HR and Commitment-phobia

Josh Liebner, Gershon Mader, and I ended up on an interesting tangent about the role of human resources in driving strategic commitment (previous posts here and here).  Both authors shared my frustration about HR’s inertia when it comes to transformation efforts.  In no small measure, this frustration comes from believing that HR should be in a unique position to drive change because they often know “what is really going on” or “what people really believe/think”.

We kept coming back to one question:  Does the human resources field attract people who can’t or don’t want to lead?  Our answer was “too often” and the discussion identified three drivers:

  1. The reputation of HR as a leadership backwater is an on-going barrier to attracting risk-taking leaders.  Many people recognize that HR could be more, but ultimately…
  2. The transactional nature of many core HR functions shapes its own org design.  What parts of HR must be done?  Well, they are the compliance, recruiting, and benefits administration functions.  Therefore, there is something about the work that attracts…
  3. Gatekeepers.  Compliance-heavy functions require formal and structured lines of authority, which are quite easy to hide behind or to substitute for business decisions.

This last point highlights the position that HR has gotten itself into: gatekeeping may give it formal authority, but strategic imperatives don’t respect formal authority.  Emergent and adaptive systems will almost always find workarounds.

To that end, Josh and Gershon both suggested that a coaching and mentoring model is the best way for HR to engage in strategy.  This approach leverages the strength of HR — knowing the lay of the land — with a softer, less rules-bound style.  Acknowledging and shaping emergent behavior will be more fruitful than trying to ban or control it.

Conditions for “organized emergence”

Emmanuel Gobillot commented on my post on self-organization (here).  I liked his comment so much that I thought it was worth highlighting below:

I have found four conditions which need to be in place for communities to be productive.  I called these

Simplicity (a coherent and simple way to engage),
Narrative (an underpinning story for people to align to),
Tasks (a clear set of tasks which participants can measure against their self image) and
Love (the willingness to commit to making others stronger).

These elements encourage emergence but are better designed. In many ways this explains the need for the famous “benevolent dictators” we have come to identify with emergent systems.

IMO, community-building often focuses on conditions 1&4, especially in knowledge management efforts.  Addressing these topics seems to attract membership, but this tactic only meets some of a community’s needs.  Without the structure and content provided by conditions 2&3, communities are only coherent and useful for those most interested in conversation and networking.

In my experience, very interesting conversations spring up in “Simplicity” and “Love”-centric communities.  However, there are so many stories being told that it is hard to pick a single thread and follow it through to closure.  Without an over-arching “Narrative” that values the “Task” work — something like “Community X’s mission is to create a knowledge sharing network and promote re-use of recommended practices in strategic topics A, B, and C” — the community becomes all talk, no deliverables.

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