Strategic HR and lessons from history

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4 Sep 2014

Peter Reilly

Peter Reilly

Now that it's September, coming back to work after summer distractions and in particular visiting the Edinburgh book festival, I started thinking about what have I (re)learned? One thing I've been thinking over is how do you understand the past?

I don't go with Henry Ford's 'history is bunk', nor with Marx's idea that history repeats itself 'first as tragedy, then as farce', but I was taken with Professor Margaret MacMillan's argument at the book festival, on the origins of the First World War: the past can be hard to interpret and does not lend itself to simple truths (beyond the banal).

This led me to considering this question in the context of one of the themes of our forthcoming October annual conference on the development of HR strategy, namely the need to anticipate the future. So how much are we influenced by perceptions of what has gone before and how much by fresh interpretation?

Looking at the emerging forces of change - globalisation, technology, consumerisation and so on - I would argue that it is often worth seeing how these forces have developed thus far: their speed, impact and the assumptions made about them. Futurologists, it seems to me, too often ignore the past and give us either terrifying or exhilarating visions of what is to come (and the choice of interpretation might be a matter of personal preference - are driverless cars to be welcomed or feared?). Yet they fail to acknowledge that history suggests that mankind mostly absorbs change as it develops: we don't simply leap from today to tomorrow. The critical question then focuses on this process of absorption and how painful it is.

One trick I played with an HR team trying to think into the future was to ask them to remember themselves five years ago before imagining themselves five years hence. What one sees is more continuity than change, alongside some more or less fundamental differences. But in all instances they had coped with what life had thrown at them. This insight can be taken back into the work context.

We will argue at the conference that strategic HR must try to assess what will be the continuities from the past as well as the possible discontinuities. Going back to that First World War, one of reasons why it happened as it did is that leaders (military and political) did not properly assess the effects of changes to military technology. They knew these changes had happened but chose to ignore the obvious consequences.

World War 1 was also one of those few real historical shifts where we moved from one socio-political state to another in a comparatively short space of time. The economic recession from which we are slowly emerging will not be a game changer in that league at all - there will be far too much continuity with pre-2008. Yet, some things have changed: the weakening of the US as an economic power; the debt driven cuts to public expenditure in many western countries; the challenge to the 21st century banking model. Some of these events were already clearly in the making and may well become permanent alterations to the landscape. Others may be seen as just temporary adjustments with long-term reversion to more or less the status quo ante?

When thinking about the future, a strategic HR function needs to cast its collective mind backwards, forwards and sideways, looking for trends, identifying discontinuities and considering what will be the big issues to contend with and how they will impact their business.

Will it be diversity - gender and ethnicity? Will it be regulation - lighter touch in some areas of employment but tougher in others? Will it be technology - changing the way we work? These topics will of course be around and are the safe area of contemplation of the HR team, but what are the areas we have ignored as outside our ken? Have we underestimated the potential for civil strife? resource shortage? falling life expectancy? failing social provision for the elderly? Have we given the necessary attention to the sort of knock on effects for employment and employees that these challenges might present? The strategic HR function should have a view.

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