Saturday, October 8, 2011

Do we need a new ‘defining myth’ for HR?

This post is an attempt to explore the intersection of two of the key themes of this blog - the nature of the HR function (see 'Philosophy of HR') and creating meaning as HR professionals (see 'Architects of Meaning - From CHRO to CMO').
Meaning (finding meaning in work) is becoming an increasingly critical issue at the workplace. Hence, 'facilitating creation of meaning' becomes an important opportunity and challenge for HR professionals. While 'Architects of Meaning' touched upon HR interventions to enable leaders and employees to create meaning at the workplace, it did not focus specifically on enabling HR professionals to find meaning in their roles.  This is where a ‘defining myth’ becomes relevant.
A myth is a story that embodies a powerful truth. We create stories about our experiences to give meaning to them. Once we internalize a myth (created by others) it helps us to find (create) meaning in our experiences and in our roles. So myths are useful for HR professionals to find meaning in their roles.
In any domain of human endeavor that encompasses a wide range of experiences and dilemmas, multiple myths are required (to facilitate the meaning creation/sense-making process). However, there is usually a 'central myth' or 'defining myth' that lies at the core of the meaning creation process. This defining myth provides the essence of meaning and the other myths add to this meaning (in terms of details and finer nuances in various contexts).  In this post, we will look at a couple of candidates for being the 'defining myth' for HR.   
The nature of the tasks carried out by most of the HR professionals most of the time makes 'finding meaning' a difficult endeavor (Please see 'HR Professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder' and 'In praise of HR Generalists'). This vacuum in meaning prompts HR professionals to ask ‘existential questions’ about their roles (What am I doing? Does it make sense? Does it add value? etc.). To answer these questions multiple myths have been developed regarding the mandate of the HR function, the roles in HR and the significance(value) of these roles. Often, these come in the form of 'new models of the HR function' and/or ‘new set of roles for HR professionals’.
Let us digress a little. Many years ago, when I was exploring thought leadership in HR (see 'Thought leadership in HR in India'); I could not find any consensus (among the group of senior HR professionals that I had surveyed) on the names of the thought leaders in HR in India.  But the moment I expanded the scope of my question to cover ‘thought leaders in HR anywhere in the world’, almost all the people came up with the name of Dave Ulrich - that too as the first choice. I have often wondered why Dave Ulrich's ideas became so popular among HR professionals. Now I feel that it is partly because he created (through his ideas on roles for HR professionals) narratives/stories (myths!) about roles in HR - myths that enabled HR professionals to find meaning in their roles and in their careers. I feel that Dave Ulrich created some sort of a ‘professional mythology’ for HR – tapping into the deep-rooted desires and fears of HR professionals  - and through that he redefined the HR domain -  in a way that the HR professionals found meaningful and hence acceptable!!!  
Now let us come back to the myths in HR. While there are many of these myths, the one that has come closest to being a 'defining myth' is that of the 'HR Business Partner'. Usually a myth consists of a story and a truth/meaning embedded in the story (some sort of a 'moral of the story'). Here the story was about the heroic HR professional who evolved from doing mainly low skilled administrative activities that were  not core to the business  to become a strategic partner to the business, creating a huge impact on the business,  gaining respect from the CEO and the function heads and earning the much desired 'seat at the table'. The truth/moral was that HR professionals could  evolve from their earthly  administrative activities and fly in the exalted realm of true business partners - almost like the human beings realizing their divine potential from their earthly nature as outlined in the myth of a dragon (see ‘Too true to be real’)
This was a very valuable myth. It enabled many HR professionals to feel better about the HR domain and the opportunities for themselves in the domain. Also some people actually become business partners - at least to some extent. However, I feel that this myth (or the truth implied by the myth) has many practical difficulties in many organization contexts. Please see ‘In the wonderland of HR Business Partners’, ‘Nature abhors vacuum’ and 'Paradox of business orientation of HR' for more details. More importantly, as the context changes, new meanings are required – just like we need a new map when the terrain changes. This would mean that we need myths held together by a new defining myth. Of course this does not mean that the previous ‘defining myth’ becomes irrelevant. It can continue as one of the supporting myths. It is just that it is no longer the central theme (‘defining myth’).
In a new terrain (organization context) characterized by rapid/disruptive changes, complex challenges and paradoxes, being ‘Architects of meaning' might be more appropriate as the defining myth for HR professionals. Of course, the myth of the ‘HR Business Partner’ needs to continue as one of the supporting myths. But it will no longer be the central theme (‘defining myth’) as some of the basic underlying assumptions about ‘the nature of the business’ and the ‘nature of the partnership between  business leaders and HR professionals’  will get revisited.   The story that contains the new myth can be about the wise HR professional  who helped the business leaders and employees to examine their sense-making process  in the organization context and hence  enabled them to create meaning (and sometimes ‘new meanings’) for themselves and the people they lead in the face of gut-wrenching changes.  Also, the truth embedded in this story takes HR closer to its behavior science foundations. Behavior science was supposed to be about understanding, predicting and influencing behavior (and the underlying sense-making processes!)  
What do you think?


Little Miss Muffet said...

A great angle (anchoring the HR person's role in a compelling narrative/myth) to explore and I find your new myth of HR as Architects of Meaning, very close to my personal preference. To add to this, I would like to say that there is a strong case for removing HR from the ambit of Management Science which is a hard science and taking it more into the realm of Social Sciences and even spirituality. For after all, what is spirituality but finding and staying true to one's essential nature. HR needs to be at the forefront of a revolution in seeing people as Human Beings first and Human Doings later and influencing business leaders to recognize this in themselves first, setting the stage for creating workplaces which honor this.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you Kavita. Absolutely loved your definition of spirituality (finding and staying true to one's essential nature). In general, Management Science pays much better than Social Science!:) When one lives (survives)from quarter to quarter in business organizations, hands & feet (and occasionally minds) of the employees are more in demand as compared to hearts and souls!