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Synopsis from theHRDIRECTOR:

For years, HR has been a giant magnet for responsibilities, and so its universe is now vast and, as is widely debated, change is a colossal constant. Big Data may well be HR’s allegoric Hadron Collider, questing for answers to the great beyond, but HR itself stands back and observes the fizzing petri dish, when it should have always been in it. HR has always been, and remains, reactive not predictive, somewhat disparate and distant from reality, which is why it always has to justify itself. There are too many shortcomings and failures to list, but one fundamental springs to mind, skills shortage and dribbling talent pipeline, right across the working world, which makes buzzwords like agility, holistic and thought leadership comical. The fundamental emerging trend is that HR itself is rapidly becoming irrelevant and ineffective in a bunker, and if spools of data are its only companion, the outlook is bleak.

The process for writing these blogs is that theHRDIRECTOR editorial staff provide 4 topics; a synopsis – like the one above – and then an invitation to me as a blogger / enthusiast / practitioner to write a piece on whatever aspect I feel is worthy of attention. I genuinely write from the heart with some head thrown in, and it’s a real privilege to share my thoughts with those in the profession I’ve taken to heart, who are leading the charge into the future with their teams, their consultant partners and their academic supporters.

So I’ll start with one comment – HR and justifying its existence. HR HAS found it hard to justify itself over the years. Renowned perhaps for nothing more grand than the “domestication” of people at work. I mean this in a way to only describe how it feels when people describe a feeling of being owned. No-one I know has ever said out loud – “let’s domesticate our people”.

Anyway, this and other largely disliked bureaucratic and friction-creating activities barely justify HR’s existence. There’s been a real push on compliance, consistency and convergence with the way we attract, enable, reward and advance people in the workplace. This has been (in my view), at the detriment of what makes us as individual human beings very special indeed.  However, we have to look at this through the 3 stages of work-based evolution – reference the World Economic Forum’s recent research and report on the 4th Industrial Revolution being upon us. Mechanical; electric; computational and now…?

So, of the emerging trends that I see, research and apply, there’s an unfortunate trend in a widespread skills shortage. Is that HR”s fault? I think it’s partly to blame. We have to though look at the education system; the disassembly of traditional industry like a fire-sale instead of a chance to reinvent, the shifting socio-political landscape and years of under-investment in the skills and adaptability in people by CEOs and Boards obsessed with short-term profiteering.

There is one emerging trend I am getting a sense of – and one that HR would do well to be really on top of; else it might well signal wide scale irrelevance and extinguishing of the pilot light on the HR boiler.


Quite a big, bold and scary word to many. By liberation what I mean here is the removal of the suffocating impact of over-management. An overhaul of the stifling shackles of bureaucracy.  And the reversal of the silent decline of creativity.

HR has been an enforcer of compliance through policy and that’s resulted in nothing more than a monotone hum from the loudspeakers of productivity. HR would do well to pick up this liberation trend and become the creator of skilful virtuosos aligned to harmonious rhythms of success. Jazz over Monastic chanting I suppose.

People have been conditioned to work in compliant, regulated and distrusting environments for a long time and many an HR professional will point to incidents of flagrant mis-alignment with company policy and say “thank goodness we had a policy there”. The lawyers too will say “if we didn’t have such tight policies we’d be left wide open and in danger”. The short-term, individualised dangers – sure maybe that’s the case in point to, prove their success. “Look we created these rules and they broke them”. Doesn’t take a Sherlock Holmes type to work that one out as successful right?

Yet lawyers and HR professionals might not always be looking to the bigger horizon: what company have we created and could we create if we weren’t so tight, locked-down and trust-averse? For every one member of the workforce poorly executing tasks or mis-using company resources we COULD have hundreds of out-perfoming, creative, money-making ventures created by our people BECAUSE we didn’t dumb them down to the lowest common denominator. It’s this liberating trend I’m seeing more and more in organisations that were previously considered outliers, almost freakish exceptions and yet now, there’s more of them.  I find new examples of liberating employers each week. You could start in a great place with those companies on the list; and those who support and have spoken at the Mearning conference every year in Brighton. There’s the Game Changers 500; the Employee Owned index I could go on.

If we liberate people to work more freely, the science is showing us that people find themselves thinking more deeply about what they need to do the great things that equate to a marvellous job – not just a satisfactory job. That people take care of their own skills gaps and needs and see learning as a renewal energy source not a compliance creating offline teaching session.

Our skills gap is because we’re thinking what’s needed tomorrow and not what may be needed next year. We’ve seen us take our foot off the gas of vocational skilling only to have to import vast swathes of this and realise that a degree in law doesn’t help fix our ailing transport infrastructure or medical support to people in their homes. The reintroduction of apprenticeships, internships and vocational on-the-job learning has been too little, too late here.  But it’s a start.

So we don’t close our skills gaps with more of the same thinking: big programmes; league tables and gamification in academia; not through retreats and coaching for senior leaders.

We close our skills gaps one person at a time. One person who, with help, can see their true potential and understand how to acquire knowledge, insight and turn it into wisdom.

One great thinker who saw this as far back (!) as 1994 is Russell Ackoff. I’ve only just discovered this man’s great work – unlike much “thought leadership”, not at all dated or outmoded – and it’s clear that his thinking about the systems we work in and the approaches we take was due an overhaul in the heady days of the 90s. Perhaps against Ackoff at that time was the lack of socialised technology to connect us. We were – in the 1990s – in thick of the post-Cold War optimism and supercharging our love affair with consumerism. Communism was failing and so we were perhaps even more resplendent in our capitalist ways. Now that socialised technologies in particular have opened up a swathe of information and transparency about the world; connected us to people like us and formed many movements of the mind; and helped us rediscover our very social fabric, Ackoff’s work is now more profoundly needed as a field guide to success. Well, in my view anyway.  He predicted the need to reinvent corporations; to democratise organisations; to turn learning into the renewable force for good and he wanted to see us become free-range (HT Matt Ballantine) from a previously factory-farmed existence.

So that’s the only trend I want to pick up here. Not digital this-and-that. Not data-driven this and the other. Liberation.  The un-domestication of people and learning.

Only then can I see that skills gap closing and the need for buzzwords diminished in favour of successful human beings doing good for themselves and each other.

Emerging trends: watch out for them as I suspect all roads leading to success will create an alluring draw.

Liberation of the human being is the macro trend I’m devoting time, energy and attention towards. Other HR professionals might also want to think what liberation might do for you and your enterprise.

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