There is no “Digital Revolution”

Every day, I hear people in business talking about digital transformation, digital disruption, the digital revolution. I hear them talk about their organisations becoming digital businesses.

But the thing is, in most cases they aren’t becoming anything of the sort.

We can’t underestimate the impact that technology has on the way we interact as consumers, as employees, as enterprises and service providers. But we need to be careful to avoid the easy distraction of the simple half-truth.

Before “the digital revolution”, we didn’t refer to ourselves as physical businesses. And to that point, it is hard to put a finger on when physical became digital. The calculator? The mainframe? The mobile phone? The internet? When was the start of the end and the end of the beginning?

It really doesn’t matter what sector your organisation operates in, finance, retail, leisure, media or public services. The chances are that the principal purpose for which you employ people and go to work every day isn’t “digital”, but something else. To insure people against loss, to sell people the means to keep warm, to provide entertainment, content or security, health and wellbeing.

I’m not splitting hairs, my experience of working in various organisations over the years has taught me that in times of change, in times of disturbance or disruption, the survivors are the ones that understand what they do and what they exist for. They have a purpose that transcends the means of delivery.

They remain single-mindedly focussed on this core purpose and reason for being, but completely open minded to the way in which they can execute it in a changing world. This differentiation between intent and execution is critical for organisational alignment and strategic direction.

As HR leaders, we can really demonstrate our value when organisations undergo change and there is no doubt that new technologies provide opportunities that need to be optimised and embraced. To do that, we’ve got to understand what our businesses are really about, how they make money or fulfil their public service remit.

The nature of business, of organisations, has changed before and it will change again. There will be new entrants to our worlds and established names will fall by the way. In many cases, the biggest difference between those that win and those that lose, will not be the change itself, but the ability to understand what stays the same.

Nobody needs an HR strategy

Call it an HR strategy, a people plan, a road map. Call it whatever you like, but one thing is certain it will mostly be a waste of your time and energy.

Because being more strategic, doesn’t mean writing about it on paper. It doesn’t mean going on an away day and it certainly doesn’t mean focussing on your HR brand.

There is only one strategy that really matters and that’s your business.

Yet my experience of HR professionals is that they spend more time working on their own strategy than that of the business.


Well firstly because most businesses don’t build the people implications into their strategy in any fundamental sense (I’m not talking about the nominal “Talent” column which the board include to show that people are their greatest asset…).

Secondly, because HR Directors then try to demonstrate their commercial acumen and business value, by taking their team away to focus on the people strategy.

But the problem with doing this is that you automatically create the first degree of separation between the two. And that can then only get worse.

Instead of wasting everyone’s time and money, invest it in understanding your organisational strategy, reflect on the people requirements now and in the future and then realign your HR activities to support it.

It may not sound as big and clever, it may not be something you can have designed and put on the wall and it may not get you a day out a venue where you can indulge in your favourite ice breaker or personality profiling tool.

But it will make your business more successful, it will create meaning in what you do and it will, most likely, get you noticed by the people who really matter as they start to see you genuinely add value.

I. Am. Human.

Following the last two conferences I’ve spoken at, I’ve received the following unsolicited feedback,

“You don’t speak like an HR person”

On both occasions, I’ve assumed it was a compliment and taken it as the best bit of feedback I could receive. I hope I don’t look like an HR person either (no tissues in this cardigan baby) but there is always room for improvement.

The serious point here is that language is important. The words we use, the tone we use, the way in which we communicate both verbally and in writing. They matter.

I don’t care what the intention is, if the language sends out a different message. That’s what people infer.

You tell people what they can’t do. Why not tell them what you want them to do?

You tell people what will happen if they don’t behave. Why not tell them what will happen if they do?

We use a whole vocabulary that means nothing to the vast majority of human beings. A dictionary of terms that have been created to make us feel “strategic” as we “partner” with the business to deliver “value adding interventions” to maximise our “human capital” and drive “employee engagement”.

Or instead we could work with you to make this place better, you happier and the business successful.

But then. We might have to explain how.

Which would require us to think. And not produce another strategy document.

Which could prove tricky.

I am not Human Resources. I am human.

Dumb acceptance

I’ve written before about the use of the term, “the business” when referring to areas other than HR. To put it mildly, it drives me nuts and normally it arises in one of two contexts,

1) from within HR – “we need someone from the business to look at this”
2) in criticising HR – “they need to spend more time working in the business”

I’m baffled, confused and (I admit) a little bit grumpy. Let’s deal with scenario 1 first as an amuse bouche of perfectly formed stupidity, before we move on to the entrée of down right dumb, stupid acceptance of idiocy that is scenario 2.

If you work in HR and think that you’re not part of the business, then give up now and resign. Go hug a tree, or stare into the sunset, or become a coach. Because you’re wasting organisational oxygen, space on this earth and perhaps most importantly, my time.

There. Done. That was easy, wasn’t it?

So let’s talk about the main event.

I’ve heard a number of people over time espouse the theory that in order to be a good HR professional, you need to have worked in, “the business”. In fact it often features in comments on this blog. Can someone please tell me what “the business” is? Where is this elusive mystical beast? Is it tucked away in the armpit of the Yeti, or squeezed between the tightly closed thighs of the Loch Ness Monster? If anyone sees “the business” running free, give me a call, we need to talk….

I work for a publisher, does that mean I need to do an editorial role in order to be able to do my job as a HR director well? If I worked in law firm, should I spend time as a solicitor? What about an abattoir? Would time as a meat packer help me?

And do you really think these roles have the same skill set? The same knowledge base and the same competences? Of course not. I’m as qualified to do an editorial role as an editor is to do my role. And I can guarantee they wouldn’t want to go within a million miles of my job – because most of them are sane.

Do we say the same about finance, about marketing, about IT? Of course, not. Once again it is just stupid, shallow, groupthink without really understanding what we’re saying or trying to say.

HR needs to understand the way in which the business that employs it works, it needs to understand how the areas fit together, the commercial model, the brand, the strategic direction and the external economic environment. Anyone arguing this will get my full support and a virtual fist bump (or wrist punch as we call them chez Morrison).

Of course, yes.

Anyone saying that people who move cross functionally can bring different insights and expertise to their business areas will get a note of commendation and a wholly platonic, virtual man hug.


But saying HR people need to spend time in “the business” is like saying that to be a good heart surgeon you have to have had a double bypass. It’s stupid, it’s crass, it’s unhelpful and it’s wrong. And most of all, it detracts from the main issue, which is ensuring HR teams understand and are passionate about their organisations.

That’s where the real story is at. Trust me.

It’s time to dump the cliches and move on.