The fallacy of commerciality

I’ve written before about my unease with the term “commercial HR” and I was expressing this at an event last week, when I was asked a question along the following lines,

“That’s fine for you to say, but when we’re going for jobs, when we are at interview, all we hear is ‘commercial this, commercial that’ and that’s the reality of the profession. So what should we do?”

And of course this is a completely fair and reasonable question. It IS ok being in my position and making bold statements about the ins and the outs of HR.

But more so, it got me thinking about why we talk about “commerciality” and how we can effectively challenge it as a meaningless concept within the profession.

It strikes me that when leaders and managers talk about commercial HR they normally mean one of three things,

1)  I want you to understand the numbers and the financial performance of the organisation. (OK, so I get this, I really do. We need to understand the key performance measures of our organisation, whether they are financial or otherwise. We need to understand how our organisation is measuring it’s performance. But is this what people really want? Because it’s dead easy to achieve and I’m not sure in itself it adds any value whatsoever).

I think the reality is, that it boils down to one of two other other positions,

2)  I want you to stop saying no to “the business” and start doing what we need. Stop being so focussed on people and start being more focussed on profit. That under performer over there? Why do we have to spend three months managing their performance, just get rid of them. Why are you think of health and wellbeing problems? The problem we have is that those lazy bastards are taken a lunch break when they could easily work through it. I need HR to step up and sort these things out.

3)  I want you to stop doing stupid HR initiatives that no-one understands, to think more about the business and to land the initiatives that you do effectively. I want you to disrupt employees as little as you can, to help them to perform better and to drive the organisation, but without creating an infrastructure that is so complicated that only Alan Turing could work it out. I want you to be effective in dealing with issues that arise and to deliver the basics quickly and efficiently.

If it is 2, then this is not the sort of organisation that you want to work in, unless you think you are big and strong enough to change the organisational culture, that the CEO and the HRD are aligned in wanting to improve things. You might learn something in the short-term, but unless the powers that be are willing to change, you won’t be happy and you’ll become a worse practitioner from it.

If it is 3, then this is the biggest lesson that you’ll learn in your career. If you can focus on meeting these challenges, if you can become the sort of HR practitioner that is seen to add value through well designed and organisationally focussed interventions that are implemented to perfection.

The use of “commercial” in describing the HR that we want is lazy and lacking in precision. So my advice to anyone asked about this in interview, or a recruiter taking a brief is to ask the following questions in order:

–  What do you mean by commercial?
–  What would you expect to see me (them) do differently?
–  How would the business be better by me (them) acting that way?
–  How would you measure success?

And if they can’t answer this comfortably, you’ve got to ask yourself who has the credibility issue, who is lacking in commerciality and whether you’d want to work in that company in the first place.

The focus of HR isn’t to be commercial: Day three of #cipd2012

A time for some final conclusions from the CIPD conference, before I jump on the train and head back to the world of work, emails and slightly irate family members wondering why I’ve been living it up in Manchester. Living it up is probably too grandiose a term, but from the time of some of the text messages I received last night/this morning, there was a party going on…..somewhere.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the matter in hand. Or the matter that should be in hand, but strangely isn’t. And by that I mean, the standard of our profession.

It seems almost a lifetime ago now that I was watching Gary Hamel on stage as the opening keynote to the conference. Gary was inspirational he was challenging. he built on the opening address from Peter Cheese. They both talked of setting a high bar for the profession, of re-engineering our purpose for the future world of work. It was heady stuff and long overdue.

But so much of what I’ve seen and experienced since then has reminded me how far we have to go. Slipping back into our comfort zone of process and procedure, of task and activity, of compliance and control. I attended a session yesterday entitled, “Commercially focused HR Business Partners” partly because I wanted a laugh and partly because I’m kind of curious about why we are still having this particular conversation. I wrote about “Commercial HR” a while back for the kind people at XpertHR. You can find that series of posts here. I also had a great conversation with FlipChartRick about this and his experience of another session, “How can HR improve its influence with the Board” and he has written a post about it here.

The thing that strikes me most is this; we should be bringing something unique to our organisations, something that other departments can’t bring and which outsourcing can’t do more cheaply. At the session on Commercial HR, I asked a question of the speakers – whether the debate about commercial HR wasn’t actually defunct and redundant and shouldn’t we talk about values led and culture led HR instead? The general consensus was that yes it was….and then they went back to discussing “commercial HR”. You see, I don’t understand how anyone can get any joy out of work without being interested in the operation of their organisation, the purpose, intent and performance. It would be like driving a car without looking out of either the windscreen or in the mirrors. In order to be of any sort of use, you need to be commercially aware, but that isn’t the same as being commercially focussed.

As Rick points out in his post, “you don’t need to do the CFO’s job but you at least need to learn his language”. Correct. You don’t need to try to outdo the experts in the room, but you do need to understand the conversations that are going on and be able to contribute. However, our focus should not be commercial. It should be something else that brings something new to the table. Can you imagine how things might have been different in some of the companies that have recently encountered “credibility” issues if they had experienced a strong voice talking about the importance of values, culture, integrity and sustainability? What is they had experienced someone working with the senior team and coaching them on tackling their challenges in a different way? Both because they understood the business, the challenges but also because they brought a different angle, a different approach to solving them?

I don’t buy this constant banging on about being commercial. I’ve never been anything else and nor have the people who I’ve recruited into my team and have worked with. I get that there are HR professionals out there that aren’t and they will never be successful, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be the focus of our profession – it is a pre-requisite to being a good business person. Our higher purpose, our contribution should be something else. Our focus should be on performance through people and the culture, values and leadership of our organisations. Really, it should. Trust me.