I posted an article on the theme of virtual learning in July 2020. In this post I wanted to pick up on this theme of learning and HR and ask why learning matters for HR.
The obvious answer is that HR has a functional mandate in most organisations to drive organisational learning, but the issue I am more interested in is the importance of learning for HR itself.
There are huge forces of change in the world of business and the world of work which have been accelerated but not fundamentally changed by COVID-19. Hardly a day goes by without a new article on the impact of AI, cognitive computing, robotics, demographics, the gig economy, blockchain or Gen W, X, Y or Z (I made up W!) on the future of work or directly on HR. In this environment HR needs better people and much better development but I have found that not enough organisations provide structured learning for their HR professionals or they leave it up to the individual, often citing cost and capacity issues. At the individual level I find a lot of HR people are so keen to show how responsive they are, that they don’t spend any time on their own learning because they are far too busy, busy, busy.
I have a problem with this. With the pressure on HR to perform from their own organisations and the massive external forces we mentioned earlier, how can we leave it up to Darwinian forces to ensure we have the capability to perform?
If we add HR’s functional responsibility for learning, surely, HR should be role models. Instead HR professionals are often cobblers’ children when it comes to investing both collectively and personally in learning. One talent director I spoke to lamented that his colleagues in HR were the most difficult group when it came to investing time in their own learning. He put it succinctly: “In terms of our learning environment we’re like a hairdresser with a rubbish haircut. We spend 12 hours a day making sure everyone else has a good barnet, but we don’t spend any time on ourselves.”
By the way, if you don’t speak cockney rhyming slang, barnet is Barnet Fair or hair. All you have to do is look at some leaders, Boris, Trump and Kim Jong-un come to mind, to see how dangerous someone with a bad barnet can be!
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As well as spending more time on our own learning we need to consider what we should be learning. The purpose of HR is not to do HR but to build the capability of an organisation to deliver its strategy and create sustainable value. So whilst we need to learn more about the art, craft and science of HR, we also need to learn far more about the strategic and commercial agenda of our organisations.
I ran a programme for some HRBPs in a major global business with their finance director who explained exactly how they made money and also how the stock market valued the business. She explained how they faced a major operational free cash flow challenge over the following three months that they had to address to get the analysts to recommend them as a buy. A few weeks later, one of the HRBPs contacted me and told me a story. She said three senior leaders had approached her to put through unbudgeted headcount increases. Before the programme she said she would simply have executed the requests. As a result of the programme she had challenged them to explain how these headcount increases would help meet this operational free cash flow challenge. As a result, they had withdrawn the requests. Learning about the numbers gave her the confidence, content and language to shift the conversation.
I don’t believe 70:20:10 is a universal panacea, but I do believe that learning needs to take place on the job as well as in more formal settings. But if, when we’re on the job, we’re spending all our time in HR then how can we be learning about the business?
I remember meeting a young HR person at an investment bank in Singapore who asked me if I thought the business valued HR. My reply was I didn’t think they cared about HR they cared about making money. When I asked her how they made money she didn’t know. So she spent half a day every fortnight on a trading desk learning, not doing HR, but learning how they made money. After a couple of months we chatted again and she said what she’d learnt wasn’t how to sell her HR products more effectively, as she’d expected, but that 80% of what she did was irrelevant to the business! As a result, her relationship with the business had changed fundamentally from being a gopher (go for this go for that) to being a trusted partner.
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We need to make learning part of how we do our jobs, all day, every day, not something separate and this learning needs to be as much about the context as of the content of HR.