The HRZone Interview: Jon Ingham on where HR is going wrong
In the view of Jon Ingham, HR consultant, author and blogger, the current obsession of HR practitioners to be seen as business people first and HR professionals second could seriously backfire.
The danger is that, by becoming too much like everyone else in the business, HR will lose sight of what its key focus should be: to help steer organisations towards new ways of working, in which people are truly at the centre.
Ingham talks to HRZone about how he thinks things need to change, the problems with the concept of employee engagement and why HR really must embrace social media:
Q. You take issue with the idea that HR people should consider themselves business people first. Why?
A. I think HR does need to be business-oriented - clearly that’s what needed. I just think it’s hugely overdone. I understand why people say it but worry when they do and whether it indicates that they haven’t thought through the impact of that.
Q. In what way?
A. My real issue with it is that I don’t think the way business works really offers organisations a long-term, sustainable way of operating. Levels of trust and engagement are not good. To me, HR absolutely needs to generate credibility and have an impact on the effectiveness of the business but, much more importantly, HR also needs to engage business executives with the possibility of doing things differently. You need to design your organisation for people.
Q. What do you mean by that?
A. Create organisations where people have relative autonomy over what they do, where they are trusted and developed, where they speak to each other as adults and have effective social relationships, where people are more of a collective and community. The logic of organisations dictates that, if you bring two people together, you will create more value than they could independently, but very often the opposite feels true. Organisations can constrain us from being effective.
Q. So is it a question of engagement and of finding ways to motivate staff and increase loyalty?
A. It’s about HR professionals being business people first and taking on the mindset of the rest of the business, which loses them an opportunity to change the organisation. Engagement is such a business-oriented word - it’s about managing people as resources and manipulating them in practice to help the business be more effective. There’s no big win for employees in that, so engagement benefits are self-limiting. It’s not encouraging when you see bosses earning 100 times your salary.
HR literature, including HRZone, says that HR people need to understand the business and talk business language. That’s absolutely fine - you need to do that, but if you’re in HR, you should also be focused on creating organisations that could help create valuable skills sets and that rely on things like psychology, sociology, anthropology and managing complexity, which are not highly valued as business skills. It’s losing sight of HR’s biggest opportunity. The focus should be on a complete shift away from the delivery of products and services to create a compelling and effective environment for people.
Hays’ and others’ surveys say the biggest issue is aligning people with organisational purpose. Often it’s not that people don’t know what they should be doing, but that the organisation interferes with their being able to do their jobs. So they are able to contribute but not to their whole potential - the organisation constrains them.
There’s a growing focus on the need for company culture to be customer-centric. I don’t disagree with that and yet I think there are two different focuses: people need to be part of what you create. The idea of business first, HR second really worries me because HR is starting to wear that as a bit of a badge of honour.
Q. You’re also adamant that HR should take more of an interest in social media, why is that?
A. Technology is never about technology - it’s always about culture. If it’s an important ERP project, then it’s absolutely right that IT should do that, but with social technology, success or failure is not much to do with the technology itself. There are plenty of examples of organisations using cheap systems to very good advantage and those that forked out for big, expensive systems that haven’t got any traction. So the issue is whether the systems are matching a need, how they are introduced and how involved they make people feel.
IT professionals are doing some wonderful things in the social technology space, but my biggest gripe is the lack of involvement of HR folk. HR is just giving one more stick to the rest of the business to beat them with - one more example of HR being out of date, out of touch, and HR is often the last to get involved. It’s different from five years ago, but any use of social media is usually about recruitment, learning and communication. But there’s also a big opportunity for performance management
Q. How can social media help with performance management?
A. In a sense, performance management is the most obvious candidate for social media because, in most organisations, it’s so absolutely terrible. Performance management tends to be designed for businesses, not employees. There’s very little engagement for employees, very little ownership. It’s something done to the employee, not something they own. It also deals with the performance of individuals, but most organisations are run on the performance of teams, so there’s obviously a level of cognitive dissonance.
It’s not fun, it’s not compelling and it’s not easy - all of the things that mean it doesn’t work. As I started off saying, technology is never about technology - it’s about culture. It’s useful to have a range of social technology in organisations, but they can be used in more meaningful, compelling ways. Systems like Rypple and Worksimple allow organisations to do performance management in very different ways. Social media can be used pretty much across the whole HR architecture.