Opinion Leaders: Firming Up On People

Back in 1982 CF Russ wrote: “human resources is probably the last great cost that is relatively unmanaged”.

It seems we have not moved that much in 20 years. How to get the best results from people remains the great challenge, and if the November 2002 edition of this magazine is anything to go by, there are no clear and useful guidelines yet in common use and language.

Recent reviews of the strategic human resource management (SHRM) literature exhibit lack of appreciation of the core underlying issues, including what such theory is, or is for, or what it should do for practising managers. Despite managers’ tendency to dismiss ‘theory’, in practice we use theories all the time. We call them concepts – the way we think or patterns of thought. Consequently, the old adage that there is nothing more useful than good theory, remains true.

There are no clear and useful guidelines on the best way to get the best possible result from people, that is until now.

In any serious analysis of the issues underlying SHRM it is immediately apparent that we need to look hard at the question: what is firm? The question might seem self-evident, but that is just familiarity. And at times familiarity breeds an acceptance that at some point ceases to be helpful or useful.

Is firm and people in the firm the same thing? No. People are different from firm. People can come and go while the firm remains constant.

If we recognise that ‘firms’ are separate from ‘people’, then to discuss the performance of people in firm we must answer the question: how exactly are people linked to the firm? If we do not, then we retreat back to the situation where people are not distinguished from the firm, and we will continue to wade through the mishmash of confused thinking and inadequate advice that has plagued the whole area of human resources, or old-fashioned personnel.

Before pursuing the issue further perhaps we should pause and consider why bother to press for better link between people and the firm? Where’s the payback? Consider these few simple questions that should help your thinking.

* If we achieve the best possible link between people and the firm, would you expect the financial results of the firm to improve?
* Do you believe that discipline is part of the positive motivation of people?
* If people are being more successful at their jobs, do you think they might enjoy them more?
* If people are more successful, and the business is more profitable, would your directors be more generous?
* With more upbeat business climate, would this enable an upbeat economy? And where might that lead?

New Zealand hardly knows, our economy is so seldom upbeat.

New Zealand is small economy, with just two real assets: our land/climate, which grows things very well, and our people, an asset we have hardly learned to tap.

Our people are well educated, enlightened, law abiding, and insightful of the potential of business to enable greater economic well being, and to enable greater personal success. But our business leaders also need to understand our ethics, which is still substantive egalitarian, committed to comfortable way of life, and wary of self-aggrandisement. We like our TV sets and overseas trips, but are also concerned with wrecking our environment to get them.

The starting place is for much better management, building tighter links between people and the firm for which they work, delivering better profits, better balance in our trade offs, and greater satisfaction among the people. First forge better and more effective link between people and the firm, and then let’s see what happens.

Graham Little, PhD, AFNZIM is chairman of OPD International Consultancy. Email: [email protected]

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