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.


bombay dosti said...

A very interesting question!
Well, my thought fragments; and these are ones that I have believed for a long time! Don’t know whether this is the philosophy of HR but for me, this should be the philosophy. Don’t know if there are many takers for the same!
I do believe in the assumption that it is possible to understand, predict and influence human behaviour. Especially if one has the ability to understand, it should help us to see the human being behind the resource, capital or the talent! And it is only this understanding that would help create the right tools which can contribute to influence. The more we forget the human being behind all these words, a lot of what we do would become fads. I remember your wisdom level consulting! Let me use your own definition

"While it uses tools/analysis as an essential input & to validate the output, the core of diagnosis/solution design is driven by a highly intuitive/non-linear/apparently discontinuous process perfected by years of individual experience/capability building/evolved consciousness! The output reflects simplicity at the other side of complexity!! This is what I call 'wisdom-level' consulting!!!"

All of those big words, to me meant, to develop that ability to understand the simple human being on the other side of the complex curtain of insecurities, fears, expectations and ambitions!
Too idealistic???

Anonymous said...

I like your comment about how human resource departments are based on old ideologies about long term employee loyalty and a predictability of future growth. I just left a company where this was certainly their approach, yet they ignored the fact that most employees didn't stay at the company for more than 3 years, if that. This would piss off the employees, because all benefits and approaches were long term, something they knew they would never receive.

Of course, from an HR perspective, you can't really blame the department for taking this angle, but you have to keep in mind realities while preparing for long range strategies.

Anonymous said...

philosophy of HR...a highly relevant issue to think upon...before i collect my thoughts on this and present a wholesome view (like urs), let me recall a concept, every HR professional knows but which underlies many(if not all) HR practices and that is : 'conceptualising the organisation as an organism'. This organism is affected by stimuli (external/internal) which produces certain outcome/behavior.
Once we begin with this approach, everything can be projected on the organization thinking from an organism'a point of view.
The philosophy of an organism/individual becomes the philosophy of the organisation and hence of HR.
The predictability chain is in fact the philosophy to be 'successful'. So, then u look for 'causes' and try to repeat them to have the desired 'effects'.
But, again thinking from an organism's point of view, there can be another philosophy which is broader and universal. But more on it later :)

Prasad Kurian said...

Thank you very much for your comments.

1. Yes, any philosophy of HR has to revolve around the 'human' in 'Human Resources'.

2. Complexity exists !. Now, whether to attribute that complexity to the 'human' or to the 'situation' or to the 'interaction between the two' is more of a matter of convention/ the mental model that one chooses. I feel that multiple mental modes could 'work'- like multiple systems of medicine (that are based on very different models) 'work'.

3. Big words result when one tries to express in words something (like 'reality', 'meaning', 'essential nature' etc.) that can't be fully captured by words !

Prasad Kurian said...

Yes, the HR function in a high attrition environment faces a tricky situation - it has to find the delicate balance between addressing the need to 'respond to the reality' (by designing HR systems/practices that would work in high attrition environments) and addressing the need to 'shape the reality in desired direction' (by designing HR systems/ practices that would encourage employees to stay on for a long time in the organization). Please see the post on 'Career planning and the myth of Sisyphus' for more details.

Prasad Kurian said...

Yes, the metaphors/ images that are used describe/ derive the philosophy can give us interesting insights regarding the underlying assumptions. Once I heard a gentleman (who was the Head of HR of a large firm) using the analogy of 'buying cattle' when he was formulating/ describing the strategy for campus hiring. While analogy has some merit from a process efficiency point of view, I am not sure if I want to be among the 'cattle bought by the firm'.