The paradox of HR

HR represents something of a paradox. On the one hand, management gurus suggest that HR should be central to the strategic thinking in most organisations. Jack Welsh – former CEO of GE – suggests that the HR executive should be hierarchically second only to the CEO, and at least on a level with the CFO. Jim Collins writes that the best companies understand that they must get the right people on the bus, get the right people in the right seats and only then find out where the bus should drive i.e. the people stuff comes before strategy.

And survey after survey show that people and talent related issues are top priorities and concerns among top executives across the western world.  Also, more and more evidence show that the companies with the best people processes and ability to attract the best talent consistently outperform the rest across all industries and countries. It is also near impossible to open a management book or a magazine today without reading that “people is the most important asset” for companies today. This all suggests that HR should be the most important department in any organisation.

On the other hand, most people – including most top executives – often perceive HR to be an administrative function whose purpose is to make sure that people are paid on time, that employment contracts are signed and that relations with unions are good. Stuff that does not add much strategic value. When asked, CEO’s and CFO’s reply that they do not believe that their current HR function is delivering or is even able to deliver the value which is expected of them. HR is still not the strategic partner it wants to be.

HR paradox

So on one hand CEO’s say people stuff is important and on the other they don’t regard HR as important. This is a paradox.

This gap between the theoretical added value of HR and the perception that HR is not adding much value is in large part down to HR practices. Perhaps the best way to describe the current state of HR is to say that it is an area where practice lags behind knowledge quite a lot. There is a lot of evidence that shows that HR can add customer and shareholder value, but it is also fair to say that that practice is different.

I am not sure why. From my chair, I see a lot of improvement; improved practices, new mind-set and focus on value creation. That is why I am surprised that the latest surveys have not improved the picture of HR. Perhaps there is a fixed bias against HR, perhaps it is true that HR really does add no value, perhaps this is changing or perhaps HR is adding a ton of value but it is just not possible to prove it (and therefore other people take the credit). I don’t know. I am just a bit sick of hearing all the time how poor HR is. It is not what I am seeing.

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