Putting the people back in HR

Too many organizations rely on technology alone to handle complex problems

Technology has given HR professionals new alternatives for making recruitment and staffing more efficient. But recruiting and staffing technology runs the risk of hurting the very thing it was designed to improve — the effective deployment of people across an organization.

It still takes humans to make staffing decisions, which means HR professionals are in the unique position to improve both HR performance and general business performance with a few well-placed initiatives.

The dominant perspective underlying all HR activity is one of organizations and projects made up of human beings. Yet, as organizations and their activities have become more integrated and fast-paced, many have turned to technological advances, rather than people, to handle the complexity.

Thank goodness the technology exists. Without it society could never have achieved the current levels of productivity and excellence. But there is a nagging awareness the world has come full circle since the industrial age and people are now supporting computerized systems every bit as much as they used to support mechanical machinery. Employers are in serious danger of wiping out decades of progress in engaging and empowering employees and other stakeholders as individuals. HR professionals were supposed to contribute to a grand vision of processes supporting people, instead of the other way around.

Those who would deny a problem exists need to become more perceptive of subtle “best practices” that have subjugated humans to technology in the name of organizational excellence — so much so that the people become invisible and we see only the processes.

•When recruiting, employer procedures don’t allow time to send an acknowledgement to candidates who sent in resumes — people who are sincerely interested in helping the company — but the marketing department has the ability to send millions of personally addressed direct mail pieces to people who have no interest.

•The best and brightest leave because improved, mechanized business processes treat them as “techno-trivia nodes” until they have no time or ability to think professionally.

•When making staffing decisions, managers fill open positions with whoever is available to do the job instead of strengthening both individuals and organizations with intelligent, balanced career development.

•Management communications have become e-mailed memos to staff instead of meaningful discussions with the individuals who are the life blood of corporate success or failure.

Before discounting these observations as negative “Jurassic snark,” consider that these developments have created the biggest positive opportunity HR has ever had. HR professionals have the unique skills and management mandate to provide clear, positive answers to reintegrate human engagement and empowerment into the automated process mazes that many enterprises have become.

They can improve both HR performance and general business performance from the inside out. But it’s hard to miss the irony in the solution. The very same change methods, provided by HR, which created the technological monsters can be used to eliminate the negatives if combined with conventional “people department” insight. Take a look at some specifics:

•Recruitment, staffing, management, recognition and development policies that measure capability and passion of people instead of the fit of resumes with data bank checklists, can have an absolutely transformational effect on the workplace and organizational productivity.

•Training and development practitioners can use their hard-earned influence to convince management new technology requires more technical training, but not at the expense of soft skills. “Training and development’s real focus must be on creating a learning environment that encourages employees to exhibit more leadership and management at all levels of the organization,” said Susan Flynn, of Tidewatch Consulting in Toronto.

•HR professionals are probably the only management group with any hope of objectively analyzing and selling the need for intelligent job design to reduce stress in an increasingly fast-paced mechanized world. Bill Wilkerson, president of the Canadian Business and Economic Roundtable on Mental Health, said, “mental health is a dollars-and-cents business issue and the ultimate productivity weapon.”

•Having led the way to an empowered workforce, HR owes it to employees, and the organization, to create a culture in which empowerment can be sustained. Creative performance measures, incentives and compensation plans can directly increase interest and accountability in the design, use and improvement of computer systems. This is better than just blaming the IT department.

•As people take advantage of faster means of communication, such as e-mail and computer-to-computer connections, HR can maintain necessary team involvement and collaboration by encouraging and facilitating communication modes such as meetings, forums and classroom training. Olia Stachnyk, founder of Business & You, said, “real communication is getting the message across through a process of direct listening and responding in a given moment.” This can only be achieved through these richer methods of interaction.

HR is clearly at a crossroads. It can become irrelevant as computer power replaces people, or it can become the leader in management strategy to make people effective and productive in an ever more technical environment. It’s up to HR practitioners to choose the path.

Bob Wheatley, president of Robert Wheatley Associates, is a change coach and professional speaker. He may be reached at (905) 471-3929 or [email protected].

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