Building Bridges: A Prerequisite For The Future Of HR?

Roxana-Emanuela Dude, HR Practice Programme Manager and Company-Specific Programmes Portfolio Manager 14/06/2019 Leadership, Management

In Human Resources as in many other business activities, there is a deep disconnection between the academic and the business worlds. But even within a business, HR is too often disconnected from strategic thinking. Time to bridge the gaps?

Even today, HR finds itself too often restricted to or perceived as “the department that takes care of payroll and admin”, when it can be so much more, even when it is also tasked with organising talent development training schemes. To quote David Ducheyne, HR Practice Leader at Solvay Brussels School, HR should instead be about “making sure that people are willing and able to perform sustainably in order to create value for stakeholders.”  In other words, HR has a role to play in defining and achieving strategic objectives through its most important asset: people.

So what is keeping it from achieving this ambitious objective? We believe there are at least three factors at play:

  1. The time-consuming nature of some core HR activities;
  2. The many “fads” that plague the HR world;
  3. The inconsistent communication between the academic and the business worlds.

Need to, have to, want to?

As David puts it, one of the main obstacles HR is facing is the burden of the administrative part of the job. “In HR, there is what people have to do, what they need to do, and what they want to do”. Too often, “things they have to do”, such as compliance, administration, etc. end up consuming most of their time, so there is very little left for “strategic things they need to do”, and usually none for “things they want to do”.

Yet prioritising is far from being the only issue.

Prone to fads

Whenever HR people are able to free up some time to work on the “need to” and “want to” parts, another danger lurks: HR is too prone to fads that can sometimes undermine its credibility.

Take happiness at work, for example. While promoting engagement and a feeling of responsibility and control are perfectly legitimate objectives, reducing that goal to “making employees happy” is both simplistic and rather difficult to achieve. But deciding which policies are worth pursuing is far from easy, especially given the third problem HR practitioners are facing.

Theory and practice

A third and overarching issue is indeed the erratic communication between the academic world and business practice that makes scientific evidence hard to come by for most practitioners. As a result, HR managers tend to rely excessively on habits or “hunches” to solve difficult situations.

There are many examples of how detrimental this might be over the long term. Motivation, for instance, is often contaminated by relying excessively on financial levers: if you want to motivate people, so goes conventional wisdom, give them a financial reward for achieving objectives. However, consider an employee who is offered a bonus of 5,000 euros for reaching four objectives. That “prices” each attained objective at 1,250 euros of gross bonus, which translates into a net amount of 600 euros. To earn it, he needs to put in dozens of hours of extra hard work. It won’t be long before the employee starts looking at this as a lousy deal, and will cease putting in the effort to reach his objectives.

In other words, bonuses eventually end up demotivating people or changing behaviour in undesired ways. As Claudia Toma, the academic advisor of the HR Practice, sees it: the role of science is to debunk such destructive myths. Indeed, a lot of studies emphasise the various non-financial aspects of motivation: autonomy in taking decisions, career perspectives, recognition by management and peers, and psychological safety.

As another example, Claudia points out that companies are often managed as if human behaviour only reflects logic and reason. But scientific evidence often contradicts this assumption. For example, the feeling of trust, in particular, plays an enormous role in interactions inside the company. Deciding whether someone is trustworthy or not is deeply ingrained in human nature; studies show it is one of the first impressions humans try to infer from looking at the face of a stranger. And yet building trust between their people and the organisation is rarely among the top priorities of most businesses.

Disconnected worlds

However useful, connecting science and practice is more difficult than it seems.

On the one hand, given the nature of their work, academics often find themselves engrossed in studying, publishing and teaching. Moreover, as Claudia points out, they are often reluctant to nourish research projects with questions that could lead to practical recommendations for the business world, as scientists consider the freedom to choose research questions to be a central element of their work. On the other hand, the HR community is seldom aware of all the relevant studies published by the scientific community, particularly given the large volume of articles published every year.

Moreover, HR people do not always have the time to look for guidance and ideas in the academic world. And even when they do, they lack a practical way to navigate the ocean of publications in search of relevant studies related to their questions. As a result, they tend to perceive academic information as neither easily accessible nor readily translatable into their daily practice.

Reconnecting science and practice

Business schools are one of the rare places where science and practice meet.

This is particularly true at the Solvay Brussels School of Economics and Management: cross-pollination has been a central element of its DNA since the beginning. This is why we strongly believe it is our role to act as facilitators and bring together the best of both worlds.

We are uniquely placed to become an innovative HR hub where the business world can benefit from the latest advances in scientific research in sociology and psychology, and contribute to further advancements by asking questions that might become interesting research topics.

One of the ways to achieve this goal is to organise HR meetups and masterclasses on a regular basis to provide the occasion for professionals and academics to mix and discuss high-stake topics.

To retain, or not to retain? Join our next HR Masterclass

The first session of this meetup is scheduled for June 21st at the Solvay Brussels School with a very relevant topic given the current war for talent: How to build an effective retention policy

  • What are the factors behind employee retention?
  • How to identify critical people inside the organisation and to devise tools to increase their willingness to stay inside the company?

Led by academics and practitioners, the discussion will also explore practical, hands-on and data-backed approaches to talent retention.

Interested in joining this masterclass? Book your place!

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