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Professionalism

(September 25, 2002) - At the root of our questions about witch-hunts and codes of ethics are a number of interesting fundamental questions:

Is Human Capital Management a profession or simply an administrative arm of local management?

We think that this is a particularly critical question. The SHRM Code of Ethics seems to carry the implicit notion that the HCM function is more importantly understood as an element of company management. With no ultimate values (as demonstrated in the Professional Engineer's Code of Ethics), the HCM function is simply the translation of one company's approach to the people problem. In other words, a professional code would have areas beyond which it was improper to wander (as they do in Engineering). Without firm boundaries, HCM is simply a method of translating the company's world view into its 'people practice'.

One hires professionals because they adhere to standards that are beyond the bounds of company philosophy. Engineers, accountants, doctors, nurses, certain consultants, religious professionals, lawyers, architects and other certified professionals operate in a realm that requires that they utilize and conform to a certain range of science and precise ethical practice. It is, when you think of it, hard to imagine a profession that doesn't contain inherent, strict boundaries.

Does the fact that HCM people have such a tough time establishing credibility in their organizations stem from the fact that there is no real discipline behind the profession?

We'd guess that a coherent HCM discipline (and we looked at a hundred or so graduate programs trying to find one) would offer specific guidance or principles.  You'd suppose that the various National Associations might identify the "core principles" or fundamental precepts of HCM practice. Jeez, you'd have guessed that someone would agree on the meaning of diversity.

There is, however, an interesting SHRM paper on the Future of HR. It suggests, more or less, that contemporary HR functions will emerge as the responsibility of line managers. Certainly, without an underlying discipline, this makes a great deal of sense. 

We wonder whether or not the folks involved in SHRM's paper have had a chance to review Watson and Wyatt's Human Capital Index. The research, ongoing since the late 90's seems to indicate that specific HCM practices can be correlated to superior financial performance. Of course, the W&W folks focused on the rapidly disgraced "shareholder value" idea that was so vogue at the time. Even with that bias, there's something to be said for trying to make science a core of the discipline.

You can imagine that we aggressively take the position that HR should either become a 'real' profession or accelerate its flow out to the line managers. Without significant investments in science and predictability, we'll have to side with the folks who don't view it as a profession for the time being.

 -John Sumser


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