HR needs to get out of the office and stop hiding behind processes

Profile picture for user jmilne By Janine Milne December 4, 2016
Nick Holley of Henley Business School calls on HR to get out the office and stop hiding behind processes.
Come on out

Get out of your bloody office! Talent management must be led by the business, so you’ve got to be in the business.

The blunt advice to the HR profession comes from Nick Holley, visiting professor at Henley Business School, director of the Corporate Research Forum (CRF) Learning and font of HR and talent management knowledge.

Holley calls on HR heads to resist the urge to focus too much on process and technology and instead actually get out and talk to the business. That’s the best way to understand exactly who the talent is in the organization, for as Holley says:

It’s not a process; it’s a relationship.

CRS research has found that only 23% of companies are actually satisfied with their talent management initiatives.  This poor performance is partly due to an over-emphasis on process. There’s a danger that talent management becomes a process happening within the HR department and disconnected from the main business strategy.

As an example, Holley cites the case of a European bank proud of its succession plan. For each of the top 200 roles it had carefully identified in the company, it had one person ready to step into that role today, one within a year with development and another two people who are long-term successors. 

It sounded great, but when Holley asked what percentage of people were actually replaced with someone from the succession plan, the company didn’t know. In fact, further investigation found only 8% of these 200 roles had been filled by internal recruits.

The moral of the tale is that having a process in place alone is not enough to deliver business value. This company had a fine assessment process and a fine recruitment process in place, but the two were operating separately. As Holley says:

There was process, lots of form-filling, but no outcome!

This lack of joined-up HR – and there are parallels with government and healthcare – means that the outcome often does not benefit the people it is supposed to serve.

While HR digitization promises to provide a coherent, unified HR and talent strategy, the reality is often companies’ efforts  still miss the mark. They start with the process and the data and not with end goal of providing better care and value for the business.

This silo mentality can have a divisive effect on the HR department, says Holley:

You get different part of HR blaming each other when something goes wrong, but the business doesn’t care whether you’re a ‘comps and bens’ person or a business partner or whatever, they just want their problem fixed.

Joining the siloes together has to start from the top. As Holley points out, HR needs to create an HR leadership team rather than a team of HR leaders:

You don’t sit on an HR leadership team representing comps and bens, in the same way that a good HR director does not sit on the board representing HR. They take collective accountability.


A culture of individual department targets helps perpetuate this separation. Instead of separate entities, all elements of HR such as recruitment or learning should be collectively measured on the value they create for the business. Holley adds:

The HR director needs to employ something other people called Fifi – normally in business it means first in first out, but in this case means fit in or f*ck off. We are a leadership team. If you are not willing to be in a joined-up HR, then you don’t belong here. 

HR leaders need to be driven by a common set of values and HR heads have to recruit and reward people for displaying those values.

Instead, companies become obsessed with rating employee performance and as Holley maintains:

Everyone thinks they are above average, but by definition of average, they can’t be. And that then becomes a problem and people develop an app or process that automates a process that pisses everyone off, rather than question whether it improves revenue or patient care.

Holley argues that rather than measuring performance with a number we all have a sense of what ‘good’ looks like. Holley explains:

Do you measure your kids when they are behaving well? You know what that looks like. You can’t substitute that observation with a system – a systems-based approach is all about sticking numbers on everything and the problem is that because it’s ’in a system’ it becomes an objective fact and we plan people’s live based on that. But it’s not a fact! It’s subjective and in most cases incredibly biased and the worst thing is that people don’t know when they are being biased.

The success or not of talent management initiatives and performance is also dependent on the culture and context in which people work. Holley uses a soccer analogy to explain.

The England football team is an example of an entity with good people, but bad culture. The team often under performs and is woefully poor at taking penalties. In contrast, Iceland has average people, but a good culture – which was enough to see them beat the stronger England team in Euro 2016 competition.  Portugal ticks all the boxes with both good people and good culture or context.

Culture is set from the top, so it’s a priority that leaders are the starting point to change or uphold culture.  But often HR does not approach this in the right way. Instead of thinking what is the question that leadership needs the answer to in their organization, they run a leadership development program.  Partly, says Holley, that’s because a lot of people in leadership development roles started out as trainers, so their natural first port of call is to run a training course. 

For Holley, the key for HR to always think business first and avoid the trap of automating technology and processes that help HR rat her than the business:

HR is there for one thing only: to build the capability of an organization to achieve its strategic goals. To recruit the right people, in the right context in which they can perform. And to do all the things around that – recruit, paying them and so on. The goal is not doing HR.

My take

Nick Holley offers a pertinent reminder that HR needs to look beyond technology and process, look at the bigger picture and remember it's about relationships.