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The Real Golden Age

April 30, 2004
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
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Maybe it’s just short memory or a Babbitt-like tendency toward self-congratulation, but some human resources practitioners (and publications that write about them, including, at times, this one) say that the profession is in its golden age. There’s the seat at the table. There’s strategy winning the battle over tactics. There’s human resources working hand in hand with both the CFO and line managers. It’s never been better than this.

    That’s a lot of hooey, if you ask Sanford Jacoby. Jacoby is a professor of management, policy studies and history at UCLA’s Anderson School. He’s also the author of a fine history of human resources, Employing Bureaucracy: Managers, Unions and the Transformation of Work in the 20th Century. Jacoby has just revised the book, adding a chapter that describes the changes in human resources from the 1950s onward. At best, Jacoby says, human resources today is a mixed picture, and all that stuff about seats at tables is often just "brave new rhetoric."

    "In some companies, the top dog in HR is a member of the senior management team and reports to the CEO and there’s a close relationship to the CEO," Jacoby says. "That person is respected by other senior managers and has some influence on decisions."

    But that’s not universal, he says. "There are still many companies where the senior-most [human resources] person…is not seen as having the clout of a CFO or a head of marketing. They have somewhat secondary status."

    If you want to study the apex of human resources power, try the 1970s, Jacoby says. Yes, the decade that brought us Watergate, the Carpenters and Saturday Night Fever also was a high point for the field. Jacoby points to several reasons for this, including an outbreak of the "blue-collar blues," in which young, well-paid line workers went so far as to strike over their dissatisfaction with the intrinsic quality of their work. This led to an expansion of organizational-development staffs at many companies as they attempted to improve the quality of working life. Also in the ’70s, companies had incentives and opportunities to open more non-union plants, and came to rely on human resources to keep workers happy and keep unions out.

    Now, it’s a cinch that unions aren’t coming back. And no one is trying very hard, in this job market, to address employees’ existential crises. But just as the ’70s have returned to us via TV Land, bubble-gum pop and heart-stopping gas prices, there are trends at work that give human resources leaders opportunities to assert their influence, Jacoby says.

    Some come as a consequence of corporate scandals and subsequent proposals that human resources leaders sit on compensation committees, help select directors for boards, and be on hand to ensure that the boards function effectively (that OD experience again). Jacoby says his research for a forthcoming book, The Embedded Corporation, indicates that when companies add people with a human resources background to their boards of directors, the organizations themselves become much more likely to adopt an "employee as asset" strategy and thus see human resources as a competitive advantage.

    Another opportunity comes as companies turn away from the "mythological belief" that top leadership should be imported from other organizations, he says. "I think you’ll see more insider CEOs. As that happens, human resources plays a more important role in executive succession and career development." The changes are subtle but dramatic, and offer "a whole range of new responsibilities" for senior workforce management leaders, Jacoby says.

    So rather than being in the golden age of human resources, we’re teetering on the brink of an age of discovery. And that will be a total blast.

Workforce Management, May 2004, p. 12 --Subscribe Now!

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