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Understanding the Millions of HR Frameworks




 

We use a huge number of frameworks in HR, maybe not millions, but it sure feels like this. It’s worth understanding how to get the best out of them and why they sometimes feel great when you first learn them and feel terrible when you try to use them.


Next time you go to an HR conference pay attention to how many different frameworks are presented. By framework I mean things like “There are four key activities in HR”, “These are the eight competencies of front-line employees”, and “These are the different levels of maturity of a people analytics function”. Frameworks may just have several buckets as in the ‘four key activities’ or they may have levels from low to high as you find in many competency models or they may have “arrows” showing how the different buckets connect. They are all just frameworks and share the same underlying strengths and weaknesses.


Frameworks exist to over-simplify a complex world

In all cases, frameworks attempt to simplify and bring some order to the world. If we were to look at 100 people analytics functions we would find all kinds of similarities and differences, and the true degree of complexity is unmanageable. A framework says, “Well, we can ignore a lot of the details and group them into low, mid, and high maturity. From there we can think about where you fit and what you need to do to move forward.”


The kind thing to say is that frameworks simplify the world, but in management it’s better to say they over-simplify the world. We have no real choice in the matter, if a framework has more than a dozen or so categories it becomes unmanageable. We over-simplify because that is the only practical thing to do.


Categories are always both too broad and too narrow

If you have ever made serious use of a framework, such as a competency model, you will run into two complaints. One is that when you try to match things to the framework you will find that dissimilar things end up in the same bucket. For example, if you have a competency of “Initiative” you might find that some people get a high score on this because they are highly proactive and others because they take on things outside the usual scope of the job. People may suggest the category is too broad and we should have separate categories for the two types of initiative.


Here is a warning. Before you start fixing categories because someone says they are too broad you had better be prepared to deal with the complaints that the categories are too narrow. People will complain that, for example, they cannot really distinguish between levels 2 and 3 of the Initiative buckets and these should be combined, or that there isn’t a clear difference between Analytical Thinking and Conceptual Thinking so they should be combined.


When you are dealing with frameworks you will always find, that no matter how much you refine them, the buckets or categories are always too narrow and too broad. In other words, they are fuzzy which makes them hard to use in a precise way.


What to do about fuzzy frameworks

The important thing to know about frameworks is that since the buckets are always too narrow and too broad there is no point trying to refine them endlessly. Think of frameworks as things that help point you in the right direction and help you communicate with others. In the end, if you are making decisions such as assigning someone a competency level or using job evaluation to determine the pay grade it will become a matter of managerial judgement. Recognizing that we must use managerial judgement to make decisions and that the frameworks exist simply as a thinking tool, will put you on the right track.


Endlessly multiplying frameworks

Since frameworks always over-simplify reality there is an endless opportunity to invent new ones. Sometimes it seems that is all the big consultancies do; they invent new frameworks that look appealing but in the end are unlikely to add much more value than the ones you are already using.


It’s often interesting to hear someone present a new framework. It may provide an insight into reality that you had missed. However, there is a risk of jumping on the bandwagon of the latest framework in the hope it will finally help a lot. It’s important to remember that all new frameworks are going to over-simplify reality just like the old ones did. Don’t spend too much time looking for new frameworks.


The frameworks I’m most familiar with, job evaluation guides and competency models, become more useful the more you use them. You are better off using the same competency model for years, and getting good at using it as a thinking guide despite its over-simplifications, then jumping from one competency model to another.


Conclusion

We use frameworks so much that we are barely aware of them. In fact, simplifying reality this way is the essence of intelligence and “active inference”.  Just remember that frameworks always over-simplify, they are just tools to help our thinking in the face of complexity, and we still have to use a great deal of judgement. Remember too that while it’s enlivening to learn new frameworks, you are often better getting good at using your core frameworks rather than looking to adopt a new one.

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