During the past few weeks, I’ve happened to see a few mentions of the classic, 1980’s movie, Back to the Future — which got me to thinking, oddly enough, about human resources. In the movie, the hero — Michael J. Fox — had to go back to the past in order to help his family and community in the future. Putting the notion of time travel aside, I’ve been wondering if this might be an apt metaphor for what HR needs to do in many organizations — i.e., to go “back to basics” in order to help the organization move forward.
Being Cutting Edge or Going Back to Basics — Which Is Needed?
In so many HR departments, there is a constant worry about things like “are we being strategic enough?” and “how can we get a seat at the leadership table?” and “why can’t management take us seriously as true business partners?“, and other similar laments. I guess that this line of thinking concerns me because it pre-supposes that what the organization necessarily needs from us is for HR to be “strategic” and “visionary” and the like.
Not that strategy and vision are bad things, of course (it only makes sense that we would seek to leave our mark on organizations in these ways). However, it is a very open question in many cases as to whether or not “cutting edge” or “strategic” programs are necessarily more valuable to — and more valued by — the organization than mundane but important “blocking and tackling” (or “nuts and bolts,” for non-sports fans) tasks of recruiting, compensating, managing, and retaining good performing employees who contribute the organization for years and years.
In the best tradition of HR professionals (and attorneys), I suppose that the answer is, “It depends.” That is to say, in organizations with high-performing HR teams — i.e., where all of the HR basics are getting attended to in outstanding fashion on a daily basis — it makes sense that what the organization needs from HR is guidance on more of the leading-edge HR strategies, to help the organization sustain excellence and retain its competitive advantages. For the rest of our firms, though, I have to wonder if “leading edge” is where we need to be if the “day to day” isn’t carried out with the highest level of excellence. (There is a continuum here, of course, with most firms somewhere in the middle between “strategy” and “basics” — I’ve drawn out the extremes just for purposes of example).
Past Experience That Has Influenced Me
By way of example, I spent several years in the 1990’s working for a rapidly growing division of a Fortune-500 firm with a similarly rapidly growing HR department. We were led by a talented HR exec with considerable vision — but, unfortunately in this case, there was a “blind spot” in that vision. While we were constantly focused on “strategic” initiatives, the organization was telling us something different.
They were saying, “Look — we need help getting good people.” Business, the economy, and the stock market were all booming at the time — and (talented) bodies were needed to fulfill orders and continue the growth trajectory. Somehow, “strategy” got in our eyes and recruiting was relegated to under-funded, under-resourced status. It didn’t receive nearly as much time and attention by HR leadership as more “sexy” initiatives — and it certainly wasn’t treated with an “all hands on deck, pedal to the metal” approach that operations management (rightly) felt it deserved. As dozens and then hundreds of requisitions piled up, we just weren’t hearing or seeing what the organization really needed to help it move forward. In retrospect, of course, what possibly could have been more “strategic” than bringing in the talent (and to be honest, bodies) that the organized craved to fuel its growth?
It was a hard lesson to learn — and yet, in the calmness of day, the “answer” is so easy to see. The organization needed “the basics” of high-quality, high-volume recruiting (which isn’t very easy or very “basic”, of course), but we didn’t see it. This is shared in hope that if this applies to your organization today, you can learn from our mistakes. If “strategy” and “vision” is all about helping the organization move forward, sometimes it may be necessary to “go back” (to basics) to move forward.