What is in a name?

Blog posts

15 Jan 2015

Peter ReillyPeter Reilly

I have been writing and talking about HR business partners a lot recently and this has reminded me of the importance of terminology. Take ‘business partner’ itself as a term. It replaced descriptions like HR manager or senior HR adviser, or going back further, senior personnel officer. The point in using the phrase ‘business partner’ is that it conveys integration with business team colleagues rather than a rank in the internal HR pecking order. Getting closer to the business has of course been an important part of HR's transformation from welfare agent to added-value contributor.

This illustrates one key point about terminology: its use in branding, in sending a signal that is meant to impress or shift opinion. Take another example: ‘human capital’. This term has been explicitly employed to convey an equivalent importance of the people side of the business as compared to the financial. It has been bracketed with the link between employees and organisational performance to reinforce the fact that people count: they are an organisational asset. So we should assess the value of people as we do of money. Some consultancy practices thought that this message was sufficiently vital that they argued that HR should be rebranded as human capital.

However, there are risks in such rebranding. One important risk is that the meaning of the term (talent management, human capital management, etc) is subordinated to the presentational impact. This is true of business partners - there are a ‘Heinz 57 varieties’ of the role without much evidence that many organisations stick to the original intention: they are simply generalists aligned in some way to a business unit rather than its strategic people partners.

Another example of this imprecision is ‘talent management’. This is again a hugely popular business concept that means all things to all men. Thus, for some organisations everyone is deemed to be talented, whereas in others it is only those in senior positions, those in vital roles or those who have the potential to reach these levels.

Performance management is one more confusing business term. Its meaning may vary within organisations as well as between them. Especially in parts of the public sector, performance management refers to overall organisational performance, but at the same time may be used in HR to cover individual performance. Whether the latter is the narrower performance appraisal – a an annual manager assessment – or a broader set of processes including say personal development plans, multi-rater feedback inputs, etc is another matter again.

As for competence, competences, competencies…

This brings me to the second way that thinking about terminology is worthwhile. Clearly-defined and carefully-applied terms like ‘talent’ and ‘human capital’ as well as others such as ‘the psychological contract’ or ‘total reward’ can convey important meaning. They can bind people in the organisation together with shared understanding. This is especially important where HR is working closely with the line. Both parties need to know what they mean by ‘talent’ or ‘performance management’. 

The alternative is the sort of generic, best-practice hype that describes nothing more than to be with the in-crowd spouting the latest buzz words. Terminological exactitude may sound boring but it is just what HR should spend some of its time doing: getting key concepts understood and acted upon. Methinks a good task for the HR Business Partner.