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Death and resurrection – the future of HR?

Article by John Varney - Centre for Management Creativity

HR used to be called Personnel – until the name changed to reflect a more rounded function, blending training and development with the admin role. Now HR deals with the legal and admin aspects of employees as well as training and development. But what we don’t usually see is that HR and employees are operating within a complex system and thus, all their activities are subservient to that system. When the system is intentionally distorted by the law and by whatever becomes normal behaviour, then we get a function that is no longer looking after the best long-term interests of employees, but is actually engaged in using those employees to realise such concepts as “sustainable growth” – a discredited whimsey of a sub-set of our economic system and quite likely an oxymoron.

In 2022, it is increasingly obvious that our economic system is no longer fit for purpose. It is our economic system that is driving rapacious exploitation of the resources of planet earth and leading us rapidly towards irreversible climate catastrophe. The system is also increasing inequality between and within nations. There are ever fewer winners and ever more losers.  The whole system is dysfunctional – and yet we all operate within it – even those activists who see the issues but are powerless to change things.  We had a glimpse of this when the covid epidemic was at its height – but now we are quietly sold the idea that we can “get back to normal” – i.e. we can revert to our over-consumption and over-indulgence, which have been rudely interrupted. It is a pernicious delusion.

So, here’s the question. Is HR just a cog in the machine, mindlessly driving those humans who are enmeshed to produce profit at any price? Or could HR alternatively serve as the conscience of any organisation, genuinely putting humanity to work, for the greater good and for the long-term wellbeing of all life on earth? Do we choose to put our emphasis on the ‘Human’ or on the ‘Resources’? Today, I came across a very capable leadership developer, posting on Linkedin, about a survey recently conducted by the Financial Times, which set out What companies really want from executive courses | Financial Times (ft.com).  Her comments and the substance of the article are all very fine – one person commented that it is good to see investment returning.  Of course, some part of us wants to “get back to normal” after the pandemic and the political hiatus – but really, is this a sane response to impending crises? Does it not smack of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic?  “That was a bit of a bump, thank goodness the lights stayed on”. Come on! – our entire civilisation faces an existential threat and we pride ourselves on redistributing our training budget?

Okay, you might think of me as alarmist (as might have those who were enjoying a pleasant evening on the Titanic) – But is it reasonable to ignore impending crises? Do we see the purpose of HR as being merely for ensuring we remain within acceptable margins of employment law and to relieve managers of responsibility for delivering training? Or might we, alternatively (or additionally) consider HR as being the conscience and consciousness of our organisation? Are we happy to be outsourced an admin role, or do we see ourselves as being truly responsible for the human aspect of our enterprise?  I suggest it is both!  And yet the former outbalances the latter to the point of obliterating it. Otherwise, we would be shouting for top management and the board to wake up to the coming dangers – to invest, not in more of the same or return to normal, but in preparing all concerned to survive and thrive in a dramatically changing world – indeed in helping drive the transformation of the global economy and society that is undoubtedly coming our way.

Viewing the FT survey from the outside, one would have to say they are looking at micro-detail and distracting from the major issues of our day.  HR must wake up to its higher purpose of raising awareness of impending changes outside of normal business concerns. In our lifetime, we are likely to experience the greatest crises and greatest changes ever known to humankind. If catastrophe is yo be averted, is it not time to focus on what are truly our Human Resources?

All of humanity – all eight billion people – are likely to have their comfortable lifestyles disrupted by the impact of changing climate – not just floods and fires but also serious threats to food supplies, to supply lines, energy supplies and personal mobility (on all of which we have become dependent), to the infrastructure that sustains us all, to the very fabric of our lives and to all the natural world. In face of this massive and unprecedented scale of change, the resources of humanity (not just Human Resources) will be tested to the extreme. While we still have something called HR, we must use the opportunities it presents to increase resilience and manage expectations of individuals and organisations for the challenges to come.

From the outside, looking in, as it were, what I see is complacency on a global scale, collusion that enables the idea of “back to normal” or “growth, growth, growth” to take root and flourish (for a while). Wake up, people! We are headed for total breakdown. Be prepared! We need to reinvent our world in a form and with values that enable coexistence, compassion and true sustainability or we human resources – all of us – will cease to exist.

Reinventing our world will be challenging but is not impossible, provided we can learn fast enough to think differently – but first we need to recognise the terror of our situation.

    Formerly architect and mountaineer. Founder of Centre for Management Creativity and High Trenhouse Management Centre (now retired). Change agent, coach, strategy innovation, team development and leadership development. Author; Leadership as Learning - Take the Hero's Journey to Transformation clients included major international organisations, local authorities, SMEs, communities and individuals, mostly in UK.

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