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December 24, 2007
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Turkey Marinated with Guinness

This past Thanksgiving, the HR Doctor had the honor to be keynote speaker at the first All-Ireland Human Resources conference in Newcastle, Northern Ireland. It was not possible to find a dinner that night with the traditional American fare such as turkey with dressing, cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes and pumpkin pie, yet there was much to be thankful for.

Irish friends are among the most hospitable in the world. Despite the chilly weather, the conference setting was warm and inviting. In a room many years old with new friends, the beautiful HR Spouse Charlotte, a roaring fire in the stone fireplace and a pint of Guinness in my hand, it was hard to feel anything but cozy and at home.

One highlight of my travels is to do it in a way that helps me better appreciate the culture, joys and the difficulties experienced by my fellow humans in other parts of the world or in a nearby city. I also keep realizing what a small, small world it is. 

The invitation to speak in Northern Ireland came from Roger Wilson — one of my Irish hosts — whom I first met at a conference in South Africa. My first visit to South Africa to speak came from colleagues who attended a conference in the U.K. with me. The world may be nearly 8,000 miles in diameter, but it’s growing smaller every day.

It is hard to provide a better example of that global shrinkage and commonality than in the profession of human resources. This has been a year of significant travel and conference presentations by the HR Doctor, including presentations on three continents.

In all of these places, the issues, worries and opportunities for HR professionals to make a tremendous difference in the way their communities are governed has never been stronger and has never involved more common characteristics. 

My presentations in Africa, Northern Ireland or the UK could have been made in Oregon, Iowa or Kentucky — in a small town or a large urban environment. I did the presentations in English, but if I were able, I would have done them in Zulu, Gaelic or German, and the commonalities would have been understood, appreciated and shared with all the participants. 

The fact is that great human resources are a binding tie within public and business administration all over the world. Time to start learning Mandarin Chinese! Some of the basic elements familiar in all of these places include several dimensions.

The first is the search for self-actualization. The best and brightest employees and applicants balance and integrate their passions for doing work that they love with the many other elements of their busy lives, such as family and community connectivity and the pursuit of avocations and personal dreams. The most successful governments and businesses will be the ones that help make that integration possible. They will be the workplaces that create environments in which a person’s passions, joys and positive attitude are recognized, appreciated and encouraged. 

A second dimension is, to some degree, an opposite of the first one. There is an increasing recognition that making great differences at work does not permit poor attitudes, arrogance and disengagement to continue for years and years. This is the HR Doctor’s principal personal philosophy and the theme of the book, Don’t Walk by Something Wrong!

A person with an entitlement attitude, who feels that the employer is nothing but an ATM with only a withdrawal slot and no deposit slot, is a person who drains energy and spirit from other people.

Indeed, the workplace “ATM” must also have a deposit slot into which the employee places innovation, energy, teamwork and optimism in representing the employer, in exchange for the withdrawals of compensation and opportunity.

Government employment remains the “land of the entitled.” We will never be at our best in delivering citizen services until there is a better balance between entitlements and performance. This component of the global HR mission ahead is to seek out ways to identify the “drainers” and help them change and grow, or help them leave the organization as soon as possible and with as little liability as possible.

A third global component continues to involve the mating of direct human contact in service delivery versus electronic contact.  How can government services remain strongly personal, respectful and responsive while harnessing the efficiency and 24/7/365 promises offered by electronic government via the Internet and other media?

From the employee standpoint of course, this relates back to self-actualization. “Why can’t my schedule be more flexible so that I can work from home via my desktop office? Why can’t my all-in-one device allow me to handle not only phones and e-mail, but video-conferencing and instant messaging while I’m in my backyard or trapped at an airport watching the electronic sign boards report the latest delay in my flight?” 

The truth is that government must figure out an answer to these and other integration questions because the demands for service will only increase as life gets more complicated. The increase in demand can no longer be met simply with adding more and more staff.

The HR Doctor has written before about the inflexibility and torture inflicted upon poor job applicants by a rule-bound, 19th century civil service model. One of the few ways to crack through the years of built-up defenses against change in these systems is to harness technology. The harness, however, offers great danger and traps for business and government because it can turn into a yoke, restricting movements and inflicting tremendous costs.

High technology can mean high complexity and reliance or dependence on vendors whose business stability may be weak but whose price structure may be predicted to escalate after the contracts are signed. Anyone who has installed some tremendous human resources information system combining payroll, time and attendance and other “enterprise” applications can appreciate the fact that they should be delivered with a very large bottle of headache medication.

Of concern everywhere in the HR world is the importance of substantially improving a business’s ability to handle acute incidents with speed, respect and success. The liabilities associated with a natural disaster, such as a flood, earthquake or hurricane affect the continuity of operation, whether we’re speaking of Mexico, Florida, California, Ireland or South Africa. 

Knowing how to handle a human crisis such as workplace violence or the risks of global or regional health catastrophes such as the scourge of HIV-AIDS mixed with drug-resistant tuberculosis requires steady, consistent and optimistic leadership.

These horrors affect businesses in the immediate and in the long-term sense, but they have perhaps an even greater effect on local governments. These are the “community’s business organizations” which must cope not only with the problem itself, but be at their best in helping others at the same time.

A local government has few options to simply shut down for a month or relocate to another part of the country. The sum total of all these needs is as familiar in Africa as it is in Europe or the United States. It is the growing understanding that innovative, proactive and visionary human resources can be essential in the search for how to face these many business imperatives. 

A common realization is that an HR system that doesn’t change and evolve holds back an entire organization. An HR leader who doesn’t sit, or isn’t allowed to sit, right next to the president/CEO, or the city or county manager, or indeed even the president of the United States, when decisions are considered and debated, is not going to be an effective agent for success.

HR leaders who only carry a worn out copy of a 50- or 100-page rulebook not only won’t help, but will get in the way of organizational success. The rulebook is very important, but it is not the only important book. The budget book is very important to an organization.  However, it is also not the only book. 

Leaders of government and business, as well as families and communities, need to be writing and constantly reading from “books” of innovation, of respect, of optimism and even of fun.

These are the HR themes everywhere in the world and they will continue to increase in importance as well as visibility. Ask yourself as an elected or appointed executive in government, which books and which descriptions dominate in your organization’s approach to HR.


Phil Rosenberg

The HR Doctor •


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