“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.