Human resource management is more alchemy than science. The mysterious ways HR tries to blend policies and approaches to create an effective workforce usually has the same disappointing outcomes as Medieval conjurers had with trying to turn lead into gold. We at Birches Group think constantly about this challenge and why HR struggles to become more of an organized discipline.
The analogy of alchemy to the state of HR is particularly apt. Alchemy as a foundation of science existed across the planet and held sway for centuries. Only with the introduction of intellectual rigor and modern methods of scientific inquiry that relegated alchemy to its final resting place with astrology and magic. A large reason for the fall of alchemy: the rejection of ancient wisdom.
Many approaches to modern HR management similarly rest on broadly accepted notions that when examined with greater rigor simply do not hold up. Equally HR often just cannot see the self-evident, fundamental contradictions that are starkly present before our very eyes. A critical confusion reigns in HR’s (mis)understanding of jobs where it muddles the purpose of work (i.e. the focus of the job) with features of incumbency (i.e. the person in the job).
To bring rigor to HR it is necessary to bring clarity to the distinction between jobs and people. This may seem obvious but it is all too rarely found in most HR programs.
In Birches Group, our point of departure is that with clarity on job design all subsequent HR functions — from compensation setting through recognition and reward — can be well aligned and integrated. Without clarity on jobs all that follows is out of focus and usually stymied in effectiveness.
There are many approaches to job design and evaluation. Most of the classic approaches fail on two basic points:
- the evaluation criteria include elements related to the person and not the job; and
- the methodologies are dense making them inaccessible to non-HR managers, and therefore are not compelling or convincing to the rest of the organization.
However, the biggest weakness in conventional job design and evaluation is found in the information which is gathered about jobs themselves.
The job description in most organizations is a rather loathsome document. Managers hate writing them, often cutting and pasting rough fitting passages from other job descriptions. The result are descriptions of extreme inconsistency and questionable value either to support good job evaluation or as a founding document in support of other HR functions.
And it is of little wonder how this situation arises. HR gives managers little to no guidance about how to describe work. Little more than a blank piece of paper with possibly some identified boxes is provided. No briefing about the distinguishing features which define different job levels and how teams are formed are provided to managers.
Birches Group has pursued a different approach. Firstly, we have lifted the veil on job evaluation. No more pseudo-science of point-factor evaluation; No multiplicative factors which overlap and blend person-based characteristics with job elements. Simple and accessible is our mantra. All that is needed is all that we give. We use just three factors to illuminate distinctions in work, and organize work into four clear and complementary clusters of job levels. The components of team are readily available for managers to understand how teams are formed.
And as for job descriptions? Yes, we have developed a simple methodology which uses just six functional statements, no more or less, linking job design to the underlying factors which distinguishes its level. Using this approach, managers are free to craft jobs with clarity which are compelling for staff and consistent for the organization.
Getting job design right is just the first step in making HR a rigorous discipline. What makes our methodology radical is we have not stopped here. The principles and tools which support job design and evaluation in Birches Group have been refined and adapted to form the foundation for all following HR functions. Rather than the disjointed disconnect that generally prevails in HR between structural policies (those governing jobs and pay) from people management policies (those which guide recruitment, development, and reward), our approach is seamlessly connected. We start with jobs and really, where else would you start? Jobs are at the foundation of every organization. It is the conversion of mission into action. That is why it needs to be done right. The simplicity of our approach, our methodology, positions HR to partner with the business function by demonstrating a true role in building an effective workforce. Only HR can undertake this role, it’s about time we start.
Gary is the founding and managing Partner of Birches Group. He has worked in the areas of organization design and compensation management for over forty years. Following a career with the United Nations, Gary has led the Birches Group consulting practice working with many leading international organizations in over 100 countries. Gary has pioneered a new simpler way to integrate job design with skills and performance through Birches Group’s Community™ platform. He is recognized as a global expert on job theory and design delivering workshops and lectures around the world