This might be one of those zombie conversations, but here goes … Is HR an art or a science? Discuss. Write on both sides of the Internet if necessary … And why do I ask? Mainly as I’ve just read an article in HRMagazine, The Art of HR, a tie-in to the forthcoming Global HR Conference (their capital letters. There are some good points and questions to raise here, and many of them worthy of a moment’s reflection.
The website, www.artof.hr, has a blog, where some underpinning tropes are laid out for inspection. This is one example(to be strictly fair, this is a point I remember The Economist’s John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge making in their book, The Witch Doctors, way back in 1996, and one that overlooks the argument that discrediting management as a science doesn’t validate HR as an art):
Business schools mostly grew out of engineering schools. As a result, much of the language around management and leadership has–or aspires to–a technical, scientific tone. We talk about business models as though they really were engines that, with the right precise tinkering, could be persuaded to work. We avidly search for connections between cause and effect that might provide the reassurance of physics.”
And here’s another:
Studying the arts can also help companies learn how to manage bright people. Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones of the London Business School point out that today’s most productive companies are dominated by what they call “clevers”, who are the devil to manage. They hate being told what to do by managers, whom they regard as dullards. They refuse to submit to performance reviews. In short, they are prima donnas. The arts world has centuries of experience in managing such difficult people.”
My point? Well, I work for a business that’s concerned with both HR and business (as our website says, “we are proud of being unashamedly business and passionately people”). I am also a published writer who has previously been a working musician and an exhibiting artist. My perception – reinforced on one occasion by a memorable and very long pub conversation with a friend who has a PhD in an arcane form of Physics and a friend’s husband who is Professor of Mathematics – is that both broad disciplines have important things to teach all of us, but they have a very hard time listening to each other. (The higher forms of Maths, for example, are so heavily concerned with abstraction that they can be easily argued as belonging to the Arts side of The Great Divide. When my iPhone recently transcribed ‘diatribes’ as ‘dire tribes’ I hesitated to over-ride its suggestion.)
My problem? A question of pitch. The HRMagazine article does concede that ‘data has a role, but this needs to be delicately balanced with art and intuition’. The argument seems to be largely that a) the rise of big data and HR systems threatens the role – and value – of those in HR, and b) a growing use of (or ‘dependence on’, depending on organisation and viewpoint) data and systems will undermine “that intuitive connection with people in the business, which HR has to bring”.
It shouldn’t – but does – feel like a rearguard action. Its people-centric focus is entirely admirable, although the lack of mention for psychology or neuroscience was puzzling. If HR operates in a world where those it must communicate with increasingly want evidence-based responses to their questions, I’d hazard a guess that reference to these disciplines might be more of a conversation-opener than using words like (as one quoted participant does) magic, elegance, sophistication or dynamism. As someone whose working and personal endeavours largely revolve around communication, I’d suggest that knowing how to engage (that word again) your audience is a good way of getting and holding their attention. As someone who has the odd cynical moment, I also can’t help but think that there are HR departments among us who are effectively hindering their ability to communicate with the C-Suite as they’re anxious not to lose an ‘intuitive connection with people in the business’ that the people in question might not necessarily recognise they were hitherto enjoying.
I also worry that the argument undervalues and misrepresents ‘arts’. From working in several of them, I’m aware that art requires more than inspiration, magic, creativity and many other abstract nouns that have an agreeably touchy-feely tone. It needs technique, craft and a detailed knowledge of the raw materials of the form in question. ‘Craft’ is an important word here: some in the Arts (Capital A at all times) sneer at ‘craft’, perhaps detecting too strong a whiff of engineering or materials science. I’ll leave it to you to judge whether the alternative term ‘decorative arts’ is one of flattery or condescension, but I’m guessing the latter. But in creativity as in business, a degree of technical mastery is part of what makes the arts truly a ‘discipline’. To quote the poet Thom Gunn:
Deep feeling doesn’t make for good poetry. A way with language would be a bit of help.”
And those soggy bottoms in this post title? Here’s the segue bit, based on the premise that communication is established where common ground and ‘passion’ can be found. So … cake.
This evening, much of the UK will grind to a halt on its sofas to watch the final of The Great British Bake Off. But is baking an art or a science? Will the winner earn the carved crystal cake stand for their astounding artistry or their technical brilliance. The answer, of course, is both. If you want the pot of gold, you need a rainbow. If you want a rainbow, you win by including as many of the colours as possible. A rainbow with only one colour is just a stripe.
Without a touch of creativity, a Victoria sponge will only be A.N.Other Victoria Sponge no matter how perfectly executed. But a glittering creation that cunningly melds the flavours of (for example) licorice and lime but which undermines itself with a raw middle won’t carry off the crown either. No matter how tear-jerking its baker’s back story, how many beads of sweat they’ve wiped from their brow under the glaring gaze of the judges or how ‘passionately’ they’ve dedicated it to someone with whom they have a profound emotional connection, someone has to eat it and enjoy it. The contestants don’t just have to charm the judges, they have to feed them too.
Baking – like writing fiction, playing music or producing a painting (or, whisper it, HR) – is a process. You have to really know the ingredients, whether they are flour and eggs, pitch, rhythm and tempo or plot and character. That’s not an optional extra, it’s a given. The flair is the distinguishing feature, but it has solid foundations. No matter how hard you try, applying fondant icing to a soggy bottom won’t win you any friends.