26 Mar 2014
‘I was taking part in a panel discussion at a recent conference. We were talking about the highlights of the event for us and invited the audience to join in. I was then rather surprised when we were asked whether Human Resources was the right name for the function and was it really an improvement on Personnel as a description. My first reaction was surely that we are beyond this debate; HR has clearly won the argument because Personnel is associated with welfare and admin whereas HR connects to business and strategy. Moreover, organisational nomenclature has its own peculiar fads and fashions, as revealed by suggestions to change the title to 'people and development' or 'people and culture', which don't take us that far in the broader debate, however attractive some of the terms might appear at first sight.
‘Yet, as the conversation unfolded I realised that there was an important point buried here. This emerged when one of the panel described his recent dealings with HR at Amazon. Oversimplifying, he contrasted the employment deal between office-based innovators and warehouse doers. Their roles are very dissimilar; the value that they add to the organisation is not the same; and so how they connect to their employer is distinctly different.
‘In this context, what is the HR service delivery model to these groups? You could argue that the innovators are an organisational asset to be nurtured. Effort would go into their motivation and reward. Their retention would be an important business requirement. And so on. By contrast the warehouse workers are managed as a cost (whether insourced or outsourced) with the key metrics being productivity and expense per head.
‘This is not a blog about Amazon but about workforce segmentation. The more sophisticated HR teams recognise that what they do and how they do it is affected by the population concerned. Thus we may have the people function operating as Personnel - delivering a very efficient transactional service to the shop floor and not neglecting collective well-being and health and safety. For the key people who drive the business forward, the function should be operating as HR in the original conception of that the Human Resource Management term: a new philosophy of people management that tried to find ways to release the potential of the workforce and to maximise their contribution to the success of the organisation.
‘I know that from an employee engagement perspective we should not neglect the shop floor and simply favour the office. The decisive question might be, where is it possible for discretionary effort to make a difference to the value added to the business? It doesn't matter what title these employees hold or where they work, but the scope they have for business impact.
‘The point may be that for cash-strapped HR teams, being clear on where to focus one's efforts, and in what way, may help moving on from debating names to determining how choices are made in the allocation of scarce resources.’