Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Towards a philosophy of HR

"HR is like gardening", said a senior HR professional when he was completely drunk. "We are not using any functional expertise in this recruitment assignment; our role in this project is similar to that of a pimp", said a Project Manager from a reputed HR consulting firm when he was in a reflective mood. "The HR leadership team is thinking about strategies to build the firm for the next 150 years", said a global HR leader in a 150-year-old MNC. Three senior HR professionals and three interesting perspectives - in three different contexts.

What is the basic 'philosophy' that underlies the domain of Human Resources? Does this (and should this) vary significantly across organizations? Is it a clearly defined and commonly accepted philosophy ? If not, can we derive some sort of 'emergent philosophy' from the way the craft of HR is practiced ? How has this philosophy been evolving? Is it worthwhile for organizations to invest time and effort in formulating and articulating an HR philosophy?

Now that I have been working in the HR domain for a decade, these are some of the questions that I have found myself thinking about quite a bit these days. Of course, I don't claim to have definite answers to these questions. What I do have are some 'thought fragments'. So the objective of this post is to seek comments from the readers so as to have a discussion on the topic.

Since this is a very broad topic, let us make a couple of simplifying assumptions for the propose of this discussion. Here we are taking about HR only in the context of business organizations. We are using the term 'philosophy' in a limited sense, to mean the basic assumptions, premises or tenets that underlies the field of HR.

There are many ways to approach this topic. One of them is to look at the applied behavior science foundations of HR. It can be said that the objective of applied behavior science is to understand human behavior in order to make predictions regarding probable behaviors in various situations so as to be able to influence those behaviors. This 'understand-predict-influence' sequence underlies all applied behavior science including Human Resource Management. From this it can be inferred that one basic assumption in the philosophy of HR is that it is possible to understand and predict human behavior so that it can be influenced to be in line with the organization objectives.

Another 'trick' that is often used is to look at the various terms used for HR and derive inferences from the choice of words. Here we comes across many terms, including Human Resource Management, Human Resource Development, Personnel Management, Human Capital Management, Talent Management etc. Then we could make 'inferences' like

(a) use of the term 'Management' indicates the intention to 'control' (more than what is meant by the term 'influence')
(b) use of the term 'Resources' implies that employees are a factor of production or even that they are essentially costs of production that needs to be minimised to the extent possible
(c) use of the term 'Capital' implies that employees are more like assets than costs and hence they are worth investing on or even that they add significantly to the value of the firm
(d) use of the term talent and avoidance of the term resource implies that employees are like investors who invest their talents in the organization and that they would continue to do only if they see attractive benefits like rapid appreciation in the value of their talent and good revenues in terms of salary.

While some of these 'inferences' do not necessarily follow from the terms, they do give us a flavor of the underlying assumptions.

Now if we look at many of the HR practices (that originated many years ago), we can figure out that they make some assumptions like 'continuity of the employment relationship', 'good amount of predictability regarding the business growth and hence career growth' etc. If we examine what actually happens in organizations these days (especially in highly dynamic industries), we are likely to find that these assumptions no longer hold good. Please see here for an illustration of this point in the context of career planning. Based on this we could argue that some of the basic underlying assumptions and hence the de facto philosophy of HR is evolving - often quite rapidly.

It is interesting to note that to some extent this 'evolution' also gets reflected in the changing names for the various sub-functions in HR. For example the function of 'Compensation' (which can be interpreted to mean that the organization is compensating the employees for some harm done to them) evolved into 'Rewards' and then into 'Total Rewards'. Another example could be the 'Training' function evolving into 'Learning' function. Training sounds like something that is done to the employees (or even forced upon the employees), almost similar to training animals. Learning happens inside the minds of the employees and hence can only be facilitated (and not forced upon the employees) by the 'Learning' function. Of course, the change in the name need not always imply a change in the underlying assumptions/philosophy. But it does show that it is fashionable/desirable (at least from a PR point of view) to have (or at least to create an illusion of) a more progressive philosophy of people management.

Now let us look at the basic issue of why should we be bothered about the 'philosophy of HR'. The 'philosophy of HR'/'basic assumptions in HR' in a particular organization context shapes the way the employees are managed in that organization.

Lack of a clearly articulated and understood 'philosophy of HR' can make the organization susceptible to 'taking up the latest fad in people management and discarding it soon after to take up the next one'. It can also result in highly inconsistent attitudes/practices in managing the employees (e.g. swinging wildly between high empowerment and high control, between large investment in employee development and no investment between 'intense focus on encouraging employees to form emotional bonds with the company and 'downsizing and then scaling up shortly after that' etc. This in turn can cause a lot of avoidable confusion.

More importantly, the 'way the employees are managed' will influence how the employees respond to that/how the employees behave in the organizations. What happens here is similar to the 'Pygmalion effect'. Thus 'wrong/bad' assumptions/philosophy, might result in creating 'wrong/bad' reality. For example, 'Theory X' kind of assumptions/philosophy (i.e. that the employees are inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can) in people management will promote 'Theory X' kind of behavior among the employees. Hence, though the 'initial reality'/'employee behavior' might not be in line with 'Theory X kind of assumptions', after people management based on 'Theory X assumptions' have been practiced for some time, employees might start to behave in a fashion that validates 'Theory X'. This makes people management a very dangerous domain !

We also have to be mindful of the possible conflict between the stated HR philosophy in an organization and the 'actual' HR philosophy practiced in the organization. What really matters is the HR philosophy (basic assumptions about HR) that emerges/can be inferred from (or gets reflected in) in the decisions made by the organization. It will be a tragic-comic situation if an organization says that 'people are our greatest assets/people are our main source of competitive advantage' and at the same time practices 'downsizing' and/or 'cutting employee benefits & training' as the first response (instinctive response!) to any business downturn. There is no better way to create mistrust and cynicism in the organization ! The same holds good at the level of managers also. Managers (especially direct supervisors) represent/symbolize the 'organization' to the employees and the real 'HR philosophy' of the organization (as perceived by the employees) is the one that gets reflected in the behaviors of (or in decisions made by) the managers. So we can't overemphasise the need for congruence between the 'articulated HR philosophy' and the 'HR philosophy in practice' ! It is interesting to note that discussion mirrors the discussion on the need for congruence between the 'espoused values' and the 'enacted values' in an organization. Logically speaking, HR philosophy of an organization should be closely linked to (or even derived from) the core values of the organization. Thus, the issues at the level of core values are likely to get reflected at the level of HR philosophy also!

So, these are some of my preliminary thoughts. Now over to you for your comments.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Paradox of 'potential assessment'

Most organizations have some sort a process for assessing the 'potential' of its employees. This is very much required as the 'fallacy of promoting an employee to a new job based on high performance in the current job' is well known. There won't be many HR professionals (or even business managers) who haven't heard about the 'tragic story' of the 'star salesman who was promoted to the sales manager position and failed miserably'. So the business case for 'potential appraisal' is quite strong.

The problem begins when one asks questions like

a. How exactly should organizations go about assessing potential?

b. Can potential assessment be done (within the organizational constraints) in a reasonably valid manner?

c. If there are serious doubts regarding the validity of potential appraisal in a particular organization context, is it worth the trouble and effort to put in place a potential appraisal process in that organization?

There are different points of view when it comes to the answers to these questions and that is what makes potential assessment paradoxical. A paradox occurs when there are multiple perspectives/opinions (doxa) that exist alongside (para)- each of which is true - but they appear to contradict/to be in conflict with one another.

The common methods used for 'potential appraisal' include managerial judgment, 360 degree appraisal, psychometric testing, assessment centres etc. Sometimes, a combination of these methods are also used. In most cases the choice of method(s) is driven mainly by the amount of time and resources that the organization is willing to invest in the process and the 'cultural readiness' of the organization. Sometimes the choice could also be driven by things like 'casual benchmarking', latest seminar attended by the HR Head, pet methodology of the consulting firm hired etc.

I feel that the basic issue in potential assessment (which sometimes does not get enough attention) is 'potential for what?'. Many answers are possible here. They include

1. potential to be effective in a particular position
2. potential to be effective in a particular job family
3. potential to be effective at a particular level
4. potential to take up leadership positions in the company
5. potential to move up the organization ladder/levels in an accelerated timeframe etc.

Logically, the first four answers should lead to the creation of a capability framework that details the requirements to be effective in the job/job family/level/leadership positions that we are taking about. Similarly, the fifth answer should lead to identification of attributes/capabilities that enable an employee to quickly climb up the organization ladder.

It is interesting to note that since these capability requirements can be different for different organizations a person who is rated as 'high potential' in one organization might not necessarily be rated so in another organization (and vice versa) - even if we rule out any errors in measurement. However, the capability frameworks (especially the 'behavioral competency frameworks') tend to be quite similar across organizations (for a variety of reasons including the generic nature of the frameworks, attempt to include all possible 'good' behaviors in the framework, casual benchmarking of competency frameworks, hiring the same consultant to develop the framework etc.). Hence, assuming reasonable consistency of measurement, the potential ratings for the same person might not vary too much across organizations - unless the underlying definitions of potential (i.e. answer to the question - 'potential for what?' mentioned above) are different across the organizations.

The potential assessment has to be done with respect to the requisite capabilities mentioned above. Depending on the nature of the particular capability, the method for assessing it can be chosen keeping in mind the organization constraints/context specific factors. In many cases the employees might not have had an opportunity to demonstrate the requisite capabilities (for the future/target job) in their current/previous jobs. This would call for some sort of simulation, similar to those used in assessment centres. For some aspects of particular capabilities that are close to work styles/ personality attributes some sort of psychometric testing could also be useful. Psychometric testing also becomes useful if the fit between ‘certain dimensions of the organization culture and the employee’s personality’ gets identified as a key factor for potential. Managerial judgment (especially if it is calibrated through an in-depth discussion by a group of managers who have had significant amount work related interaction with the employee) and 360 degree feedback are useful to supplement the data from assessment centres/from other assessment tools - particularly from a data interpretation/'reality testing' point of view.

In the choice of methods/process, it is very important to strike the right balance between accuracy of the assessment (from a validity point of view) and the time/resource investment required (from a sustainability point of view). Some capabilities are easier to develop through training/experience in a short period of time while it is not the case for some other capabilities. So if the time/resource constraints do not allow the potential assessment to cover all the capabilities, the capabilities that are difficult to develop through training/experience in a short period of time should get priority. Of course, we need to look at the relative importance of various capabilities for enabling effectiveness on the job. Thus, to achieve a reasonable amount of validity, 'potential assessment' requires a significant amount effort and if the organization is not willing to use anything other than 'judgment of the immediate manager' for assessing potential, the usefulness of the assessment becomes doubtful.

This brings us to the issue of how would the organization use the results of the potential assessment. Most common practice is to combine the potential assessment with the performance assessment in order to arrive at some sort of 'talent classification' that segments the employees into various categories and to define particular courses of action for each category (e.g. promote, invest, retain, develop, move out etc.). It has to be kept in mind that even if the performance assessment has been done in an objective manner, if the validity of the potential assessment is doubtful, the talent classification and the consequent actions become debatable.

There are also other interesting dimensions here such as whether the organization would disclose the results of the potential assessment and talent classification to the employee in question. Not disclosing this could create issues related to transparency and even those related to data privacy/data protection. Disclosing the information might lead to a situation where the employee questions the results/methods, forcing the manager/organization to explain how exactly were the results arrived at and also the steps taken to ensure the validity of the process/ results.

There is also the issue of employees who were assessed to be 'low potential' feeling discouraged/demotivated. Sometimes, these negative reactions are even worse than those to a 'low' rating on performance. In many organizations, the results of potential assessment for a particular employee tend to remain the same across years (especially for assessment of 'leadership potential'). Thus once employees get a 'low rating' on potential, they might feel that they will never get an opportunity to take up leadership positions. Many employees also feel that they have a better chance of influencing their performance rating as compared to influencing their potential rating, especially when the potential appraisal process is not very transparent.

I have also come across situations where the potential assessment has been misused. Sometimes potential assessment is positioned/communicated to the employees as 'purely for capability development' though the potential ratings get used for making key decisions that impact the employee's career advancement. Of course, there could be much worse scenarios. Many years ago, when I was doing a diagnostic study of the HR systems of a company, I was told that though the performance planning and review system of the company provides an option to the employees to disagree with the manager on the performance rating, no one exercises that option. When I tried to investigate the reason for this, I found that the process provides for a 'potential rating' in addition to the performance rating and that the 'potential rating' is not even shared with the employee. It was common practice among the managers in that company to give a 'low' rating on potential for any employee who disagrees with manager on the performance rating. Since a 'low' rating on potential would have ruined the career of an employee in that company, no one wanted to take the risk of disagreeing with the manager on the performance rating. I hope that this scenario is a rare one. However, the point is that potential assessment can be misused and this could have serious adverse effects on employee engagement and retention.

Thus, the organization needs to think through the entire gamut of issues related to potential assessment in its context (objective, methodology/process, validity, initial investment/effort required to put the process in place, time/effort required for each cycle, sustainability, use of the results, employee communication, cost benefit analysis etc.) before a potential appraisal system is put in place. While perfect solutions may not be feasible/required, it does require thinking though multiple scenarios, options and implications and making informed decisions/trade offs. This would enable the organization to maximize the implementation effectiveness and to minimize/mange the possible adverse side effects of implementation. This is the requirement for being able to give a positive answer to the question that we started off with (Is it worth the trouble and effort to put in place a potential appraisal process in the organization?)!!!