HR Group, founded in Edmonton Alberta in 1993, is a partnership of highly experienced management consultants who specialize in organizational effectiveness and human resource management, and promote participative, lean, and cost-effective management practices. All partners are Certified Human Resource Practitioners with extensive senior level experience in both the private and public sectors.

“Off the Shelf” HR

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (January, 2009), the HR Group newsletter. 

In a couple of our recent newsletters we have talked about the prevalent misconceptions about what the Human Resources (HR) Management function actually is and what HR should be if it is to add value and be a respected component of any organization. In this issue we talk about another misconception – the idea that “off the shelf” or “paint by numbers” HR packages and software programs will provide you with the required HR expertise and solve your HR issues. Such programs are increasing and many are succumbing to their highly misleading claims.

The growth of these programs is primarily due to the increasingly popular notion that a software program or hard copy “how to” package can be written to solve virtually every management problem. These so-called solutions are easily found on the web and many programs can be purchased and downloaded right there and then. Many fall prey to these programs and packages as they are looking for the illusive “silver bullet” that cures all with minimum effort. Silver bullets, however, don’t work and are not a viable alternative to sound people management practices that demand time, knowledge, and personal attention and decision making.

Another major reason for the increasing use of such programs is the insistence of our business schools at all levels to teach that everything can and should be quantified and measured and that such statistical analysis will resolve most issues. This will assist in identifying “business” issues such as quantity of sales, number of manufacturing defects, and amount of raw material wasted. It does not address the underlying “management” issues, however, such as how do we motivate our staff to increase sales, how do we get our staff to produce less defects, and how do we address performance issues such as overall accountability for continuous improvement and quality products. A recent study (Porter and McKibbin, 1988 p.65) of business schools has stated that, “quantitatively based analytical techniques received too much attention, while there was little attention given to developing leadership and interpersonal skills.” Another study (Mintzberg and Gosling, 2002, p.28) noted that, “contemporary business education focuses on the functions of business more than the practice of managing.”

What is missing is the understanding that organizations consist of people and it is their behavior that drives the organization for better or for worse. Statistical analyses, software programs, and other “paint by the numbers” packages cannot and will not, in themselves, change behavior. It is good management and the right overall organizational culture that determines staff behavior. Tools are not a substitute for face-to-face management.

Many of the websites in question make it quite clear that they are offering human resource management information systems (HRMIS) or tools for HR record keeping and government reporting or primarily for payroll and benefits. Other websites, however, imply that they are offering more than just tools. One has to read the offer carefully as well as be knowledgeable about HR in the first place in order to truly determine and understand what is being offered.

One such website says that one of their programs, “uses built-in intelligence to help managers write employee performance reviews. It has been designed to help you write complete and effective performance reviews and gives you practical human resources advice to guide you along the way.” Further on it says that their program, “writes meaningful text based on your observations.” In other words this tool provides pre-programmed text that you can use in a performance review. It is purely a writing aid and not an aid to more effective human resources management. The idea of using pre-programmed text in the first place, when assessing someone’s performance, is fraudulent and meaningless HR management.

Other websites offer even more and are more difficult for the untrained to determine exactly what is being offered and of what value it is to their organization. One site offers an Organizational Enhancement Toolkit and says that their enhancement process is comprised of Organizational Design, Human Resource Planning, and Performance Management. Regarding Performance Management they state that, “accountability-centered performance management promotes continuous improvements.” This requires that you create accountability-centered position descriptions, which clearly outline job expectations and performance standards. You then are supposed to gain accountability by appraising performance against these standards.

This sounds great to the uninitiated, but who does the appraising and when? The Manager still has to actually perform the process. The position descriptions and the actual appraisal form are only tools. The biggest problem that we see as consultants is one of a lack of adequate performance management. Relying on various forms and a process, usually annual, does little if anything to effectively manage performance and to gain accountability. Performance management must be ongoing and personal if it is to be effective. The process is one of personal discussion between the employee and their manager. The forms are not really required. So many managers, however, shy away from the necessity of this personal discussion and rely instead on various written forms. Some, as we have mentioned above, avoid personal involvement even further by using preprogrammed text on the appraisal forms. 

The use of such tools sounds appealing, but is really a waste of time and money. Does a receptionist, for example, need a position description to state that the performance standards for which he or she are accountable include such measures as being courteous, cheerful, and polite with all customers, providing prompt service, and ensuring that all customers are connected to the right department? If they do need this stated in a position description, then you hired the wrong person for the job in the first place. Going further up the organizational ladder, if the CEO or CAO requires a written position description to know what they are accountable for, then they are not qualified to lead or manage the organization.

These websites do say that they offer “certified” consultants to assist you. The problem is that such sites are primarily a retail shop for selling various tools and products and their consultants are usually salesman who are “certified” purely in the use of the products; they have little, if any, expertise or experience in actual HR Management or Organizational Development. They also say that the products that they sell are “customized” to the demands of the individual workplace. This doesn’t negate the fact that they are all “off the shelf” products in the first place. We are currently working with one client who finds that the product that they purchased is far too “over done”, is not user friendly, and does not really fit their organizational needs. We recently reviewed a draft Employee Policy Manual that had been developed for the client in question and their particular industry. The Manual is far too cumbersome and written in the format of a collective agreement even though the client is not unionized. At least a third of the manual is redundant and of no use to either the organization or the staff. Much of the material does not represent best practice and some is clearly misleading.

Canned HR software programs and off the shelf HR packages are not a viable substitute for old fashioned face to face people management. 


Mintzberg, H., 2002. Reality programing for MBAs. Strategy and Business, 26(1), pp.28-31.

Porter, L.W. and McKibbin, L.E., 1988. Management Education and Development. New York: McGraw-Hill.