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July 19, 2004
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"HR’cheology" — Learning From the Ruins

Recently, the HR Doctor got to visit the ruins of the Mayan civilization in Tulum, Mexico. It is a famous tourist sight near Cozumel. The ruins were stunning with step-pyramid temples, courtyards and an array of other structures spread out over many acres of beautiful terrain overlooking the Gulf of Mexico.

 Image "Indiana Rosenberg" at Tulum, Mexico

The tour guide was eloquent in helping the visitors appreciate the majesty of an empire that lasted for hundreds of years and spread out over thousands of square miles. He pointed out the probable function of each of the buildings and then left visitors alone to wander through the ruins equipped with two essential tools for every visitor to a new place. The first tool is a map and the other is your imagination.

In the case of the ruins at Tulum, it was wonderful to imagine what life must have been like in one of the premier civilizations of the Western Hemisphere hundreds of years ago. Clearly, this was a civilization with an understanding of astronomy, calendars and organization. It had to have specialization among its employees. It also would have required a government’s structure with diverse functions and a bureaucracy to sustain the varied activities of a well-developed society (except for those human sacrifice and slavery problems).

Imagine being human resources director of such an empire. In a theocratic monarchy, the essence of that function - recruitment - would be managed based on family relationships, word of mouth among people in the same social class and, to some extent, the professional HR criteria of "KSAs" (knowledge, skills and ability).

Before we criticize these primitive personnel-management approaches, it is interesting, if not scary, to recall that these are similar to the paradigm under which American government-employment decisions were made in the first decades of the new republic (i.e., the "government by gentlemen" model).

What really struck the HR Doctor’s thought, however, was how very similar in concept the Tulum layout seemed to a modern governmental center. Beautiful buildings, open space, majesty and symbolism, and functional work areas were all present. It was not difficult at all to imagine the chair of the county commission of a Mayan city/county giving a speech before an assembled group of bureaucrats and citizens. It was not hard to imagine people lining the streets for official parades or functions on holidays and other public events. The layout would likely be very familiar to any 21st century public administrator touring Tulum in a time machine.

What was thought provoking was that the Mayans must have regarded their society as permanent, unchangeable and forever powerful. And certainly that’s how that society appeared to be for hundreds of years. However, in the view of tourists centuries later, something must have happened in a relatively short time to turn a powerful empire into a tourist destination.

The end of the Mayan civilization is not well documented since journalism in the modern sense of CNN, supermarket tabloids and radio station "shock jocks" had not yet come into being (how wonderful that must have been!). It is likely that some combination of major myth-shattering natural disasters or man-made calamities, such as invasions or wars, and the migration of other peoples into the area eventually led the civilization they once knew to become the civilization they could barely remember. When we create institutions, and use words like "always" or "forever," we have to be very careful to appreciate that we may be using these words from a narrow vantage point of arrogance.

A public agency that does not keep a sense of its legacy in mind is an organization without a spirit and perhaps without a vision. Even if there is a vision, if it is one based on a sense of invincibility, lack of accountability, and no need to change or adapt to changing circumstances, the long-term success of the agency is in serious doubt. The most beautiful government buildings, whether in Tulum 1,000 years ago, Rome 2,000 years ago or Egypt 3,000 years ago, may well disappear or turn to ruins. The basic concept that we all understand when we visit the place we grew up or go to a high-school reunion 30 years later is the concept that you can never really "go home" because "home" is ever evolving and adapting.

In local government, the surest way to avoid becoming an archeological specimen is to understand that societies are dynamic and our policies and attitudes need to be similar.

Better than any other level of government, it is local government which can or should keep a pulse on changes in the communities. Local governments need to be the very first to adapt and take the steps to maintain a civil society in the midst of change. Those which understand and grasp this concept are successful in the long run. Those that don’t, can’t or won’t are in for economic, social and "civility" trouble.

The HR Doctor learned a lot from a visit to the ruins, including perhaps a renewed understanding of how powerful history is as a teacher. Becoming an "HR’cheologist" helps us all keep a vital historical perspective in mind. I already have the Indiana Jones hat!

The HR Doctor invites you to read a great history book - any one will do!

Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor


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