On why human resource management has been a major disappointment

One of my greatest annoyances is the failure of human resource management (HRM) to adequately utilise knowledge management practices and experience in developing and nurturing the human capital of organisations. HRM seems more interested in staying bounded by payroll, employment law, and offering some training courses than actively trying to heighten the capacity and capability of the workforce to work smarter, more collaboratively, and more effectively. Indeed, HR might find some insights into a number of current HRM issues around staff engagement, the ageing workforce, and retention of corporate knowledge by utilising the knowledge management literature and knowledge management experience.

Essentially, HRM is largely reactive, control-focused, and fails to take leadership responsibility for an organisation’s intellectual and social capital. HRM is a big disappointment.

I was complaining about this lacklustre performance of HRM to a former colleague of mine last week. He commented by saying that he wasn’t surprised since the Human Resources Department is, as he put, “an agent of management control”. He went on to argue that HRM is involved only in those areas of workforce management in which centralised control can be practiced. Payroll and training courses were classic examples. HRM overseeing employment law was also important in not only controlling the workforce, but in protecting the organisation (management) from legal action. Legal aspects of employment law also had a mandatory element for ensuring regulatory compliance.

I could see the logic in his argument. In fact, much of my professional experience in a range of organisations pretty much matched the examples he gave on what an HR department actually did. If HRM was really about management control, then utilising knowledge management that encouraged innovation and collaboration, the building of social capital and emergent relationship networks, were actually at odds with the HRM goal of personnel control.

My latest Accenture newsletter had this article on “how HR can elevate its business impact to enable high performance”. The article categorises various functions of HR. The first function matches the controlling function my colleague and I discussed earlier – personnel control. The second function accorded by the Accenture article was “people development” or talent management . People development generally means training and sending management to leadership courses where (in my experience) little change to existing bad management styles actually takes place! It might also involve elements of recruitment. The third rung in Accenture’s ladder is “talent multiplication” that “takes efficiency and quality gains and spreads them upward through the organisation”. Accentures goes on to say that “HR is able to drive business results by equipping the workforce with the right knowledge, resources and freedom to deliver breakthrough advances” – funnily enough, this statement is what knowledge management is all about!

Hello, HRM, is anyone out there paying attention?


5 responses to “On why human resource management has been a major disappointment

  1. Pingback: enterprise2open 07/17/2009

  2. This is a strategic topic, the chain of command is an old approach refering to the military sources of strategic management. Most organizations can’t cope with postmodern stuff like evolutionary strategies or even autopoesis (self-organization) because even now most managers learn a lot of post-tayloristic management at the university but do not have any personal experiences in post-heroic leadership. HRM is lacking these abilities because they havn’t been selected as people who feel or are succesfull if others are climbing up the ladder. They are administrators not mentors as it should be…
    Just my 2 cents

    Joerg W.

  3. hello, CEO, are you paying attention ? hello executive team, are you?
    Whilst i agree with the difficulties of HRM making the transition to transformational from transactional, i dont think the picture is quite so bleak. Having said this, the key driver for excellent HR performance is a CEO who knows how to leverage and direct the HR function towards delivering the business need. Oh, you say, CEO’s dont need to be HR experts. My reponse: CEO’s need to make the transformation from Marketing and Finance to a strategic people orientation leadership balanced with Marketing and Finance. Then you will see HRM becoming better transformation partners. As a former HR VP with a global company for many years, I feel qualified to comment. HRM cannot change organizations single handedly and this is not what HRM is all about. And its about time we stopped bashing HR for not delivering, and requiring the function to continually rejustify its existence, and offer some constructive framework to help organizations change. HR issues are not only an HR problem, ,they are a business problem. So how come eveyone else in the business looks the other way ?

  4. I soo agree, if we look at the organisation as a system i believe that HR has become one of the key blockers to change within the system. It is all about retaining the status quo, their internal systems and processes that they are responsible for to “drive” behaviour reward the wrong things they certainly reinforce knowledge is power and we all know how that works. They demonstrate this block to change by supporting the organisation “spitting out” any change agents who may threaten their perception of compliance to the way things need to be.

    surely we all know if we have too much compliance we kill creativity?

    the question is how can we change this?

    • Michelle and Elaine,

      I agree that HRM , like KM, needs some focus and attention from the CEO and the senior executive. Both HRM and KM are strategic as well as functional. This lack of strategic attention from senior management reflects the fact that people issues, as distinct from market issues, are not considered part of the total organisation’s profit-making potential. HRM and KM are considered costs, not as assets. HR in particular is something you need to have because of legal requirements and payroll – beyond that, senior management have little interest.

      The trouble with HRM is that people within this section actually believe that their only role is to look after payroll and ensure proper legal employment compliance, nothing else.

      HRM can do better than that!

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