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On Rethinking HR

I came across a post recently on Sharlyn Lauby’s The HR Bartender blog in which she interviewed Robert Bolton, a partner at KPMG and key contributor to their recent study entitled “Rethinking HR”. It makes for a very interesting read, and I recommend that you take a look at the full article when you have a few minutes. At one point, Mr. Bolton uses a term that really got my attention, describing HR as caught in a decade-long “doom loop”. He ascribes this self-defeating pattern in part to HR’s supposed preoccupation with generic solutions over unique configurations customized to our organizations’ business strategies or value propositions. Here’s the quote:

“The problem and the trap that HR finds itself in is that there is a perceived lack of credibility within HR and an inability to deliver value. In an effort to rectify this problem, symptomatic fixes are pursued, via the latest generic best practice models.

The net result is a diversion of attention away from where the real value lies – in pursuing solutions tailored to the unique circumstances and requirements of any given business.

At the conclusion of all that, strategic involvement and influence is actually diminished and so the cycle repeats. That’s the doom loop; that’s the vicious cycle which HR finds itself unable to break out from.

How has this happened? It’s all about favoring the generic solution over the unique solution. I believe that HR’s pursuit of the universally acceptable approach has been its own undoing.

I think that if you looked at a random selection of HR teams you would see more similarities than differences – and I don’t see how that can be right.”  (emphasis mine)

Now, I’ve written my share about the need for a bit more healthy skepticism when it comes to HR best practices. But Bolton’s ‘doom loop’ takes all that to a whole other level. And while I’m not sure that I agree, I do think his characterization of the current state of HR as a profession is compelling, because if framed another way, it begs a fascinating question:

To be an effective HR pro, do you need to be more of an HR expert, or an expert on your organization? I think we’d agree that you need both of these, that they are complementary, not dueling areas of expertise- but which is more important? Which does your organization value more?  Which is your dominant expertise? And what advantages and drawbacks does that bring, for you and for your organization?

Again, I’m not saying that one is better than the other, and I do believe we need both, but I think the distinction between these types of expertise serves as a useful lens through which to examine how each of us, and our organizations, approach HR, and parallels the ‘generic best practice model’ versus ‘unique, tailored solutions’ dichotomy that Bolton describes.

So, let’s assume for a moment that Mr. Bolton is right, that the way forward for HR as a profession is to focus less on trying to create and advance a standard vision and practice of HR, and more on adjusting our individual efforts to the unique requirements that our organizations challenge us with. What would this even look like?

Well, fundamental to his argument is that it would depend on the type of organization we each find ourselves in. But it seems safe to assume that we’d experience a shift in focus, from ‘HR best practices’ to organizational analysis and diagnoses, and the design of organization-specific HR solutions. All of which would likely require HR to be more authentically embedded within the business than it traditionally has been. This would probably depend upon a willingness to embrace a more decentralized HR, abandon the ‘HR service center’ model and instead absorb HR practitioners fully into business units- blurring the line between HR and our ‘clients’. I’ve written before about the potential of such an approach to build HR capacity throughout the organization, returning more HR accountabilities to people managers, and while I think that this is a really interesting idea, it’s likely not without its own significant challenges and angst.

So, I hope you won’t think it’s a cop-out if I suggest that there is a middle ground to be had in this discussion. That ‘generic best practice models’ and ‘unique, tailored solutions’, or ‘HR expert ‘and ‘organization expert’ are not mutually exclusive.  Of course HR needs some common standards and approaches, and of course discussions about best practices promote knowledge sharing and engagement amongst HR professionals, (as long as labeling practices as ‘best’ is evidence based). But I’ll also suggest that there is something to be said for deeply understanding and embracing what makes the organizations we work for unique, accepting that there is no one right way to do most HR functions, and working towards a greater level of comfort with trial and error experimentation to discover what works best here, or there, or there. Ultimately, I can’t disagree with Mr. Bolton’s basic premise:  that instead of seeking to control how we are seen as a profession, we should instead seek to reflect the organizations that we are part of.


  1. Great post, and I have a couple thoughts. First, I think that more disciplines than HR are stuck in the doom loop of “best practice”….read about it, try it, doesn’t work, read more, try something different and on and on.

    But I think you are really making the argument for bringing the skills of Human Resource Development as a priority, using HRD/OD tools to collect and analyze data, and then determine next steps.

    One challenge that I think HR has is that there are SO MANY different skill sets and competencies needed, but the fires that are easiest to put out are usually in the HR Management side of the house. HRD “fires” are much more difficult to diagnose and effect change. And there are so many fires today, that HR gets tired just putting out the easy one….just a thought…

  2. Thanks for another great blog Jane! In consulting we work with a lot of HR Managers & the ones we see having most success are those who have really put in the extra effort to understand the business they are in, not just at strategic level but at line management level & who able to look for evidence based solutions to business problems. Line managers look to them as business partners, not corporate cops.
    Our business is helping organisations & individuals improve performance. Our Principals have been accredited by the International Society for Performance Improvement. The ISPI Standards we follow require us to come to issues solution free, conduct serious diagnosis to establish the root cause/s & tailor a solution for that particular issue ie not jump to “Best Practice”. This can put us at a disadvantage with HR Managers who only want to engage consultants who use only “Best Practice” standard solutions. If you’re not familiar with ISPI take a look at

  3. Jane, your piece raises some very interesting points. I think you are right in saying it is not one or the other, but rather both.

    HR professionals need to be very well studied in contemporary, indeed cutting edge, HR practice if they are to be effective. We have had decades of deep study into operational effectiveness, and research into effective HR practice is still catching up. Thus – knowledge and application of knowledge is a moving game and requires practitioners to be continuously staying in touch with research. Thus, HR professionals need to be experts in the field of HR – which is a ‘lifelong learning’ type of expertise.

    On the other hand, I am, for the most part, highly critical of a blind ‘best practice’ perspective. In research I have been involved in an observed, there is not a one size fits all in the relationship between HR practice and organisational performance. Thus, applying – for example – Pfeffer’s best practice model will yield vastly different organisational results, depending on the local environment. HR professionals need to think deeply and analytically (and yes, this will involve close study, and often numerical analysis) about the workforce or workforces that they are working with, in order to craft the mix of HR practices that will achieve optimal results as measured by performance.

    I err away from the concept of pushing HR into business lines in any substantive manner, however. Certainly I believe there is a significant role to play at the strategic level, and if HR is at the line level then they won’t be able to ‘see the forest for the trees’. There is certainly a place for tailoring HR practice not just at the organisational level but at the business unit level – and indeed at times with even greater segmentation – however this needs to be part of an organisational strategy that recognises the need and reality of difference.

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