April 15, 2008
Now there's a thought
HR is like many parts of modern businesses: a simple expense, and a burden on the backs of the productive workers ... They don't sell or produce: they consume. They are the amorphous support services." So wrote Luke Johnson recently in the Financial Times. He went on: "Training advisers are employed to distract everyone from doing their job with pointless courses." Mr Johnson is no woolly-minded professor. He is in The Times Power 100 list, he organised the acquisition of PizzaExpress before he turned 30 and now runs Channel 4.
Why has human resources acquired such a bad public image? Like most groups, those in HR are intent on expanding their power and status, hence the name change from personnel. As personnel managers, they were seen as providers of a service and even, heaven forbid, as being on the side of the employees. As HR they become part of the senior management team, and see themselves as managing people.
My concern is the effect that that change is having on science. The problem with HR people managing science is that they have no idea how it works. They think every activity can be run as though it were Wal-Mart. That idea is old fashioned even in management circles. Good employers know that people work best when they are not constantly harassed and when they feel that they are assessed fairly. If the best people don't feel that, they just leave. That is why the culture of managerialism and audit will in the end do harm to any university that embraces it…
The "unrepentant capitalist" Luke Johnson also said in the FT: "I have radically downsized HR in several companies I have run, and business has gone all the better for it." Now there's a thought.