The number one reason why HR is still an art

Is HR a science or an art? You might think that with the advent of Workforce Analytics, Performance Management, tests in recruitment, ROI measurement and much more that HR is becoming more of a science than an art.

I am afraid not!

One of the problems is that HR fundamentally is based on studies done within psychology; social-, cognitive- , personal- , clinical-, and Industrial psychology. Most of theories about Performance Management, Talent Management, Leadership and Employee Development, Recruitment and more originates from psychology. Nothing wrong with that. Being a psychologist myself, I think the profession has a lot to offer HR and the art of managing people in general. But despite its best efforts, psychology is still far from being anything resembling science. It is fundamentally an art.

I recently read a great article, which compared different fields of study, and it found that psychology tends only to publish ‘positive’ studies i.e. those that supports the tested hypothesis. Why is that a problem? The problem is, that most of the studies cannot be replicated and those which can aren’t. So if somebody publish a research piece which claims to show that “you can improve job satisfaction by coaching your employees instead of telling them what to do” this claim will go completely untested. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, it just means that nobody will test it and correct all the stuff which really isn’t true.

You may argue that all fields of science does this. Only to some extend and certainly not as much as psychology (see the table below). I encourage an evidence based approach to HR. A lot. But if the evidence we can find is bad what then?  Consider this:  In a study from 2006 published in American Psychologist, showed that almost three-quarters of researchers who had published a paper in a high-impact psychology journal had not shared their data.


HR is full of claims of what works and some (though not many) draw on academic studies from psychology and related fields. Much of it is contradictory, much has no foundation in real research (produced by consultants or vendors) and the rest goes untested by others. We need to change this.

HR Data, Workforce Analytics and ROI measures will do what it can to make HR more science based. I actually think that is a good thing. We are still taking about people and therefore you cannot make HR a complete science. But for my worth, I think it is a good thing, that it is moving a bit more in the direction of a science. BUT this will not happen until psychology as a field will mature. One way is to test and challenge the results and look into the data upon which research is made.

So let me end on a positive note: HR has the potential to be the thing that impact companies and society the most over the next 40 years. As Peter Drucker once remarked then our growth over the past 50 years has been our ability to increase productivity through machines. The challenge for the next 50 years is to do the same with people. I believe HR can do this. To help us, we need better data, research and science.

6 thoughts on “The number one reason why HR is still an art

  1. Psychology could also just give a more attention to psychological assets which are relevant for business purposes. I believe that the recent research into power depletion is an example of that.

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