Existential questions for HR/OD

April 27, 2023

1916 1979 1 webSome readers will know that I started my commercial career in the personnel department of an international survey company.   I’d come off a difficult period of the best part of a year without a job, the experience of which never really leaves you.  The department was then run by a retired army major with an assistant and a secretary.  The major was about to retire for a second time, his assistant was about to get his job and I was the new number two, in the many senses of that phrase.  That type of structure was pretty typical of business at the time.  Ex-Military people understood bureaucracy and compliance, so they were a safe pair of hands, but they also understood command and the development of leadership.  The Personnel Department was very small and it supported the business function.   Career development, salary decisions and so on were made in the business and our role was co-ordination and acting as a backstop on compliance.  We knew our place …

Now these days the size of that function in an equivalent organisation would probably run into double figures.  It would be staffed by people trained in the area since University and would be called something very different.  They would not have the wider experience of my ex-major and their lives would have been spent within what has become a modern profession.   It will also have a lot more authority and because it isn’t under commercial pressure, in the manner of an operation unit, can get away with more.  Some of my worst and best experiences in modern organisations have come from the HR or OD functions who have also been influenced by the near-exponential growth of the change industry, or in its more extreme form, the transformation miasma.   To be honest I’m not sure the changes are for the better and a small is beautiful strategy may have attractions to those who fund the function.

That leads to the point of this post

I’ve had a few conversations of late with people at various levels of management in the HR/OD functions and they face considerable challenges.  Not the so-called crisis of meaning that represents the attempt by a wing of metamuggledom to gaslight us into their new religions; more a crisis of relevance.   What is their role going forward?  The transformation business is past its peak and the debris of its passing is becoming more evident every day.  HR/OD can no longer take their existence for granted.   I once suggested that they had the CEO trapped in a Stockholm Syndrome relationship and while that was a provocation at the time it has a large element of truth in it.

Out of one of those conversations I came up with three big questions that any HR/OD function should be asking themselves and on reflection, I decided to share them in expanded form (content and numbers) here:

  1. Should we be preparing to have our function outsourced to a specialist provider?  Are we simply a provider of services or do we significantly add value to the strategic functioning of the organisation?  With the growing digitisation of HR services are we just becoming inefficient bots?  Can 80% of our work be done without human intervention?  Writing policy, providing services and the like can all be done without people these days, and with increasing efficiency at lower cost.  Maybe we should be working to do ourselves out of work?   And if I can raise that question a savvy CEO is probably thinking about it as well.  HR/OD is an overhead after all.
  2. In the context of knowledge management, I have long argued that the KM function should not be a full-time profession other than for Librarians (a neglected group in organisations these days to the considerable detriment of learning and knowledge distribution/creation) with the team made up over overlapping and to a degree part-time secondees.  With the above-mentioned digitisation and cost base this might prove a better model, with different balances of professional and full-time functions.  That way the HR/OD function becomes pervasive, networked and grounded in the business and can easily flex in size.  The culture of librarians by the way might be a good role model for HR/OD at least in part.
  3. With the growing use of Machine Learning (I refused to call it AI) a significant number of jobs are going to disappear,  but the demand for people who can demonstrate the abductive and other capabilities associated with human intelligence will still be there and may increase,  but a shrinking pool of people will be available to fill those roles, so the war for talent is going to get worse.  Given those skills are embodied and acted through social scaffolding in the organisation and society the problem may grow exponentially as it won’t be about an individual but a whole history, a Cynefin.
  4. The nature of employment will also change in ways we can’t yet fully imagine.  The growing use of machine learning in education is problematic and it will create a large pool of people dependent on it.  Some elite schools in the states are banning technology so that their pupils get an education which develops their human skills, and those people are going to be valuable but scarce.   is  At the very least we are going to have to tailor employment conditions to individuals and/or sub-classes in a way that will be hindered by much current HR/OD practice: what are we going to do about that?  If we get rid of middle management to digitisation then where will the next generation of senior managers come from?  Experience matters it can’t just be magically acquired.
  5. We will very shortly be faced with some of the significant challenges of global warming.  The first major surges in heat deaths are likely this year or next, water and food shortages will start to have a significant impact and younger people are going to face that in ways that current management doesn’t seem aware of.   Those future employees will want to work for companies who are part of the solution, not a part of the problem; so how will we manage that?  Maybe the four-day week becomes a four-plus one, or even a three-plus two in which the spare days use the company’s resources to ameliorate and reverse the climate crisis?

Now that isn’t exhaustive but it’s a start and I could ask very similar questions of the finance department along with the IT function.


The banner picture is cropped from an original of a steamy sunrise over Roaring Mountain. Original public domain image from Flickr and sourced from RawPixel.  The opening portrait is of Jean Terford David, 1813. By Thomas Sully (American, 1783–1872) in the Cleveland Museum of Art.  The portrait subject was an American officer who served as a paymaster during the War of 1812

Both pictures are significant for the context of the post  if you think about it, especially the multiple  ambiguities of the banner picture

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The Cynefin Company (formerly known as Cognitive Edge) was founded in 2005 by Dave Snowden. We believe in praxis and focus on building methods, tools and capability that apply the wisdom from Complex Adaptive Systems theory and other scientific disciplines in social systems. We are the world leader in developing management approaches (in society, government and industry) that empower organisations to absorb uncertainty, detect weak signals to enable sense-making in complex systems, act on the rich data, create resilience and, ultimately, thrive in a complex world.
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