Frugal HR

There was a time when the newspapers were full of the “end of DIY”. We were all so cash rich and time poor that it was much easier to get on the phone (or increasingly the internet) and get someone to come and do it for us. Broken gutter? Kitchen door not working? Skirting board looking a bit 1960s? And within a click or a call we were all good…disposable income spent, time saved, work carried out.

The thing is that underlying this apparently virtuous circle of events was a slightly darker reality. We were slowly becoming unable to carry out these relatively mundane and low skilled tasks. Why learn to do something, when it is quicker and cheaper to call someone in to help? Why bother debasing ourselves to these menial tasks, when we have so much more important things to focus our minds on? Like which of the 96 TV channels we are going to watch an American import on this evening.

But wait. What is this? Is this some attempt at a social critique of our times?

No, not really. Just a cack handed metaphor for the way that I see the HR profession developing. You see, back in the early days of my career, when livestock filled the street, we were all obsessed by the pending devaluation of the florin and Cliff Richard had just had his first number one hit, HR people had to do fairly much everything for themselves. So we weren’t called HR then, but that is another story and one that I don’t have time or space for here.

External consultants were few and far between. Ok, you might pull in a Compensation or Remuneration specialist to help you with your pay strategy, benefit review or a bit of job evaluation, you’d have a Recruitment Advertising Agency that might advise you on your copy or your “house style” and of course your legal advisors to tell you what you shouldn’t do, but not what you should do (there are a range of options…..). But that was fairly much it. The rest, you used your internal knowledge, your external networks and if you couldn’t get the answer, you researched and created.

Of course, that was after the last recession and budgets were tight. But as young HR professionals we learnt to turn our hands to a number of things. We might not have been experts, but we knew a bit about fairly much everything.

L&D? Check. Resourcing? Check. Employee Relations? Check.

And here is a thing…..we used to represent the company at Tribunal ourselves.

Over time I’ve seen things shift. Partly because the economy picked up and we had more “disposable cash” in our budgets, partly because we were being constantly bombarded with articles and case studies about companies that had implemented x, y and z (the organisational equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses) normally instigated by the suppliers with the sole aim of showing their wares in the market place and drumming up more business and partly because of the shift to the Business Partner model which led HR generalists to think that they were too strategic and important to sully their hands with the likes of practical HR solutions when they could be sitting in meetings talking about……stuff.

Rather than reskill the profession, which is what many would like us to believe, in many cases we have instead deskilled the profession. There is only so much room for strategic thinking within human resources. So what value is being added by the others?

In the same way that many of us have to learn to tighten our belts at home, to rediscover lost skills for cooking, sewing, mending, fixing, creating….the current economic situation offers an opportunity for HR professionals to really hone their skills and to become proper generalists. There will always be a need for external support and guidance, but that will never beat the learning of new skills, the development of our own abilities and the broadening of our own talent profiles.

There is time to think about the greater bigger issues of the workplace, there is a need to consider the greater strategic issues of the day, but a good HR professional also knows what great looks like and how to deliver it themselves. Being practical, being hands on, these aren’t bad things. The sooner we get the balance back in our professional lives the better.

And given the economic environment that we’re in there is no better moment to start than right now. And who knows, we might all have a little bit of fun in the learning process too! Now who could argue against that?


  1. Sukh Pabial · January 16, 2012

    It’s an interesting thing to consider. I started my career in L&D as there was a distinct entry point I could start within, and some kind of career path laid out ahead of me. And through it all, the one thing I’ve never accepted is that I am L&D and should limit myself to this. I’ve actively sought to understand HR processes and policies, recruitment practices, and even what comp and bens is all about. It’s akin to the 70:20:10 rule that has recently been making waves when talking about workplace learning.

    My take on the above post is two fold. Are you suggesting I should go off and broaden my HR skills? No, I don’t think so. But I should continue to be mindful that my role is part of a bigger whole, and I can influence that provided I understand the mechanisms of those other pieces. Second, it resonates with me because of a recent post I wrote for the Training Journal about the opportunities for L&D in 2012, and how L&D professionals can provide more benefit than they may believe.

    • Neil · March 14, 2012

      Sorry it has taken me so long to comment Sukh! No I’m not saying that we should all be generalists at all, but just that general knowledge developed at a basic level is critical.

  2. Doug Shaw · January 16, 2012

    ‘There will always be a need for external support and guidance, but that will never beat the learning of new skills, the development of our own abilities and the broadening of our own talent profiles.’ Isn’t it as much about experimenting with people and methods to find those which work well with and for you, rather than one way beating another? Like you say, learning is fun, and creating an environment where people can have fun in their work is to be encouraged.

    I agree that ‘a good HR professional also knows what great looks like and how to deliver it themselves.’ it’s a shame that more people with your influence don’t behave in a way which supports that assertion. And before anyone says – I would say that wouldn’t I…

    We’ve spoken about this before so you know my views on consultants creating a dependency culture. This may sound daft, I approach every project I do thinking how quickly and enjoyably and memorably can I inspire and involve these people to get their own stuff done sustainable so I can move on.

    Now is always the best time to start, regardless of the economic climate. In the last twelve months I’ve declined well paid work because I couldn’t see how the desired project would create any lasting value and I’ve handed budget back to clients because they’ve ‘overemployed’ me. Great work is not about the money.

    • Neil · March 14, 2012

      Good on you Doug, I’m sure that will prove a more sustainable business model in the long term.

  3. Stephen O'Donnell · January 16, 2012

    I was always of the view that HR people were skiving, when they used recruitment agencies for even the simplest to fill vacancies.

    • Neil · March 14, 2012

      Ha…..agreed! Although I’m guilty of this myself at times….

  4. mastersorbust · January 20, 2012

    During a recent interview I was asked the question (with some surpise in the voice of the person asking it) “you delivered that yourself?”. The idea that I would actually stand up and do the work myself seemed totally alien to this individual, why would I do it myself when I could ‘retain’ someone to do it for me??!

    My answer was that a) I could use funds elsewhere if I did that particular piece of work myself b) Delivering the work gave me increased insight into the individuals involved and the temperature of the business and c) I enjoy it!

    The first two businesses I worked in didn’t operate on budgets they operated on cashflow – it wasn’t ‘do we choose to spend the money?’ it was ‘do we have the money to spend?’ and that has stayed with me.

    • Neil · March 14, 2012

      You delivered that yourself? Wonders will never cease….:)

  5. Pingback: Best of the HR blogs: 12 great HR blog posts from January 2012 - XpertHR's Employment Intelligence blog - XpertHR Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR
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