A scientist’s anti-HR rant

These HR-is-rubbish articles seem to be coming thick and fast. The most recent, published in last Thursday’s Times Higher Education, was written by David Colquhoun, a professor of pharmacology at University College London. He accuses HR of peddling gobbledegook and quackery.

Professor Colquhoun runs a blog dedicated to exposing bad science and mumbo-jumbo. Now I have been known to criticise the HR function in the past and I agree with my old mate Rob Briner that much of what passes for people management in organisations has precious little evidence to back it up. A rigorous, scientific examination of HR practices would be an interesting read.

Alas, Professor Colquhoun hasn’t written it. His piece is just another polemic against HR. He begins by quoting Luke Johnson’s diatribe, which I commented on a few weeks ago, then he continues:

Like most groups of people, HR is intent on expanding its power and status. That is precisely why they changed their name from Personnel to HR. As Personnel Managers they were seen as a service, and even, heaven forbid, on the side of the employees. As Human Resources they become part of the senior management team, and see themselves not as providing a service, but as managing people. My concern is the effect that change is having on science….

That’s odd. The complaint that you hear from most HR people is that they are not part of the senior management team and, despite what Professor Colquhoun says, UCL seems to follow that pattern. A glance at the hierarchy shows that the most senior HR manager is well down the pecking order, making it hard to take the claims that HR wields so much power at the college seriously. I would also be surprised if the UCL HR function is attempting to manage people or even claiming that it should be doing so. For most HR people, staff management is most clearly a line responsibility.

For someone so keen on exposing people who make unsubstantiated claims, the Prof offers up precious little evidence against his HR people. The only thing he can pin on them is a booklet of training courses which offers workshops using some unproven methods like NLP and Brain Gym.

Criticising these courses is fair comment and I can see why people might be annoyed by the college spending money on them. However, claiming that universities are in any way threatened by quackery “creeping in though the back door of credulous HR departments” smacks of paranoia. Surely the young researchers that Professor Colquhoun is so worried for are, of all people, capable of distinguishing mumbo-jumbo from science. At least, I hope they are or it’s God help British academia.

Although he gives few explicit examples, by using hints, implicature and guilt by association, Professor Colquohoun attempts to lay all sorts of things he doesn’t like at the door of HR. For example, he points the finger at University College  Hospital’s HR function for the decision to recruit spiritual healers. A shameful wast of taxpayers’ money? Perhaps. An initiative of the UCLH Human Resources department? I very much doubt it.

Other targets include Skills for Health and the Complementary and Healthcare Council, both described by David Colquhoun as “examples of the HR mentality in action”, whatever that might be.

This article reads like some of the posts on the wilder fringes of the right-wing blogosphere, or, at best, a grumpy-old-man rant in the Daily Mail. Make a list of all the things you don’t like then use a series of spurious links to show that they are all the fault of whichever group of people you don’t like. For good measure, drop a few hints in that the group you are blaming has insidious and unseen power. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Wimbledon, anybody?

However, this is not an article by a nut-job blogger which no-one will read. It was written by someone who is, apparently, an eminent scientist and it was published in a respected journal with a wide circulation. Even so, it is neither informative nor entertaining, rambling as it does through Professor Colquhoun’s pet hates.

There are charges which could reasonably be levelled against HR functions and in particular, I suspect, HR practitioners in academia but that is not what David Colquhoun has done. He has simply aired his gripes and prejudices in a blustering tantrum. I would have expected something better.

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21 Responses to A scientist’s anti-HR rant

  1. “A rigorous, scientific examination of HR practices would be an interesting read. Alas, Professor Colquhoun hasn’t written it.”

    I couldn’t agree more. It would be interesting, and I haven’t written it. The reason for that is that I’m desperately trying to do some rigorous science, despite the constant bombardment with management-speak.

    It is too much to hope that anyone in management would find it entertaining (though actually one university finance manager said in the comments that it entertained him).

    The study that you suggest should be done by management people, not by me. My aim was merely to show how very much that sort of self-assessment it needed, by picking out some of the absurdities that arise from It would probably be hard to do it well. Your criticism is silent about the virtues of “Brian Gym” and “neurolinguistic programming”, but with a title like yours, it should not be ignored..

    The study would be quite difficult to do, I suspect. One reason for that is that it would need a self-critical attitude that is normal in science, but seems to be rather rare in management. The main reason though, is that I imagine that the evidence just is not there.

    One of the things that many scientists find so objectionable about much management-speak (apart from the mangling of the English language) is that it mostly consists of untested assertions that often seem to be based on nothing much beyond whim and, above all, fashion. It doesn’t have to be this way, as Ben Goldacre recently pointed out in an excellent piece with the title “Testing Social Policy”

  2. HR Wench says:

    My head just exploded. That is all.

  3. Oh dear, HR Wench, I would have hope for something a bit more constructive than that. All I have heard so far is indignation. How about dealing with the problems that I raised?

  4. Rick says:

    David, why does she have to deal with the problems you raised?

    The only one that you could pin on your HR function was a menu of courses which included some iffy methods. The rest of the issues, like spiritual healing and complementary medicine, you just pretended were the fault of HR people without offering any evidence.

    You seem to want to blame all HR people for a whole load of things you don’t like. It’s a line of thinking that goes, ‘you’re one of them so this is all your fault too’. And we know where that leads.

    As for indignation, try re-reading your own piece.

  5. Oh I was just trying to get a dialogue going. Are you suggesting that I should NOT be indignant about things like Brain Gym being imposed on research students? I hope not.

    In fact I have succeeded in getting a dialogue to a greater extent than I expected. At http://dcscience.net/?p=226 there are now 37 comments, all discussing sensibly some of the problems that I raised. I was quite pleased to get strong support not only from academics (from whom support is near universal), but also from a university officer, and, wait for it,a Cambridge university HR person.

    Even if there were no other problems, surely you must admit that it is some sort of failure for an administrative department to have become so universally derided by the people it is supposed to be helping (or should I say ‘managing’?).

  6. Come on kids, be nice ;-)

    I enjoy reading about people arguing over the Interwebs as much as the next casual surfer, but since I’m more interested in practical applications rather than scientific research, I think this discussion is pointless.

    If I don’t add value to the company that pays my salary, I’m confident that management will fire me. I’m not interested in conspiracy theories that claim they can prove how HR is trying to get more power by changing its name and such.

    Example: does NLP increase productivity?
    a) no: stop using it
    b) yes: good. Next topic please.

    Except for academicians, who cares if it’s been validated by enough scientific studies (as long as it doesn’t do any damage like – mentioned in the article at the same time as NLP – Scientology).

    And now, good night, and good luck.

  7. HR Wench says:

    David, my brother, that is just it. There is no problem. You are spazzing about nothing. The Happy Employee put it better than I can, “Except for academicians, who cares if it’s been validated by enough scientific studies (as long as it doesn’t do any damage like – mentioned in the article at the same time as NLP – Scientology).”

    Since you are a scientist, feel free to care. Since I am not, I will feel free to NOT care. A bit of advice I will pass along from my dear mother, “it’s ok to let other people be wrong sometimes”.

  8. HE says

    “Example: does NLP increase productivity?
    a) no: stop using it
    b) yes: good.
    Except for academicians, who cares if it’s been validated by enough scientific studies”

    Ahem, just one little problem here.
    How do you know whether or not it increases production if it has not been evaluated properly ?

    I suppose that it is just this sort of failure of elementary logic that got me so annoyed in the first place. I’d hoped for a rather more robust defence than I seem to be getting. You guys seem to be making my point for me.

  9. HR Wench says:

    David,
    Pretty easily: Ask the manager of the employees that attend the course if they have seen an improvement in their performance. If yes, how. Keep track of the results. Compare the results. See if you have patterns and act accordingly.

  10. And then attribute unhesitatingly any change they report to the effect of the course.

    I’m afraid you have provided the best possible example of precisely what I was grumbling about. HR people, in general, have not the slightest idea how to distinguish myth from truth. I can;t imagine that is very helpful even in the pizza industry, much less in a university.

  11. Rick says:

    Did she say she’d attribute unhesitatingly any changes?

    No, you made that bit up. Just like all the groundless accusations in your article.

    Do you have any evidence that HR people are to blame for the decision to recruit spiritual healers at UCLH?

    Do you have any evidence that HR people are to blame for the Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council?

    Do you have any evidence that HR people are to blame for Skills for Health?

    No, thought not.

    I used to be an HR manager and I know how to distinguish myth from truth. I also know how to distinguish a well thought out argument from a stream of rambling prejudiced bile.

    Oh and I’m not impressed by all your messages of support. To comment on your blog people have to sign up. Most of those who can be bothered to do so will be people who agree with you. Casual readers who think you are spouting crap will probably not bother to sign up just to leave a comment.

  12. David, here’s a question where I would appreciate your opinion as a scientist.

    Lets assume there’s this new method called THEPIM (The Happy Employee Productivity Improvement Method). There’s been very few scientific studies which were inconclusive at best. So the method might be useful or not. On top of this, the existing studies used populations which are completely different from my company, so comparisons are difficult (assuming that the method could have a different effect depending on the setting it’s used in).

    Now several of my HR colleagues swear that the productivity improved after they started using this method, but neither they nor I have the time and money necessary to analyze this in a serious and reliable way?

    Lets assume I decide to use this method. Would you approve, accuse me of being “one of those” HR Professionals, or would you recommend something else?

  13. HR Wench says:

    Yeah, what Rick said. :)

    David – When I first went to your site my antivirus software alerted me that I had to immediately quarintine a virus. I don’t know how that stuff works but thought I should let you know in case its something you want to look in to. At any rate, now I’m afraid to go back….

  14. This might be of interest:
    I finally read all 40 comments to David’s article. Mark Frank is a Learning Specialist and was the one person who spoke in favor of HR. He definitely knows his stuff and has lots of interesting things to say.

    He also published an article on his blog (learncontext.blogspot.com) as a conclusion to the discussion.

  15. First, sorry about the warning message. Nobody else has reported it, but I’ll look into it.

    HE. I can’t talk about business, because I don’t know about it. I was writing about universities in general and science in particular. In that case, I would say that matters of scientific “productivity”, which anyway is essentially undefinable, are nothing whatsoever to do with HR. How would they know about it? I thought that was quite well illustrated by the example that I gave of a course being on “scientific innovation” by someone who’d left science straight after PhD to do life-style courses and NLP. HR people are there to keep the books straight, not to manage science/

    In business, it might be possible to do some sort of comparative trial of a proposed new method, but one would need to know a lot more about what was proposed to suggest anything.

    HE One commenter on my site described Mark Frank’s ideas about learning as “pop-psychology” and I’m inclined to agree..

    I’ll own up to one thing though. I quite often referred to the “HR mentality” when referring to things like mindless box ticking and ‘competences’. Sadly that behaviour is not restricted to HR departments so perhaps I appeared to focus more narrowly on HR departments than was my intention.

  16. David, maybe I got it wrong. I thought you were talking about HR in general (based on you quoting the Financial Times) while using examples from your own experience with HR departments in the academic world.

    I understand that you don’t have a background in business, but I see this exchange as an interesting (even though from time to time a bit heated) discussion between the corporate and the academic world. And I wished we could benefit more from each other although our goals are not the same.

    Anyway, I appreciated that you joined the discussion on this blog and dared swimming with the HR sharks ;-)

  17. Sue Hewitt says:

    Err – been lurking – need to come out and have my tuppenceworth

    Background 15 years as scientific researcher in universities – now gone over the wall and delivering training and some of my clients are univerities, some of my delegates are scientists.

    I cannot argue on behalf of all of the panoply of services undertaken by HR, I can only really talk about training and in particular personal development training.

    I can see David’s point. It would be very difficult to rigorously assess if a certain soft skills programme or course actually contributed to increased scientific productivity. In order to achieve this we would need to remove or control for all other influences of any type that might impinge on that particular scientist so that we could conclusively say that yes this particular course increased scientific productivity by x%.

    However, when we have carried out long term analysis of people who have attended development programmes (some of them up to 10 years ago) we have asked them about evidence. We have asked about evidence of better problem solving, better use of resources etc. Of course this could be subjective so we also asked about what other people have noticed – managers, colleagues etc

    These analyses have shown that there is evidence of the programme leading to workplace benefits (if the delegate was a scientist then this might be increased scientific productivity). Now I totally accept that “evidence” is not scientific proof. However its a step in the right direction.

    I also must go back to the “if it works” argument. The university clients that I work with do not have unlimited budgets. They would not continue to buy my programmes if they were not seeing some real workplace benefits.

    One of the reasons that personal development training and things like the Brain Gym work is that they develop areas like confidence, self esteem and self belief. We know from our work that developing these areas has a profound effect that may be felt in many parts of a person’s life and work. For example after such a course they may go on to seek specific skills based training that may lead to improvements in their scientific technique. Before the programme they may have felt that this training was too hard, for other people, would not be approved by their boss, wasn’t the right thing to do. Any one of a host of barriers might have been preventing them from engaging with the training. Previously they may have been performing “OK” but with their new self confidence they feel better able to work on areas that can lead to their work perfrmance moving to “Great”.

    Its a bit like waxing your skis. Without wax many people will be able to get a reasonable level of performance, but with wax everyone gets better performance. When the skis are running better its then easier to deal with different types of snow. I still know people who claim that ski wax is a black art that could never be proven to work scientifically. So any study of these interventions (ski wax or training :-) ) needs to be long term and it also needs to consider a hierarchy of outcomes such as engaging in other activities that then lead to improved productivity.

  18. She-Liger says:

    I agree with David Colquhoun completely about pathological (yes, just so!) expanding of HR power in UCL. Human Resources really become part of the senior management team. They usurped the power there!
    Recently I applied for the position in one of UCL’s scientific Laboratory. I was refused in this position. I was not surprised at it and was not injured, of course. A la guerre com a la guerre! It is normal case.
    But I was surprised immensely when I have known WHO and HOW estimated me and other applicants. As it turned out, the estimation of applicants was carried out by three independent assessors, who didn’t concern to the speciality of that Laboratory at all! And Head of Lab, Professor, didn’t take part in selection of applicants.
    What is it??? What an abomination!!
    What right do the HR people have? Why do they estimate the applicants in speciality, which they are incompetent in? And why are researchers so humbled in the dust that Professor(!) have no the right to select the stuff for his Lab??? :(
    And it is normal thing from your point of view?

  19. Rick says:

    Sue, I’m pretty much with you on this. A lot of HR practices are difficult to validate according to strict scientific principles becaus ethere are so many variables. It is also almost impossible to use control groups in a live situation. For example, if you wanted to test a recruitment process, you would have to hire some people who scored badly, as well as those that did well, and measure their subsequent work performance. No manager would ever agree to do that.

    We are thrown back on the “if it works” argument and, as you say, self-confidence is key to people’s success, so if they think NLP or Brain Gym works, then, up to a point, it does. For them.

    What is dangerous is when we say that, because a few people have raved about something, then we will prescribe it for everyone. That’s how management fads often start.

  20. Rick says:

    She-Liger – how do you know the Professor at UCL won’t have the right to select the staff for his lab?

    I have never come across a selection process where people don’t have an input into the selection of their own staff. Independent assessors are sometimes used as a first-level screening, then the manager is presented with a short list.

    Are you telling me that the selection process at UCL is carried out completely by people external to the recruiting department?

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