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Is there nothing new in HR?

If you talk to older professionals or academics, you may find they are surprisingly unenthusiastic about new ideas in human resources. It’s easy to label them dinosaurs but the truth is that most supposedly new ideas are not really new, they are simply repackaged ideas that organizations explored in the 1960s or 70s or 80s. That doesn't mean these aren't good ideas—some are, some are not—just that we should be examining the history of these ideas and understanding where they worked and why they fell out of favour before we get too excited.

Does this mean that we should not buy the latest book, attend the latest conference, or read a new article by David Creelman? Well, it’s not that bad. Reading content, new or old, is useful, but it is more about deepening your understanding of existing concepts rather than learning something brand new. And instead of only reading new books, you might read some old books on management. You won’t find anyone much more insightful than Mintzberg, Drucker, or Deming. Reading the old masters should convince you, just like older professionals have come to see, that there isn’t much new under the sun.

Let's take a topic like performance management. If you did a literature review, you would find a vast amount of thoughtful writing going back decades upon decades. You would find that there are many variations on how performance management is delivered but only a few core ideas. After such a review you might well conclude that your organization won’t benefit from adopting the latest fad but instead should put effort into getting better at executing the current process. It's also quite possible that by looking at the long history of performance management you might decide that what you have now, despite its flaws, is as good as it gets and there is little to be gained from additional investment in the process.


What you should do

Let me share my advice on what you should do given the fact that there are very few new ideas in human resources.

1) Learn the history of your field. If you are a serious professional, you will know the history of ideas in your field, not just the latest thing. Read at least one old book for every new one you do.

2) Avoid fads. Do not let yourself get caught up in the latest fad.

3) Focus on execution. More often than not you will get more payoff from investing in improving the execution of your existing process than trying to do something radically new.

4) Eliminate programs and processes that we know are not very effective. Rather than adding new things, you can deliver value by removing things that are not effective. Perhaps you have run an engagement survey for years and have found it doesn’t achieve much. In that case, you might try to improve execution, however, you might be better off just not doing it anymore.

5) Look for processes that have stood the test of time. Again, rather than looking for what’s new, look for those processes that have proven their value over the decades. For example, the Japanese “Plan-Do-Check-Act” cycle and the technique of asking “Five Whys” seem to be very robust approaches.

Is anything new?

While most things being sold as new ideas in HR are repackaged old ideas, there are indeed some new things one has to be alert to. Certainly, technology brings many new things into HR and that is just accelerating. There will also be new things within your business (e.g., new products, new markets, new competitors) which you will need to keep up with and react to. So it’s not that the world is static, it’s just that most of the shiny new objects people try to sell us are not as new or shiny as they are made out to be.

In summary

You will be a more effective professional if you understand the history of your discipline. Once you understand the history, you will be less enamoured by the latest “new” idea and you will focus more on the effective execution of proven ideas. You will also be in a position to judge which things (such as a change in technology) genuinely are new, and hence make an informed decision on how to take advantage of that.


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