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[fusion_text]From time to time, the idea of sacking all the HR Departments drifts across the blogosphere. The whiff of aggravated sentiment usually carries a hint of ‘A plague on both your houses’ – a human feeling that traces back further than the source of the expression (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, should you be interested.) There’s a sense that HR is in some way ‘broken’ and that ‘fixing it’ doesn’t carry the appeal that some – primarily HR professionals, no doubt – might have hoped for. The impression is of beleaguered-sounding employees channelling the Bard and crying ‘Fie! Enough!’

Maybe what lies at the nub of this is the concept of sense of purpose – not for ourselves, but as judged by other people. It’s not our own answer to ‘what are you here for, exactly?’ that’s the issue, it’s how other people see it: not the purpose we think we serve, but the one that others think we do. Or, more critically, don’t.

I can’t claim to socialise with enough HR professionals to be certain that professional self-esteem is a burning issue in their lives, although the on-going debate about the function’s status (or perceived lack of it) within organisations does leave a strong suggestion. And it’s an angle others certainly seem eager to comment on: see, for example, a Great Place to Work White Paper called ‘Sack the HR department!’ – Why HR can be the source of disengagement and how it can be addressed’ (download as PDF).

We were picking up another blogger’s suggestions that some of the purposes of HR should be served as close to the point of need as possible: that line managers should perform most of the role, while a minimal HR function happens in the background. The latter part of the equation, it seems, is not actually so uncommon: many companies already operate with a pretty minimal HR set-up, if any at all. A recent Wall Street Journal article, Companies Say No to Having an HR Department, looked at some of the experiences of doing so. There are, predictably, counter-arguments. On one hand, HR departments are seen as innovation stiflers with a passion for processes. On the other, constant wheel-reinvention is time-consuming, and ex-employees of one HR-free organisation reported that ‘they sometimes felt like they were on their own there’. The comments on the article were generally predictable, and largely boil down to ‘whose side are HR on?’

Which seems to take us back to whether something is ‘broken’ and, if it is, whether it should be ‘fixed’ – or simply replaced. In his review of Emma Weber’s Turning Learning into Action, ASK’s Chairman, Robert Terry, considered a similar conundrum in relation to learning transfer and managers’ role in enhancing and ensuring it. As he said then:

The learner’s manager has been the sine qua non of the learning transfer debate for so long that we have been mesmerised into believing that we have no alternative. Those of us who champion learning transfer have invested all of our energies in trying to make the ‘manager-centric strategy’ work and have come up empty-handed. As Webber points out, the overwhelming majority of managers lack the time, skills and motivation to help their colleagues transfer and apply newly learned capabilities. What we need now are learning transfer specialists, embedded in the workplace, removed from the delivery of training content and focused exclusively on ensuring that new capabilities are put to work.”

Ian Thorpe has blogged about a similar initiative by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where he is ‘Learning Manager’ for his office. The challenges he reports – limited resources, variable buy-in, balancing facilitating with enforcing, using online resources, the value of mentoring and coaching, ringfencing ‘learning time’ – will all sound familiar to many of us, although the implicit focus on experiential learning, sharing knowledge and applicable learning are grounds for optimism. His physical location within the office for which he has this responsibility is also encouraging, although it will be interesting to read any subsequent updates. I worry from his opening paragraph that, whatever his colleagues may or may not do, the UN may have failed to learn a lesson. As Ian writes:

This is not a full-time position, rather a set of additional responsibilities added on to my existing job.”

Transferring the motivation and the responsibility without transferring the capacity may serve to replace what was ‘broken’ with a new but equally broken model. As well as learning things that work (or rather, things that help us do work), we need to learn which things don’t: where it’s important that they do, we need to have the courage – and commitment – to change tack. As Harold Jarche recently wrote in a blog called Ten Years, Ten Thoughts:

2.   The mainstream application of knowledge management and learning management over the past few decades was mostly wrong; we over-managed information, knowledge and learning because it was easy to do.”

Hindsight is a fine thing. But it’s considerably finer when we act on it.

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