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Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

Time for HR to come in from the cold

Organisations need to manage the boundaries of their operations if they are to coordinate their knowledge resources and, in doing so, become more dynamic, agile and adaptive.

This boundary management means engagement with human resources (take a look at my latest keynote upload for more on this).  Try extracting people from knowledge-driven systems, such as today’s organisations, it just can’t happen.  People decide on, or are guided towards, their level of interaction with the system.  They are the firewall that decides what knowledge is made available, what is used, shared, develop, acquired and stored.  If we can agree that Human Agency is a major consideration for organisations when considering dynamic, agile and adaptive capability then it also goes that we should expect expert support in the development/management of these resources within the system.  This is where Human Resource professionals come in.

The-problem is that they are burdened by the weight of legacy HR work (terms and conditions/conflict resolution) that tends to treat an organisation’s human resources as warm carbon units (objects), when they should see people as agents that enable the often illusive costly to copy competitive advantage.

Whether they realise it or not, today’s organisations are dependent on an effective HR cycle and this means an effective HR team.  This requires a cultural shift, not only on the part of senior management teams within organisations, but in the mindset of HR practitioners.  Both need to see HR as a value creating/adding function that patrols/pushes/pulls at the boundary of the organisation.  Organisations need an active and strong HR function if they are to make sense of, and respond to, the ever more complex environment in which they transact.

The problem is that HR as a profession is being far too slow to react.  The profession is out in the cold and is not generally demonstrating the knowledge understanding, especially in the interrelated areas of complexity, dynamic, agile and adaptive, required to bring about a change of mindset, perhaps even trust, required to take on the responsibility of boundary management.  If we can accept that people are a vital, costly to copy, resource then we have to accept the HR cycle as a core construct within any system designed to coordinate an organisation’s knowledge resources.

Look at the various Business Intelligence reports over the last six years or so, from people like Deloitte through to the Economist Intelligence Unit, the message is the same, regardless of sector or location.  organisations crave problem-solvers, net-workers, collaborators and good communicators – some might say that those competency requirements are interlinked.  Ask those same organisations what they are doing to ‘manage’ their needs?  From our research you should expect that over 75% of these organisations are failing to engage with HR mechanisms as a way to regulate their environment.  Surely, this has to be a mistake.

I have a challenge to both senior management teams and HR professionals alike, take HR practitioners out of the system, game the scenario, what does it look like?  Another challenge, how many HR professionals can say that they truly understand the needs of their organisations?

I come back to the reason for this post.  Any time I have suggested HR as a partner for Knowledge Management or the development of an dynamic/agile/adaptive workforce I meet with resistance.  KM is not seen as a viable solution because too many HR practitioners are weighed down by legacy HR work.  It is time to come in from the cold.  It is time to adapt.  It is time to change.

I’ll set out more of my thoughts on the HR Cycle as part of a wider system for the coordination/management of knowledge resources in my next post…

6 comments on “Time for HR to come in from the cold

  1. Stephen Bounds
    August 9, 2012


    In my current organisation this is partially addressed by splitting the function in two: HR and “People & Capability”. We don’t have a formal KM program but in reality the P&C team run some fairly effective KM programs (knowledge socialisation, non-command and control leadership training, mentoring schemes) without ever calling them that. (I run the Information Management section and have deliberately distanced IM from the “KM” tag, but have informally offered advice to P&C staff on programs when the opportunity presented.)

    Much like recordkeeping, HR is a skillset which can either adapt to the new environment it faces, or remain wedded to its old ways. Actually, come to think of it, practically all disciplines have been presented with the same choice over the last 10-15 years. Is the lack of observed change perhaps due more to the people employed in these roles rather than the discipline itself?

    • David Griffiths
      August 9, 2012

      I agree with what you are saying. There has been a HR shift towards ‘Development’ HRD and a bigger focus on Strategic HRD, but the people in situ are not adapting quickly enough.

      Change is far too slow and until HR practitioners embrace the complexity of their environment then there is a proble. I think that a lack of resilience on their part could hold back the firm in the mid to long term.

      We need a strong HR function, but, in general, they need to become more aware of their environment, as well as ways to respond to triggers within that environment. How do you see things in your neck of the woods?

  2. Stephen Bounds
    August 9, 2012

    At best I would say that we see the seeds of change in HR. Lots of lip-service but no deep understanding. Workforce planning is currently “hip” at the moment but that is just a variant of individual skills matching when I think the really untapped area is team development.

    For example, there’s no question that traditional command and control structures are wasteful and often demoralising for most forms of knowledge work.

    A really progressive HR department would have skills in analysing team operations and recommending a management model to adopt. Broadly speaking the choices are process-based, outcome-based, and service-based, but there are infinite variations and methodologies possible for implementation, and organisations could develop recommendations based on local variables and culture.

  3. Arjan van Unnik
    August 10, 2012

    I’ve headed Knowledge Managament in Royal Dutch Shell, and done so both from within HR, and from within the business. Royal Dutch Shell was not the only company where Knowledge Management was done from within HR. Some 10 years ago Buckman Laboratories was (more than once) the number one “Most Admired Knowledge Enterprise”And at that point in time they did Knowledge Management from within HR. Not having an HR background I have to admit that I found it (much!) more effective to lead Knowledge Managament from within the business than from within HR. I recognise some points David mentions.

    • David Griffiths
      August 10, 2012

      Hi Arjan and thank you for responding.

      The problem is that, from our experience and research, HR professionals far too often sit on the outside and provide little contribution to the emerging dynamic/agile/adaptive capacity/needs of the organisation. I don’t necessarily see this as a KM project, more an environment that a balanced KM programme is well placed to respond to.

      My concern is that, from the work we are doing, your experience is more the exception than the rule. Also, is it right that KM should be led either ‘within the business’ or ‘within HR’? Again, too often, it seen as coming from ‘within the business’ and doesn’t HR exist ‘within’ that business?

      From your experience, how many people on a senior management team understand the HR cycle and its impact upon knowledge resources, to say nothing of dynamic/agile/adaptive capacity? HR professionals, one would expect, should be best place to respond to this emerging environment. The problem is that they are often removed from operational/strategic planning environments and, this is their fault, are often uninformed when it comes to issues of complexity, its impact on the business environment, and the implications for the HR Cycle.

      This surely needs to be addressed. This starts with experienced HR professionals, who need to become comfortable in practicing outside of their comfort zone of legacy HRM. In the mean time, we need change to be driven by senior management teams, who need a greater awareness of the HR Cycle and its potential to deliver against organisatoonal needs.

      Would be interested in hearing your thoughts…

      Cheers, David

  4. Pingback: Time for HR to come in from the cold | Human Heritage Sharing Development |

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