Putting the Human Back in HR

'Tis the season for career musical chairs. We all hear about executive leadership changes in a breathless media - Google, HP et al.
Written by Oliver Marks, Contributor

'Tis the season for career musical chairs. We all hear about executive leadership changes in a breathless media - Google, HP et al.

Further down the hierarchy countless 'Reductions In Force', reshuffles and hires are happening this January, with scant media discussion unless it's a mass layoff, such as the MySpace shrinkage, or a mass business expansion or merger.

None of this takes into account the feelings of individuals who have put in countless hours to build businesses, only to be pushed aside or reorganized away from what has been consuming a large part of their waking hours - and even sleep. More importantly from a business leadership perspective the message this sends to remaining employees can foster cynicism and knowledge hording.

For all the happy chatter about social collaborative computing and the joys of socializing on the web, we remain in a serious recession which makes many fearful of sharing information with peers within collaborative work processes, despite the major advances technologists have achieved in facilitating the ability to provision social networks inside companies and with their partners and customers.

In order to realize business value from these new tools and technologies, individual human feelings - the 'what's in it for me?' factor - need to be placed well ahead of technology decisions. For those of us in thriving industries or companies this of course seems like a no brainer - but when you're in a cubicle and jockeying for recognition or fearful of impending layoffs a lot of the 'social' initiatives you hear floating around in your company can seem very threatening.

On a more strategic level, much user good will depends on the concierges and custodians of online collaboration environments. The sponsors and community managers who have crafted an environment to meet the requirements and needs of users can be swept aside in a reshuffle that doesn't recognize where the trust lies in their organization.

There is nothing new about judging the capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution or a goal, or even in oneself and others. "Morale is the capacity of a group of people to pull together persistently and consistently in pursuit of a common purpose" according to AH Leighton.

From Wikipedia's page about morale, a word typically associated with the military:

In military science, there are two meanings to morale. Primarily it means the cohesion of a unit, task force, or other military group. An army with good supply lines, sound air cover and a clear objective can be said to possess, as a whole, "good morale" or "high morale." Historically, elite military units such as special operations forces have "high morale" due to both their training and pride in their unit. When a unit's morale is said to be "depleted", it means it is close to "crack and surrender", as was the case with Italian units in North Africa during World War II. It is well worth noting that generally speaking, most commanders do not look at the morale of specific individuals but rather the "fighting spirit" of squadrons, divisions, battalions, ships, etc.

Attrition in wars is life or death - thankfully in the corporate world individuals typically have their career antennae finely tuned for exits and opportunities outside their current employment that can blunt the blow of being dispossessed from a prized project. What does get wounded is pride and the capacity to interact with others if individuals feel they have been badly treated.

Human resources professionals deal with the aftermath of clumsy reorgs all the time at an individual level, but there are more serious implications for larger projects around collapses in confidence, which can have a significant negative impact on online environments.

While Human Resources professionals are often keenly aware of these events, typically having front row seats at the front line of projects falling apart, they rarely have the heft at an organizational level to instigate positive change and remedies. The result is weakened or terminated project impetus, which online takes the form of abandoned collaborative environments that are web equivalents to the ruins of Detroit documented in the amazing photographs by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre, one of which is seen above (St Christopher House, an ex-Public Library).

The hi tech world loves to focus on vitality and momentum, but the real heart and soul of enduring, effective collaboration has timeless foundations in human trust and morale, qualities that require nurture to instill belief.

Like an overly hasty management reshuffle, all too often installing a shiny new 'social' object in hopes of raising performance can have the opposite effect, unless careful thought is put into goals and the effect upon all the participants.

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