HR must combine the best of old and new

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Some thoughts from not that very long ago might no longer be the ultimate answer they promised to be

My home city of Stoke-on-Trent is currently bidding to become the UK’s City of Culture in 2021. As someone who is incredibly proud to be from the undisputed ‘ceramic capital’ of the world it seems odd to me that any bidding is needed. You can visit the museums or five-star hotels of any major city anywhere in the world and find the cultural influence of ‘the potteries’.

Or if crockery is not your thing you’re probably familiar with the works of a certain Robbie Williams, or with Slash from Guns N’ Roses.

Yet despite these fantastic credentials, work was needed; Stoke-on-Trent had to reinvent itself. A 2011 documentary described the city as a modern Pompeii. By 2017 though, Stoke was rated as one of the best places to start a business, to raise a child and to indulge in culture.

Stoke recognised that it needed to celebrate its centuries-old heritage. The city set about rebuilding potteries as tourist attractions, replanting long-disused fine gardens, and turning industrial canals into places to live and work. It then had to sprinkle in the modern: fabulous new science centres, state-of-the-art headquarters for major companies, and world-class sporting facilities.

Crucially though it had to remove lots of things that were not that old but just didn’t work. Office blocks, bus stations, shops, even housing came tumbling down. This created a perfect balance between the genius of the past and cutting-edge modernity.

So what has this got to do with HR? I find HR is brilliant at putting in new things. Every edition of this excellent magazine is filled with new ways of engaging our people, attracting new ones, performance managing old ones, often in shiny new apps.

But how often do we stop and survey the overall landscape? Is it suitable for the modern workplace to blend the best bits of hundreds of years of thinking with cutting-edge thinking? Or is it creating a vast wasteland of underused training courses, reports that aren’t needed anymore, processes that are religiously followed for no reason, and an employee handbook that contains hundreds of pages of all the things you can’t do?

Many of you will have some form of HR qualification. During that study you almost certainly looked at the work of people like Henri Fayol. How many of you treated it as something to be learned for an exam then dismissed as a relic of the past?

Well, Fayol believed managers should have one manager to keep communication simple. How much time is lost in the 21st century by attempting to manage multiple stakeholders and dotted-line management in a matrix structure? Is Fayol’s idea an outdated relic? Or might it be a long-disused piece of genius entirely fit for modern use if only people stopped and thought?

HR should look at what really works not where it comes from. We should be prepared to recognise that some thoughts from not that very long ago might no longer be the ultimate answer they promised to be.

I find the only time this even remotely happens is when somebody new takes over the HR function. It’s very easy to remove somebody else’s thinking and ‘freshen things up’. However, brilliant operators are those prepared to remove things they themselves instigated. Being the person who can say ‘I did that, it was absolutely right then but now it isn’t and it needs removing,’ sets top operators apart.

If HR teams can work this way – dig out those dusty textbooks and work out where the long-lost value is, while removing the fads of the recent past and coupling this with modern simplicity – then we can really start to build our value.

HR would become obviously and unquestionably strategic partners to the business and not simply an operational function. In fact it would be as obvious as Stoke-on-Trent becoming City of Culture in 2021.

Andy Stephenson is group people director at Lookers

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