Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Treating the Multiple Personality Disorder of HR Professionals!


“Those who say theory and practice are two unrelated realms are fools in one and scoundrels in the other”, I came across this quote (from 'Letters of Ayn Rand')  some time ago and it reminded me of a ghost that I have been trying to exorcise for the last 11 years. In 2007, I wrote a post called ‘HR Professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder’, where I talked about many HR Professionals (especially those who have taken their behavior science education seriously) developing multiple personalities to deal with  the conflict between the apparently mundane nature of their jobs and the desire to apply their behavior science knowledge to their work. So, when they are in their Personality 1 (the dominant personality) they carry out their jobs without any application of their behavior science knowledge and when they are in their Personality 2, they go to HR conferences and HR team meetings and talk about applying theory to practice (without ever getting around to implementing what they have discussed). Both these personalities co-exist, without being consciously aware of the existence of the other!

Though this post had triggered quite a bit of discussion in the blogosphere (see here and here apart from the comments section of the post for examples), the post was incomplete in a very significant way. While I did detail out the disorder (and the possible causes for the development of the disorder), the only thing I mentioned on treating this disorder was to get the multiple personalities to talk to one other. While this was a useful first step, it was far from sufficient as a cure. So, the matter of finding a cure was not properly closed (buried) and it created the ghost (that I mentioned at the beginning of this post) that has been haunting me ever since. What follows in this post are some thought fragments based on my struggle with this ghost during the last decade.

Let’s start with a basic question. Is there really anything like ‘HR theory’? This question becomes important as HR is essentially an applied field. Yes, one learns many theories during one’s HR studies. But these theories are mostly borrowed from psychology, sociology and anthropology. We must also remember that HR is a relatively young field even as compared to other social sciences.

Now, let's see what is a theory and how it is different from a law and a model. A scientific law is the generalized (often mathematical) description of an observed phenomenon (e.g. Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation). It doesn't explain why the phenomenon exists or what causes it. The explanation of a phenomenon is called a scientific theory (e.g. Einstein’s theory of relativity). To be useful in the context of our discussion here, a theory should provide predictions that can inform actions, and to be scientific a theory should be falsifiable (i.e. the predictions of the theory can be empirically tested, and the results of the testing can strengthen/weaken the theory or even lead to modification/discarding of the theory). It is interesting to note that when we move outside the realm of scientific law and consider the laws created by an authority (e.g. the government, as in the case of labor laws), these laws are intended to impose order or  create a desired pattern in the behavior (as opposed to just describing a pattern that already exists). A model provides a structural representation of a phenomenon to enable a simplified understanding (e.g. 70:20:10 model of learning).

To be pragmatic, any theory that helps us to understand, predict and possibly influence human behavior at the workplace, we would consider to be an HR theory regardless of its field of origin (e.g. Vroom’s Expectancy -Instrumentality- Valance theory of motivation).

Since I was aware of the risk (of not being able to apply what I have learned; and I did take my behavior science education very seriously), I wanted to ensure that I did something beyond commonsense. So, I learned the various tools and methodologies (job evaluation methodology, change management methodology, tools for competency mapping, tools for data analysis, psychometric instruments, behavioral event interviewing etc.). While it gave me some satisfaction, later I came to realize that what I have become is more of a ‘mechanic’ and not a scientist or even an engineer (See Daydreams of an OD Mechanic). From that point, I made a more conscious effort to apply theory to practice and the following thought fragments are based on my learning from that effort (and from experience of young HR specialists I mentored) during the last decade.

  • First, some good news! Contrary to popular belief, most of the business leaders do want us to bring in our specialist expertise to our work (remember, they are paying us higher for our HR expertise). Yes, they want us to bring our expertise to solve the most important business problems (forget 'HR for HR') and that too in such a manner that they can relate to it.

  • There is an entire continuum from abstract theory to middle level theory(principles) and models. While it makes sense to understand the entire continuum (so that higher levels can inform the choices at the lower levels), the lower levels are easier to communicate and apply in the business context. For example when it comes to Learning and Development, we have theories of perception (abstract theory), principles of adult learning and 70:20:10 model of learning.

  • It is critical to communicate at the appropriate level of abstraction depending on the client/audience. In general, it is much better to bring in theories and principles without using intimidating labels. For example, instead of using terms like Expectancy -Instrumentality- Valance of the Vroom’s theory of motivation, we can simply say that employees would be motivated if we our performance management system can give them the confidence that their efforts would lead to higher levels of performance, that the higher levels of performance would lead to more rewards and that the rewards would be those that the employees are interested in. No, this doesn’t lead to loss of rigor. It definitely takes more effort to crystallize our understanding of the theory. As Einstein said, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”!

  • It makes a lot of sense to understand how and in what context a particular theory was derived (and the underlying worldview, if possible) so that one can make more informed choices on its degree of relevance in a particular context. Also, one should be open to look at the multiple theories that might apply to a particular situation even when they give different predictions. By struggling with the paradoxes arising out of the different predictions provided by the various theories one can develop a certain kind of wisdom (See Wisdom-level consulting) that can help us to make better decisions!

  • Theories and models can also be valuable sources of ideas and of the various ways to think about a situation, even when we can’t directly derive a specific recommendation based on the theory (remember, there are other factors that impact decision making like the ‘people management philosophy’ and organization constraints). Like Randy Pausch said, “Life is an Engineering problem” (it is about optimizing within constraints and not about perfect solutions). Hence, if we consciously think through what we can infer from the various theories that are applicable in the particular situation, we can do a much better job of optimizing the decision-making.

  • We must be wary of the seductive charm of ‘best practices’. Of course, we can leverage best practices as a source of ideas. Knowledge of ‘best practices’ can easily give us an illusion of expertise (and even that we are applying theory to practice). We must remember that a best practice is a best practice in a particular context and that unless we can figure out what made it a best practice in that context (our knowledge of the applicable theories can help us in figuring this out) we can’t deduce what is ‘transferable’ to our context. Casual benchmarking, like casual sex, is easy but dangerous! Similarly, having a strong understanding of the fundamental theories governing a particular domain, allows us to make better sense of the large number of ‘research findings’ (which are often about some relationship that has been 'found' between two variables) that we come across professional magazines, so that we can make more informed decisions on their applicability to our context (as the theories can explain the ‘’why’ of the relationships between the variables).

  • There are many opportunities in organizations (especially when you are facilitating sessions or even when you are part of group interactions) when you can use the data points from the group’s (immediate or historical) experience to highlight patterns predicted by applicable theories. In a way, theories are about predicting probable patterns. By being aware of some of the probable patterns, one is in a much better position to point out the patterns when they emerge. This can lead to insights and actions. Yes, depending on the preferences and learning style of the people involved, one can take a decision on whether or not to use the actual (technical) terminology associated with the theory. In a way, this process also helps us to develop our ability to detect new patterns and explanations and to abstract new knowledge from our experiences that would be helpful to other professionals. To me, HR being essentially an applied discipline badly needs more models and concepts that are derived in the context of the actual practice of the profession.

  • While consulting or internal consulting oriented jobs do provide a formal mandate to stand at the intersection of theory and practice(and hence to apply theory to practice), one must resist the temptation to get obsessed with (and hence get stuck at the level of) tools, methodologies and best practices as mentioned above.  

As in the case of many other diseases, ‘prevention is better than cure’ in the case of the Multiple Personality Disorder of HR professionals also. This requires making changes to HR education (e.g. also teaching how and in what context a theory was derived, what sort of empirical validation of the predictions of the theory exists and how the theory is applied in the context of business organizations instead of just teaching the theory, helping the students to 'develop the stomach for theory' that enables one to integrate the various theories applicable in a context or at least to hold the competing theories in mind without going crazy etc.) and to the way we manage the ‘campus to corporate’ transition (e.g. orienting them to the aspects mentioned in the bullet points above, highlighting the possibility of the differentiated contribution they can make to the organization by applying what they have learned, providing them a mentor who can guide them in applying theory to practice etc.). 

Applying theory to practice requires both sensing the emerging patterns in the organization (so that one can identify the most important needs) and understanding the theories and models deeply enough (to figure out what is core and what can be reinterpreted based on the context and how various theories can be combined to address new or complex situations). Yes, testing (piloting) the recommendation in one part of the organization (ideally where the need is very clearly felt and hence there is more appetite to take the risk of trying out the solution) makes eminent sense as it can give confidence to the stakeholders on the applicability of the (theory and the) recommendations in the context of the particular organization and also give the practitioner a greater understanding of how the various nuances play out. Yes, this also needs brushing up one's fundamentals in social research methods (so that one can appropriately set up the pilot and accurately interpret the results of the pilot) and enhancing one's consulting, business partnering and change management skills. 

I must add that 'applying theory to practice' doesn't imply that we don't value the 'practical knowledge'/heuristics(rules of thumb, mental shortcuts) that comes from experience. The idea is to go beyond them and see if we can get deeper insights into the situation at hand by looking at applicable theories. Most effective solutions result when we are able to combine these two types of knowledge (theoretical and practical) in an appropriate manner! Applying theory to practice and deriving theory from practice are two sides of the same coin!  

Let's look at an example here. The thumb rule on 'span of control' says that the span of control should ideally be between 4 and 7. Now, if we also know the theories governing span of control we would have a better understanding of the factors that can either increase or decrease the ideal span of control (e.g. if the team is geographically dispersed then the span of control should be lower, if the tasks performed by the team members are similar then the span of control can be higher, if the degree of supervision required is high then the span of control should be lower, if the amount of administrative tasks that needs to be performed by the manager is high then the span of control should be lower, if the skill level of the manager is high then the span of control can be higher etc.). This would enable us to make better decision in a particular context as compared to what was possible if we just used the thumb rule. The knowledge of the theory/factors impacting span of control can also help us in another way. It enables us to enable higher spans of control (if we want to do so, e.g. for increasing cost efficiency) by modifying the factors (e.g. by increasing the skill levels of the manager and the team members, using information systems to make supervision easier and admin load lesser etc.) 

Since the primary concern of a practitioner is solving a problem in a particular context, and also considering the typical nature of data relevant for HR related problem solving, a 'grounded theory' approach can also be very useful (as the theory is 'grounded' in the particular data set it is derived from). 

It is highly useful to discuss one's thoughts and learnings with other practitioners within the same organization and also outside the organization (without violating any confidentiality requirements) during the various phases of the initiative as it can give new perspectives especially on the context specific aspects of the theory and its applications. Yes, mentoring other practitioners also greatly enhances one's ability to apply theory to practice! I have also found it highly useful to periodically interact with academics who also do consulting work in the domains that I am working on. It is interesting to note that one of the foundational methods in organization development was 'action research' (research with the intent to facilitate action). In a way, all this points to the way of the 'scholar-practitioner' whose work is focused on the most important issues of context he/she is in while being grounded in theory and informed by research!

Having said all this, we must remember that 'applying theory to practice' is not about any sort of compulsion to apply (force-fit) theories to every situation (and definitely not a compulsion to apply one's pet theories). The idea is just to study the situation and critically assess if there are any theories that are applicable to this situation. If yes, we will go on to evaluate the relationships, explanations and predictions provided by the theories/models and use them to inform our decision-making. It is not an algorithmic process and we need to develop the meta-cognitive ability to choose wisely. While we must be careful not to let our attempt to apply theory to practice short-circuit our observation of the situation, we should also remember that 'all observation is theory-laden' (by the unstated theories/ideas in our mind). Hence, there is nothing like 'pure observation' and the best we can do is to be as aware as possible about the biases that can be created by of both the unstated theories in our mind and the stated theories that we are trying to apply. Even if it was somehow possible to remove all the previous knowledge and theories from our mind so that 'pure observation and response' can emerge, the response would be either child-like or childish and nothing in between!

So, these are the thought fragments I have at this point. Now, over to you for your comments/suggestions!

6 comments:

Ritesh Agrawal said...

Very aptly articulated, Prasad. I have always been your fan, when it comes to deep understanding of HR theory and equally easy to relate explanation, yet not losing the authenticity. This post further cements my admiration for you.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you very much Ritesh for your kind words!

Sufian Ahmed said...

After a long time read something so insightful, very well written and explained.

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you very much Sufian Ahmed!

R. Anand said...

Do doctors also suffer multiple personality disorders Prasad? One when they are with the patient and another when with their colleagues discussing case studies? Has HR graduated into a profound job without getting adequately prepared? Is this the imposter syndrome really? These are questions that come to my mind after reading this very reflective post

Prasad Oommen Kurian said...

Thank you very much Anand. Let me just say that to practice medicine you need a licence and to practice HR no such licence is required! So doctors are less likely to suffer from imposter syndrome. One of my senior colleagues used to say that one of the key issues in HR is that there are too many cases of 'nurse turned doctor' in HR(and also too many cases of people wandering into HR from other professions!)!