HR’s diamond in the rough

by 11 Nov 2008

HR should be on the lookout for managers who may be creating new and innovative management practices, writes David Creelman

In HR we are always striving to follow best practice. We learn about SMART goals and teach managers to use them. We study structured interviewing and strive to put it into practice. Yet, do you ever feel a sense of unease that what is best practice today may be irrelevant in the future?

HR has seen a few cases where well-established practices have become outdated.

In the 1960s large organisations had whole departments doing workforce planning. No doubt, they pursued the best practices of the time, but the whole approach of meticulously predicting manpower needs was eventually abandoned. As the speed of change increased, companies found their workforce forecasts too inaccurate to be useful (see Peter Cappelli’s Talent On-Demand).

The nagging question is: to what extent are we focusing today’s efforts on perfecting management approaches that will soon be outdated? Are we failing to work on inventing something truly new?

The intelligentsia think the truly new thing will be a much flatter, more loosely governed organisation; an organisation characterised by ad hoc, self-managed teams, rather than disciplined hierarchies.

This set of ideas often goes under the label “Enterprise 2.0”. When people talk about Enterprise 2.0 they are talking about white collar jobs, not production lines, but it still could be an important change.

In an Enterprise 2.0 environment, some of the biggest changes from HR’s point of view will be the diminishing role of the job and of the boss. Static jobs will barely exist, individuals will move frequently from project to project, taking on whatever tasks they have the skills to handle. The manager who oversees Enterprise 2.0 employees will probably not hire, fire or assess performance without extensive input from the whole team.

There is a lot of room for interesting discussion about whether Enterprise 2.0 really is the way of the future and, if so, what it will be like. Certainly, HR people should be taking a lead on having these kinds of conversations.

Experimentation is most likely to be driven not by HR, but by a manager who finds that the existing system isn’t working. If an existing system is too slow or inflexible or lacks creativity, then he or she will try to innovate a way around those problems. HR’s role is not to initiate experimentation but to be supportive of it.

Sadly, in some cases, HR seems to be the department most likely to try to quash experimentation. It is often seen as the corporate police, saying: “No, you can’t do that.”

For HR, the real key is to distinguish experimentation from non-compliance. If a manager fails to set SMART goals, is that because they are lazy or because they feel, perhaps subconsciously, that such goals are not relevant to their business?

HR should be on the lookout for managers who fail to comply with the “normal” way of doing things and judge whether these managers are, in fact, creating innovative management practices. As much as possible, HR should give managers the benefit of the doubt and explicitly label what is going on as an action-learning experiment. Experimentation should be encouraged and consciously learned from. Companies that are friendly towards experimentation are more likely to find themselves easing into an Enterprise 2.0 mould well before their competitors.

By David Creelman, CEO of Creelman Research. Email: