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.