When I started studying psychology about 30 years ago, my goal was to become a family therapist. At that time I had already two years behind me in which I had learned to work intensively with people in a small psychiatric clinic. That was a wonderful, instructive time. At some point during my studies, I turned to industrial and organizational psychology and ended up where many of my fellow students ended up: in the training and development department of a large corporation. My career as a HR professional took its course. I implemented performance appraisal systems without ever having to ask myself what performance, on the part of the people concerned, actually means in concrete terms. I conducted employee surveys without having to take a personal interest in an employee’s experience. I introduced applicant tracking systems without meeting an applicant personally. In contrast to my work in a psychiatric environment, it became clear to me at some point that HR in large corporations means above all setting up processes, instruments, systems and programs and keeping them running. All this has very little to do with working with people.
It became clear to me at some point that HR in large corporations means above all setting up processes, instruments, systems and programs and keeping them running. All this has very little to do with working with people.
Basically, that is fine. One quickly learns and accepts that one should not be an HR professional or HR manager if one likes working with people. However, over the years my inner dislike, which somehow became silently apparent from the beginning, became ever clearer. It is not the systems themselves that turned out to be more and more unbearable for me, but the attitude with which these systems were developed and kept alive. You will find descriptions of these systems in most common textbooks about Human Resources Management – the annual performance appraisal, change management, competence management, talent management, etc. And I have to admit that during my studies I hated books on personnel management. There is nothing creepier than a classic textbook on human resources management. To this day, hardly anything has changed, neither in my reaction, nor in the books themselves. What is described in all these books, and mostly lived in practice, has something patronizing, not infrequently even something contemptuous of people. The employee, the human resource is not treated as a subject here but as an object. It is measured, judged, developed (“upskilled”), promoted, transferred, terminated, rewarded, retained, etc. You do something with the human resource. “You” is the superordinate, corporate system, represented by the human resources department as the executive body. All this is done under the premise of putting the employee at the center. What an illusion. The operator of a laying battery also puts his 10,000 chickens at the centre.
Then I, of all people, became a professor of human resource management. Looking back, this was the ideal time. Companies slowly woke up and began to rethink. In the beginning, there was a shortage of skilled workers, and suddenly we had to learn to value applicants and candidates, to be interested in their preferences, to apply to them and not vice versa. My first book appeared: “Employer Branding”. How can we convince as an employer? Then followed the book “Talent Relationship Management”. After writing other books, I started to work on a particularly incapacitating HR instrument, namely the annual performance appraisal. The book “The End of Performance Appraisal” appeared and nothing pleased me more than the great irritation, coupled with broad, positive resonance, that it brought. I’ve been really lucky over the past few years because a gradual awakening in the HR community has become more and more visible. New generations of HR people took the helm, supported by new generations of executives. Throughout the years I found it a wonderful task to throw coals into the blazing fire again and again, critically, provocatively but always constructively, and close to practice. It seemed as if my attitude and the zeitgeist had met, and I was allowed to play an active role in this development.
What does HR look like in a traditional, hierarchical and stable enterprise, and how are things presented in a more agile context? What an exciting question!
How very much I now welcome the growing debate on the subject of agility. For me, agility is much more than just a buzzword. It symbolizes a long overdue development towards a changing attitude. The employee as a mature human being. My great role model, Douglas McGregor, is being turned to again, and rarely was his juxtaposition of the Theory X – humans are lazy by nature and have to be kept on a short leash – and the humanistic opposite, of Theory Y, more important and alive than now. In the course of this development, it was my great dream to finally write a comprehensive book that would deal with HR from the point of view of Theory X versus Theory Y. What does HR look like in a traditional, hierarchical and stable enterprise, and how are things presented in a more agile context? What an exciting question! Writing this book was a matter of real concern to me. Here we are talking about much more than just the image of a mature human being. It is ultimately a question of the competitiveness of many proud companies. I share the view that agility is a prerequisite for the majority of companies to survive in current and future markets. And human resources management plays a key role in this.
When I started this book in 2017, I had great respect for this task. I was filled with ideas, an attitude, a blurry picture of what I would write. In the end, writing this book was a long journey into something uncertain. First you start writing a book. But then the book writes you. The fact that such a book has a static character, that one is forced to fix thoughts in black and white and with finality is difficult for me to bear. Because the journey continues, and everything I write in this book is just a snapshot. Agility also means never really arriving at a final destination.
This journey did not take place in a quiet room, but in a constant exchange with numerous forward-thinking, open-minded people and companies who were willing to contribute constructively to the uncertainty. At this point we usually thank all those who contributed to the success of this book. I can not even name them all. They are the many HR managers, HR professionals, executives and also students with whom I have spent hours, even days, discussing and struggling for solutions. They are the many impulses in the infinite number of books, articles, blogs, TED-talks that have continuously irritated me. But it is also my family who had to endure a father and husband for one year, who was mentally absent at times. In particular I’d like to thank Iliana Haro, who supported me so wonderfully with this English version of this book. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I look forward to the long journey that lies ahead of us.
Tübingen/Germany, July 31, 2019
This is the preface of my book Human Resources Strategies. Balancing Stability and Agility in Times of Digitization. Published 2019 at Springer, Heidelberg.