Looking Beyond HR

Some business improvement professionals believe the goal of their work is to make themselves redundant, to take their company to the point where improvement is self-sustaining and they are no longer needed. Is it time for us, as HR professionals, to look at our jobs the same way? To ask whether the benefits we bring can be embedded in a wider company culture? Whether we can move on from working in human resources and become something more?

I Am Not a Resource

The paradigm we currently work within, the one upon which human resources departments are built, is an early 20th century one. It comes from the era of Fordism, when the aim of industry was to reduce everyone and everything to a replaceable cog in an identical machine. When the relationship between employees and managers was a battle between the interests of labor and those of capital.

But people are not a resource, not some finite commodity to be used up and replaced, as this model assumes. And the most gifted employees are rejecting this model, demanding better conditions of work or setting out on their own to escape the stresses and discomforts that this model provides. If we want to retain the best staff, and to unleash their full energy, then we need to find a new model.

An Evidenced Need For Change

The principles behind this have been widely debated, but hard evidence is starting to build up for a need for change. A recent experiment involving hundreds of employees at a Fortune 500 company showed the value of a more human, more flexible, less centralized approach to dealing with staff needs. Employees given more control over when and where they worked, and whose supervisors were empowered to help them achieve a better work-life balance, felt a significant reduction in the conflict between their home and work lives. This reduced stress for these employees, reducing a major source of ill health and lost productivity in the American workforce. And it did so without putting an extra burden on other staff.

Many companies provide the sort of adaptations these employees sought, but they do it on a case by case basis, where employees have to negotiate exceptional treatment through managers and HR. By changing company procedures and structures, integrating flexibility into standard working, this experiment treated employees more like human beings, less like resources, dispersing power often held by the HR department.

Changing the Company, Changing the HR Department

Ruth Schwartz makes a case for taking this a step further. Her experience with High Performance and Open Book Management has led her to conclude that the best way to engage with workers, to treat them as human beings rather than resources and so get the best from them, is to treat everyone as a contributing partner in the organization. If people are rewarded not for time served but for what they contribute, if they have an active interest in the outcome for the firm beyond just keeping their job, then we will move fully beyond the idea of people as resources.

What then for the HR department? There will always be a need for professionals with the skills to improve people’s working lives. Will we become, as Schwartz suggests, the Connection Department, the Leadership Department, the Prosperity Department?

Decentralizing power over people’s working lives, transforming the role of the current HR department, these are radical steps. But all the greatest successes in business come from radical steps, from finding ways to unlock the creativity of the people around you.

Perhaps it is time for us to set our sights higher, to aim at making ourselves redundant.

About the Author: Mark Lukens is a Founding Partner of Method3, a global management consulting firm. Most of Mark’s writing involves theoretical considerations and practical application, academics, change leadership, and other topics at the intersection of business, society, and humanity.

photo credit: ckaroli via photopin cc