occasional article in Training Magazine or the ASTD Journal from an HR department or training vender THAT MEASURES REALLY AREN’T THE POINT!

No, I guess the check clearing the bank is the point. Or, perhaps, that grid that shows how many people have been trained in how many courses, irrespective of job performance or improvement.

Is this too difficult a set of questions: Has performance improved? Is the customer better served? Do we have more business? People generally ask these questions when they buy fax machines or long distance phone plans, but not, apparently, when people are trained. In fact, HR is still in love with “four levels” of measure which Don Kirkpatrick discussed 50 years ago, and three of them don’t matter, because they are related to participant reaction and attitude, not behavior change.

HR is rewarded for staying within budget and treating people as venders to be squeezed. They are generally uninvolved in, and even unaware of, corporate strategy. On the other hand, line executives are rewarded for results, of course, and treat consultants as partners to help them make progress toward strategic goals. They find money if the ROI makes sense.

If you’re in the consulting business, don’t get involved in the HR department. If you do, you’ll never be perceived as a peer of the true buyers. And if you don’t get involved, you can go directly to the real buyers. Don’t worry, HR won’t “subvert” your project if it’s approved. If the buyer says to do it, they’ll fall all over themselves getting behind it.

That is, if they’re not too engaged in left brain/right brain, ENTJ, diversity, accelerated learning, stewardship training programs.

© Alan Weiss 2007. All rights reserved.


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