Monday, April 23, 2007

Truths stretched too far - Part II : Let them learn all by themselves

This is the second one in the series of blog posts that look at how some very valid research findings ('truths') tend to get misinterpreted/misused when they get 'stretched too far'. As mentioned in the first post in the series, the 'stretching' happens because of many reasons like extrapolation of the validity of the research findings to contexts other than that in which the research was conducted, using 'inferential leaps' between the actual research finding and assumption(s) underlying the HR practice in question, ignoring other factors (other than the factor covered in the research) that have an impact on the current context/ situation etc. There are also situations where these 'stretched truths' are used to rationalize/justify particular HR policies/ practices instead of using research to improve the HR policies/ practices. Sadly, this sounds similar to the saying about the 'drunkard's use of the lamp-post' , that is , 'for support and not for illumination'.

In this post let us look at the popular research finding "Less than 10% of the learning takes place through formal training". I think that this finding is very much true. Most of the learning happens through job experiences and through interactions/relationships. The problem happens when this finding is used as an excuse for 'cutting training budgets without establishing any concrete mechanism for facilitating the learning through job experiences and interactions'. Since 'job experiences and interactions' are outside the traditional domain/mandate of the training function, it is easy (and very convenient for HR) to jump to the conclusion that 'the entire responsibility for ensuring that this type of learning happens lies with the managers and the employees'.

Unfortunately, this type of learning (through job experiences and interactions) does not always happen automatically. Even when the learning does take place, it could be incomplete or too slow. There is a need to put in place a mechanism to structure, facilitate and track this type of learning. This is especially true in situations where there is rapid growth and the workforce consists of relatively inexperienced employees and first-line managers. In these 'high growth - high attrition - large span of control - inexperienced team profile', managers are under too much pressure and hence 'surviving' could take precedence over 'learning and facilitating learning'. Hence we come back to the need for institutionalizing practices that would facilitate and maximise learning through job experience and interactions.

For example, 'the way a job is structured' is a critical factor in deriving learning through on-the-job experience. This calls for an intervention at the job design level to ensure that the jobs have sufficient authority/responsibility and scope/variety. 'Job rotation' and 'special/stretch projects' also offer high learning potential. This would require that the organization puts in place policies/ practices that encourage job rotation and assigning people systematically to special/stretch projects. Similarly, to maximise the learning through interactions/relationships there is a need to institutionalize systems/practices for coaching, mentoring, 360 degree feedback etc. While the learning value of formal training programmes is limited, some times they can serve as a mechanism for creating awareness and to build very specific knowledge/s kills that could facilitate/ maximise learning through job experiences and interactions.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

HRM in partnership firms

If we analyze the role of the HR function in a partnership firm (here we are talking about large multinational partnership firms) some interesting dimensions emerge.

One of the key factors here is that a partner is an owner of the firm in addition to being a manager. Now, if I am an owner, I might feel that it is my privilege to run the firm (or the part of the firm that I am managing) 'my way'. It might also lead to a tendency to make 'sporadic interventions' in people related processes/ decisions. Thus some of the partners might view well defined HR processes as impediments to their 'freedom of operation'. This might pull the firm towards functioning like a 'family owned firm'.

However, most of the global partnership firms have well designed global HR processes. It is essential to have these processes to manage the scale of operations and to attract and retain good talent. Also one of the key attractions for working in a partnership is the opportunity to grow in the firm and become a partner/owner. Well designed HR processes are required to facilitate this and to give the employees the 'comfort feel' that this is possible .

So there are two opposing forces here, one pulling towards a highly 'personality driven' way of making people decisions and the other pulling towards a highly 'process driven' way of making people decisions. The HR function in a partnership firm experiences both these forces and it makes the role of the HR professionals quite tricky. Often only a 'dynamic balance' is possible and the equilibrium point keeps on shifting. Depending on the degree of credibility/respect that the HR professionals in the firm enjoys/develops (in the eyes of the partners) more positive outcomes becomes possible from this dynamic interplay of forces.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Truths stretched too far - Part I : Blame it on the managers

These days HR practices are supposed to be 'research based'. As HR professionals, when we recommend/implement a particular practice/policy in the people domain, we want to substantiate it with 'solid research findings'. There could be many problems with this. The first is the validity of the research findings in contexts other than that in which the research was conducted. The second problem occurs when there is a 'chain of reasoning' (and sometimes even an 'inferential leap') involved between the actual research finding and assumption(s) underlying the HR practice in question. It is also possible that other factors (other than the dimension covered in the research) that have an impact on the outcome gets ignored (In the people domain, and in life in general, most important things are 'overdetermined' - i.e. they have more than one cause). Of course, there is also the ever present danger of confusing between 'correlation' and 'causation'. In this series of blog posts, we would look at some of those research findings ('truths') that tend to get misinterpreted when they get stretched too far.

In this post (which is the first one in this series) let us look at the very popular research finding "People leave managers and not organizations". I think that there a lot of truth in this finding. The immediate supervisor is a key influencing factor in employee engagement and retention. The problem happens when other factors that influence employee engagement and retention are ignored and the entire responsibility(or even blame) is put on the managers. Often there are other significant factors involved (e.g. the basic nature of the job, 'Rewards' strategy, work environment, lack of career advancement opportunities etc.) over which first level managers don't have much influence. So when the attrition level goes high, the tendency is to respond with 'training the managers on engaging and energising teams'.

This response also suits HR admirably. The factors like basic nature of the job, 'Rewards' strategy, work environment, career advancement opportunities etc. are more difficult influence as compared to 'sending the poor managers for training'. While this gives HR the satisfaction of having 'responded quickly to the business challenge of attrition', unfortunately this does not solve the problem adequately. It also leaves the managers (who are already facing the consequences of attrition in their teams) more confused and frustrated. Hence we come back to the point that 'system level issues' have to be addressed at the system level (and no amount of manager training can obviate this need).

Related Links: Next post in this series , related post