Sean Johnson

Why you should destroy your HR department

Why most HR departments, intentionally or not, take a philosophical approach that could become a major liability in a global, idea-based economy.


The phrase “human resources” pretty much encapsulates everything that is wrong with a traditional HR department. It implies impersonal, cold, calculating. It suggests that a company’s employees are resources to be utilized as much as possible, and discarded when their useful life is up. Kind of like a copy machine, except with dreams and goals and kids.

The ever brilliant Tom Peters long ago suggested changing the name to “Talent Department”. Imagine what would happen if you did that.

True, the typical HR professional would still have to spend considerable time dealing with legal issues, making sure the company doesn’t put itself in a position to be sued or taken advantage of. The necessary contracts and policies would still need to exist. But I’d like to think that a subtle psychological shift would take place.

I’d like to think that the folks in the Talent Department would come to realize that there is a world of difference between a good worker and a great one. They’d figure out that Bill Gates was right, that one fantastic engineer or programmer or account manager or accountant is worth 15 mediocre ones.

Once they figured that out, they’d probably bend over backwards to keep those folks. They’d throw out the talk about pay being consistent with market value and pay those people what they’d pay three of their crappy counterparts. They’d get over the old Prussian-based notions that suggest that people can work effectively in tiny cubes for 9 hours a day. They’d realize that one’s ability to work from a coffee shop or a park bench or a home or Maui isn’t a liability but for the right person is a key unlocking tremendous creative potential.

Tom Peters also predicted that within 10 years, 90% of white collar jobs would either be eliminated (via outsourcing and technology) or dramatically changed. He might have been a few years off, but it’s not hard to see much of that happening today.

The implications of that for a company is that many of those functions lose their competitive advantage. As the technology becomes ubiquitous and a truly global organization becomes a reality, the functions those white collar jobs used to perform become commodities.

What remains is a (most likely much smaller) group of highly competent, highly creative, driven, passionate people doing the imaginative, daring work that can never really be outsourced. And the pursuit of those people will become the most important thing that any HR department could do to.

But if the mindset of the department doesn’t change from one of fitting cogs into proverbial wheels… if it doesn’t decide to focus most of it’s energy into finding the most startlingly talented people and doing what it takes to keep them… then the most buttoned-up contracts and policies in the world won’t make a difference.

In the next 10 years, the Talent Department will likely become one of the primary sources of value generation in a company. At least for the ones that figure it out.

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