HR enters a new era

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. HR enters a new eraOn 25 Jan 2002 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Howis HR shaping up in the Naughts? Paul Simpson looks at how the latest socialtrends are influencing the professionTheidea that people are a company’s most important asset may well be half a centuryold. The exact age of the clichŽ depends on whether you credit it to GaryBecker (author of Human Capital, published in 1864), Peter Drucker (who beganproducing classic work on management in the 1950s) or US social worker MaryParker Follett who started writing about work in the 1920s. But, regardless ofits source, the important question is: are there grounds for believing that inthe Noughts, companies may finally shape policy with the slogan in mind?Well,there are some. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at theUniversity of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says, “Thereis a feeling in the UK that we are too close to the American model, have runthe danger of becoming the 51st state and that, although we don’t want therigidity you see in some European economies, we are seeing the costs of theAmerican model: the long hours, the rise in divorces, the insecurity whichcomes from the use of short-term contracts. How we mend the psychologicalcontract between employer and employee is, for me, the critical question of thedecade.”Notthat the rush of post-11 September redundancies suggest any great rethinking inthe heart of the corporate world. But there are some structural factors whichmay boost the influence of HR. Thefirst is the degree of consensus which exists in the industrial and politicallandscape. Neither last year’s British general election nor the 2000 USPresidential election offered the voter the clear ideological choices of mostprevious contests. Increasingly the argument has come down to personalities andmanagerial competence. Cooper says the same is happening in industry:”Look at John Monks at the TUC – he is a completely different kind ofunion leader. He has a business case for everything.” Managementwill welcome this in some ways – it is hard, after all, to negotiate with aunion leader who believes you are a running dog of imperialism who has deprivedthe workers (his members) of the legitimate fruits of their labour. Andyet the public argument may be harder to win now it is impossible to dismissthe union leader as ‘red Robbo’. Indeed, this kind of name-calling feels likeold politics, of the kind practised so efficiently but ineffectually by WilliamHague in his stint as Conservative leader.Butthis is good news for HR, which works best when there is common ground. Theabsence of such agreement and the enslavery of HR to industrial relationsmarked the 1960s and 1970s – two of the decades when personnel’s influence inthe corporate power game was at its lowest. At the same time, the balance ofpower between employer and union is less one-sided than it was in the 1980s,when line managers felt they could afford to ignore legitimate HR concerns in amacho willingness to exercise their ‘right to manage’. Machomanagement isn’t very popular these days. Bill Gates, the most famousbusinessman in the world, has managed to become public enemy number one in theland of free enterprise partly by dint of his sheer visibility, a reputation(realistic or not) for arrogance and an anti-trust case. Hiscorporate ancestor Rupert Murdoch is now so low profile he is barely a blip onthe media’s radar screen. “We’re in a decade where it doesn’t pay to be ahousehold name as a business leader,” says Cooper. “The best managerin Britain today in my opinion is Tesco’s Terry Leahy but I bet you not one ina 100 people on the street could tell you who you worked for.” Thisis also partly a reflection of the shift in another balance of power: betweenmanagers and investors. The Ivan Boeskys of the 1980s may have been stymied asbarbarians, but they made corporations (and managers) answerable to the peoplewho bought their stock. Thishas sometimes led to more short-termism and a return to the days when CEOs cuttheir workforce to keep stock up, but it has also helped make managementaccountable. General Electric’s reigning genius Jack Welch (in likeabilityalone corporate US’s answer to President Eisenhower) had a high profile but aslightly misleading public image as an avuncular regular fellow, a democratwith a small d, a man whose ego was healthily smaller than his company’s annualturnover. And even this modest behemoth has just retired, leaving corporateAmerica without a brand champion. Thesame rules now apply to gurus. The evangelical fervour of Tom Peters suited the1980s perfectly (even if his message ran against the asset-stripping ethos ofthat decade at its worst). But today, hard work and eye for detail are prizedmore highly (not to say that Peters didn’t possess these  this is all about perception). Sothe most influential business guru in the US now is a professor at theUniversity of Michigan called Dave Ulrich. His chosen field of expertise? Humanresources. Theother factor in HR’s favour is that, although science is more powerful thanever, there has been no real return to the scientific management theories firstexpounded by the US engineer Frederick Winfield Taylor (1856-1915). His ideathat scientific knowledge could alone make companies more efficient hasincreasingly been challenged by theorists like Drucker. Parker Follett, whoinfluenced him, had begun talking about empowerment and flatteningorganisations even before the Second World War. Today, Taylor’s simple beliefhas been replaced by something much less clear cut, a recognition of the sheercomplexity of the corporation and of the employees who work for them. So,for the immediate future, the arguments in HR as a broader business environmentmay be less about principle and more about nuance – a similar process to thatwhich has made politics so dull as a spectator sport. On the one hand, therewill be a trade of new buzzwords for old (out goes work-life balance in comestime sovereignty).HRwill be full of small challenges in the Noughts. What is the policy to be onpets in the office? Is Take Our Kids To Work Day really such a good idea? Butat the same time, there will be several big challenges. Like fixing thatpsychological contract. If work (or more crudely money) was the new rock’n’rollof the 1980s, the thing which people most conspicuously desire in the Noughtsis time. How to reconcile that with the ever-shifting demands of business? And,how, ultimately, to make a case for the discipline of personnel or HR whichgoes beyond number crunching about successful recruitment and staff retention. Previous Article Next Articlelast_img

first_imgRelated posts:No related photos. HR enters a new eraOn 25 Jan 2002 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Howis HR shaping up in the Naughts? Paul Simpson looks at how the latest socialtrends are influencing the professionTheidea that people are a company’s most important asset may well be half a centuryold. The exact age of the clichŽ depends on whether you credit it to GaryBecker (author of Human Capital, published in 1864), Peter Drucker (who beganproducing classic work on management in the 1950s) or US social worker MaryParker Follett who started writing about work in the 1920s. But, regardless ofits source, the important question is: are there grounds for believing that inthe Noughts, companies may finally shape policy with the slogan in mind?Well,there are some. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at theUniversity of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, says, “Thereis a feeling in the UK that we are too close to the American model, have runthe danger of becoming the 51st state and that, although we don’t want therigidity you see in some European economies, we are seeing the costs of theAmerican model: the long hours, the rise in divorces, the insecurity whichcomes from the use of short-term contracts. How we mend the psychologicalcontract between employer and employee is, for me, the critical question of thedecade.”Notthat the rush of post-11 September redundancies suggest any great rethinking inthe heart of the corporate world. But there are some structural factors whichmay boost the influence of HR. Thefirst is the degree of consensus which exists in the industrial and politicallandscape. Neither last year’s British general election nor the 2000 USPresidential election offered the voter the clear ideological choices of mostprevious contests. Increasingly the argument has come down to personalities andmanagerial competence. Cooper says the same is happening in industry:”Look at John Monks at the TUC – he is a completely different kind ofunion leader. He has a business case for everything.” Managementwill welcome this in some ways – it is hard, after all, to negotiate with aunion leader who believes you are a running dog of imperialism who has deprivedthe workers (his members) of the legitimate fruits of their labour. Andyet the public argument may be harder to win now it is impossible to dismissthe union leader as ‘red Robbo’. Indeed, this kind of name-calling feels likeold politics, of the kind practised so efficiently but ineffectually by WilliamHague in his stint as Conservative leader.Butthis is good news for HR, which works best when there is common ground. Theabsence of such agreement and the enslavery of HR to industrial relationsmarked the 1960s and 1970s – two of the decades when personnel’s influence inthe corporate power game was at its lowest. At the same time, the balance ofpower between employer and union is less one-sided than it was in the 1980s,when line managers felt they could afford to ignore legitimate HR concerns in amacho willingness to exercise their ‘right to manage’. Machomanagement isn’t very popular these days. Bill Gates, the most famousbusinessman in the world, has managed to become public enemy number one in theland of free enterprise partly by dint of his sheer visibility, a reputation(realistic or not) for arrogance and an anti-trust case. Hiscorporate ancestor Rupert Murdoch is now so low profile he is barely a blip onthe media’s radar screen. “We’re in a decade where it doesn’t pay to be ahousehold name as a business leader,” says Cooper. “The best managerin Britain today in my opinion is Tesco’s Terry Leahy but I bet you not one ina 100 people on the street could tell you who you worked for.” Thisis also partly a reflection of the shift in another balance of power: betweenmanagers and investors. The Ivan Boeskys of the 1980s may have been stymied asbarbarians, but they made corporations (and managers) answerable to the peoplewho bought their stock. Thishas sometimes led to more short-termism and a return to the days when CEOs cuttheir workforce to keep stock up, but it has also helped make managementaccountable. General Electric’s reigning genius Jack Welch (in likeabilityalone corporate US’s answer to President Eisenhower) had a high profile but aslightly misleading public image as an avuncular regular fellow, a democratwith a small d, a man whose ego was healthily smaller than his company’s annualturnover. And even this modest behemoth has just retired, leaving corporateAmerica without a brand champion. Thesame rules now apply to gurus. The evangelical fervour of Tom Peters suited the1980s perfectly (even if his message ran against the asset-stripping ethos ofthat decade at its worst). But today, hard work and eye for detail are prizedmore highly (not to say that Peters didn’t possess these  this is all about perception). Sothe most influential business guru in the US now is a professor at theUniversity of Michigan called Dave Ulrich. His chosen field of expertise? Humanresources. Theother factor in HR’s favour is that, although science is more powerful thanever, there has been no real return to the scientific management theories firstexpounded by the US engineer Frederick Winfield Taylor (1856-1915). His ideathat scientific knowledge could alone make companies more efficient hasincreasingly been challenged by theorists like Drucker. Parker Follett, whoinfluenced him, had begun talking about empowerment and flatteningorganisations even before the Second World War. Today, Taylor’s simple beliefhas been replaced by something much less clear cut, a recognition of the sheercomplexity of the corporation and of the employees who work for them. So,for the immediate future, the arguments in HR as a broader business environmentmay be less about principle and more about nuance – a similar process to thatwhich has made politics so dull as a spectator sport. On the one hand, therewill be a trade of new buzzwords for old (out goes work-life balance in comestime sovereignty).HRwill be full of small challenges in the Noughts. What is the policy to be onpets in the office? Is Take Our Kids To Work Day really such a good idea? Butat the same time, there will be several big challenges. Like fixing thatpsychological contract. If work (or more crudely money) was the new rock’n’rollof the 1980s, the thing which people most conspicuously desire in the Noughtsis time. How to reconcile that with the ever-shifting demands of business? And,how, ultimately, to make a case for the discipline of personnel or HR whichgoes beyond number crunching about successful recruitment and staff retention. Previous Article Next Articlelast_img

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