The one with the electric windows

When I was a kid one of my Dad’s friends had a Ford Granada. At the time my Dad had a Ford Cortina (for anyone under 30 – google it!) and the Granada was the bigger, better, shinier version. The thing that most intrigued me as it was the first time I had seen it was that the Granada had electric windows. Imagine – being able to open the windows without having the twist and turn the lever. It was cool!

If you think about cars their innovations follow a progression which I would describe as:

  • Luxury optional extra
  • Luxury defacto
  • Standard optional extra
  • Standard defacto
  • Commoditised

The irony of some car brands is that actually this progression gets messed around and the luxury still make an extra what the standard brands make defacto (my Ford Fiesta had a rear windscreen wiper as standard!) but largely I think the progression holds. What starts out as a wow i.e. electric windows or iPod connectivity, becomes an expectation and reaches the point where it just isn’t noticed.

I was having a conversation with a friend over the weekend who is consulting at a well known plc. She has gone in there with a specific brief and is really enjoying getting stuck into what must be a very challenging organisation. In catching up we chatted about loads of things but it was the following comment that she made that stuck in my head,

“The previous HRD left to plaudits about the redesigned, reengineered and reenergised HR function but if that’s what they call redesigned….” (I may be paraphrasing, we’d both had quite a few wines but you get the point)

I shared the analogy of the electric windows and she went on to describe an HR function that was amazing at ‘the electric windows’, ‘the iPod connector’ and the ‘dual side climate control’ but actually the engine was rubbish and the car wouldn’t move.

If you read anything (this blog included), attend a conference or get into a conversation externally it is likely you will hear about and describe whatever people think the electric windows are but does our relentless focus on the new and exciting blind us to the role we are supposed to play in the organisation?

Whilst a lot of what HR had to deliver to a business isn’t exciting or conference worthy (who wants to talk about offer letters) to return to the car analogy – without a petrol cap you won’t get fuel to the engine at all… More to the point is the ‘stuff’ that gets the car going what the business value from HR where the new and shiny is what we choose to get focussed on with each other?

Personally, being someone who enjoys novelty and change I think previous bosses would at times be  pulling their hair out trying to get me to focus on the basic and maybe much as it for me would we all be served to take a moment thinking about what makes the car actually run rather than just the things it has that we can boast about?

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The one with the electric windows

  1. Researching an MBA assignment some years ago, I came across Karen Legge, an academic at Kings College London at the time. She is the only HR academic I have come across who consistently argues for the sort of #trenchhr (HT Charlie Judy @HRFishbowl) you rightly bring into focus here.

    The engine room stuff, the oily bits, the unglamorous lubricating of the organisation is such a fundamental, and unexciting, part of HR that anyone arriving new to the shiny showroom of (un)conferencing, twittering and consulting would be easily forgiven for thinking the job was all about bells and whistles. As I think you mentioned in a tweet last week, the boys with jelled hair and shiny suits are all too keen to point out the ‘extras’ but the car gets muddy as soon as it leaves the dealer and its grip in the snow (or lack of it, BMW) is much more important than the fancy electronics.

    What Karen Legge did for me was to find an academic construct to support the patently obvious: HR’s position in the organisation depends, in part, on our ability to do simple stuff well. Anyone ever involved with any sort of M&A work will know just how challenging it is to provide accurate headcount figures and make sure everyone gets paid. Only by doing these things well can we earn the right to play with shinier, OD-type work. Worse, the HR function that wants to play with the ‘toys’ without delivering on the basics carries no credibility, lacks the political heft to achieve and can only deliver disappointment and waste.

    When I was a change management consultant it was a touchstone for my practice to be current in all the unglamorous stuff. The boys in shiny suits could deliver great workshops but they stopped at TUPE or redundancy or anything else remotely ‘legal’. To my mind that was a fatal flaw in their offering. Now I’m operational again, I’m equally determined that I lead a function which has a foot in the trench before it reaches for the stars.

    Karen Legge: http://www.palgrave.com/products/title.aspx?pid=269023
    Role set theory: http://en.wikibooks.org/wiki/Sociological_Theory/Role_Theory

  2. The HR function seems set with a focus on finding some other way of justifying its existence. Its practically pant wetting to think that we are still talking about getting the basics right – in 2012! This shouldnt even be on the agenda, but as Kevin points out, its core to get it right.

    Im not sure what the answer is, but maybe the answer is to stop coming up with answers! Think about it – no other function is so packed with guru’s and thinkers all suggesting a rename or rethink every 10 or 15 years ago.

    I dont think David Ulrich has really done us any favours either. There was certainly some value in the thinking – no doubt there. But the combination of a relentless drive for specialism – or “excellence”! – and the erosion of our manufacturing and what I would call great generalist training grounds has produced a questionable cadre of HR pro’s in some circumstances. Many now graduate straight into specialist roles like OD, L&D, Reward etc, then go on to take on larger, more generalist leadership roles in HR. The problem is that these people, and to be fair a good number of ‘business partners’ who end up at the same place, have no appreciation for the nuts and bolts. They are, as kevin puts it, the boys in shiny suits.

    Getting the basics right in large organisations can be messy and complex, but its doable. No excuses.

  3. great post – obviously near and dear to me. we love to chase after the newest shiniest object. it’s a practice that plagues us. and we’re taught to do so by any number of third parties with their own competing agendas. there’s only really one shiny object you need to focus on you…your people. thx for spreading the word!

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