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.

Rethinking Human Resources Management

Reprinted from “Productive Workplaces” (June, 2008), the HR Group newsletter.

The Human Resources Department, in most organizations, has been responsible for numerous policies, practices, and procedures designed to control human behaviour. Such controls prevent the creation of a participative workplace where employees are free to use their own intrinsic motivation to improve productivity. Human resources are not just another organizational resource to be controlled – they are the organization.

In order to survive, let alone prosper, in today’s economy, both the private and the public sector have tried many possible means of reducing costs and increasing productivity: just-in-time inventory, improved cost controls, more consistent quality control, robotics and changes in product design and delivery of service to name only a few. Once these systemic means have been exhausted, however, we have only one means left: our human resources. Many organizations have first tried to reduce their human resource costs by downsizing and cutbacks in pay. Past a certain point, however, this approach cannot continue if a certain level of service and production is to be maintained. The only competitive advantage then left is in human productivity and creating an organizational climate that supports and enhances it.

This knowledge, by the way, is by no means new. Traditional theories of human motivation have shown for over fifty years that productivity results from management practices that support an organizational structure and climate that allows every employee to use their own intrinsic motivation to learn, to achieve, to gain self esteem, to improve, to look for better ways of doing things, and in the course of the process, to improve productivity and maintain consistently high quality and service.  McGregor, Maslow, Herzberg, Emery and Marrow, to name only a few, have all, in their own manner, espoused the same core principles over the years.  Today we are receiving the same message from such authors as Peter Block, Marvin Wiesbord, and William Bridges. Peter Senge (1992, pp. 30-38) writes:

“The prevailing system of management has destroyed our people,” says Dr. Deming.  “People are born with intrinsic motivation, self-esteem, dignity, curiosity to learn, joy in learning.”

“Intrinsic motivation lies at the heart of Deming’s management philosophy. By contrast, extrinsic motivation is the bread and butter of Western management. … A corporate commitment to quality that is not based on intrinsic motivation is a house built on sand.”

If we’ve known the answers all along then why haven’t most organizations adopted management practices that support them? The primary reason is that in order to manage the diversity and complexity of both big business and big government, we unfortunately abandoned those practices in favor of those that minimize the idiosyncrasies of human behavior. This was achieved by focusing on the organizational elements of strategy, structure, and systems. These elements, believed to be essential to providing focus and control, have evolved into highly complex processes exerting a great impact on our human resources by increasing the degree of fragmentation and systematization of work processes. In most organizations this has lead to the implicit view by management that people are merely replaceable spokes in the business cycle and has created jobs which are narrowly defined, mundane and devoid of meaning to the people that perform them. The very term “human resources” implies that employees are just another resource to be controlled in the same manner as other resources such as finance, raw materials and capital equipment.

This control has been accomplished not only through numerous hierarchical levels, but also massive amounts of policies, practices, and procedures, for which the Human Resources department, in most organizations, has been the appointed guardian and controller.

Many organizations now recognize that they have to change in order to be productive and competitive. They are attempting to do so by reviewing their strategy and changing their structure, but all too often they leave many human resource policies, practices and procedures in place. Yet, ironically, it is these very same policies, practices and procedures that foster and promote lack of responsibility and accountability, resistance to change, poor decision making and poor service unresponsive to customer needs. One cannot create a productive organizational climate that supports such core principles as intrinsic motivation without eliminating or radically altering many of these human resource policies, practices and procedures.

Let us look at how restrictive and controlling the typical components of a traditional human resources function can be:

Job Descriptions – How many hours are spent policing busy line managers and employees to write and up-date job descriptions? Who pays any attention to them other than those seeking to evade responsibility and initiative or to place blame on someone else? Do you really care or even know what’s in your own job description? You do have an accurate, up-to-date one – don’t you?

The very concept of the traditional job description is serving to preserve the outmoded mind-set of a “job”. Successful organizations no longer view work as a restrictive set of narrowly defined jobs, but rather as broad functions that can be accomplished in any manner that is most productive. William Bridges (1994, p.145) in Job Shift states that:

“For as long as people are expending their energies on doing their job , they aren’t going to focus on the customer, they aren’t going to be self-managers, and they aren’t going to be empowerable.”

“You can do your job and fail to achieve the results that your job was originally meant to serve. It’s like the operation that was a success – although the patient died.”

Traditional, narrow job descriptions need to be replaced with broader descriptions of “work” and such tools as behavioural job profiles, which outline the competencies and behaviours required to perform the work.

Recruitment – How many organizations, especially in the public sector, still adhere to rigid recruitment procedures with set questions based on the contents of the out-moded job description? Bridges (1994, p.147) goes on to say that:

“You can see that the organization that hires people to do work rather than to fill jobs is going to have a different definition of what it is to be qualified. The job-based organization stresses training and experience. These can be spelled out pretty easily on a resume, but the new qualifications cannot. That is why post-job companies not only schedule an interview between applicants and the staffing personnel or the prospective boss, but also have applicants talk with a wide variety of the organization’s employees. That is why they put applicants into simulated situations and watch how they behave. That’s why they ask weird and unexpected questions and study how the applicants deal with them.”

Traditional recruitment and selection procedures do not determine whether or not the applicant has the required competencies and behaviours and relies purely on reference checks, if done at all. Organizations need to seriously look at competency-based recruitment and selection processes using such tools as 360˚ Feedback.

Performance Appraisal – Why do we continue with a process that is usually detested and viewed cynically by everyone involved in the process? Why does Human Resources continue to nag everyone to complete appraisals by a certain date and perhaps threaten to withhold any “merit” increases if not completed? Is value added to the organization? Are performance and productivity improved? Does this bureaucratic process assist in producing more competent managers and supervisors who understand the concepts of coaching and continuous day-to-day performance management? What about 360 degree appraisal processes to determine and assess appropriate competencies and behaviours? How many organizations use peer, subordinate or team reviews?

Labour Relations – How can we ever expect to build a more productive labour relations climate in those organizations where Human Resources/Industrial Relations acts as an intermediary between management and the union, or worse still, between management and the employees? Is it not more productive to provide the skills and knowledge required for managers to resolve their own labour relations problems including grievances? We now have a labour relations process in most organizations that has so many intermediaries including lawyers that there is little hope or ability for the two parties concerned, i.e. the manager and the employee, to exercise their own responsibility for working together in a cooperative and productive manner.

Job Evaluation – Again we’re dealing here with rigid definitions of out-moded jobs. This process does not recognize the qualifications and skills required for a really superior worker. What about desire and temperament or what is usually euphemistically referred to as “personal suitability”? The focus should be on people’s skills, competencies and behaviors, not on individual tasks and jobs.

Wage/Salary Administration – If we believe in the concept of a learning organization then we should be paying for knowledge, skills, and behaviour and not just primarily job content. If we expect true participation and commitment, we should be finding ways and means for employees to have a stake in the economic performance of the organization and the contributions that they make to it. To quote Bridges (1994, p.163) again:

“Whether by means of pay for skills, fee for service, share of the earnings, or some still-to-be-discovered form of compensation, the organization of the future is going to find that salaries are as counterproductive as jobs.”

Organizations need reward systems that are aligned with their business strategies and support rather than undermine their change efforts. They need to improve their service and profits by linking rewards to employee performance and involvement. They need to consider such strategies as performance-based pay, competency-based pay, gainsharing, and team-based pay.

What do others say about the role of Human Resources?

“No more personnel policies centrally defined and implemented across the board. No more approval authority residing in a staff function….H.R.’s task is to provide the tools and skills and process for people close to the work to develop their own personnel practices and procedures.” (Block, 1993, p.149)

“Staff people, whom I prefer to call individual contributors, can be tremendous sources of added value in an organization. But each staff person has to ask, ‘How do I add value? How do I help make people on the line more effective and more competitive?’ In the past many staff functions were driven by control rather than adding value.”
 John F. Welch, Jr., Former Chairman and C.E.O., General Electric. 

Human Resources must, in other words, give up the traditional bureaucratic role of control and start adding value to the organization if they are to survive. If they can help their organizations adjust to the new economy and be competitive, they will have a useful role. This means decentralizing the Human Resources function so that responsibility for it is internalized by everyone and human resource policies, practices and procedures reflect and serve the desired organizational culture.

The collective bargaining process, which frequently gives rise to many of these “controls”, must also be changed if we are to create a truly productive and participative workplace. This change has already begun as witnessed by the growing interest in and use of such approaches as Problem-Solving bargaining, Mutual Gains bargaining and Interest-Based bargaining all of which stress the importance of dealing with the interests of both parties rather than their rigidly held positions. Restrictive clauses in collective agreements which prevent any flexibility in scheduling, which rigidly define transfers and promotions and which prevent multi-skilling, for example, are not in the best interests of either the organization or the employees covered by the agreement.

Human Resource practitioners must adopt the role of internal consultant and teacher and they must develop the knowledge and expertise in productive management practices. Human resources are not just another organizational resource to be controlled – they are the organization.


Block, P., 1993. Stewardship. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Bridges, W., 1994. Job Shift. Reading: Addison-Wesley. 

Senge, P., 1992. Building Learning Organizations. The Journal For Quality and Participation, 15(2) March.