1. Start identifying real problems first and only then look for solutions. Consider this: you go trotting off for an appointment with your GP and before you’ve even opened your mouth they thrust a prescription in your hand. Bizarre, right? Why hasn’t the GP tried to find out what’s actually wrong with you before giving you drugs? Now think of any HR practice you currently use, such as engagement surveys, management development, or 360-degree appraisal. My guess is that you adopted that practice without first having good evidence for an important or specific problem that practice aims to fix. If so you were behaving no less strangely than your GP. The first and most important questions should be is there a problem (or clear opportunity) here and what, specifically, is it? Once you are sure you have a specific, well-identified and important problem only then should you start searching for possible solutions.
2. Start thinking in terms of likelihoods and multiple possible solutions. Only crosswords and mathematical equations have definitive and single answers. For everything else there are no perfect or guaranteed solutions. Rather, there are just things you can choose to do that have more or less chance of bringing about the effects you want. And for every real problem you identify there are likely to be several possible and partial solutions. So you need to make a judgement – based on the best available evidence gathered from your organisation, your experience, your stakeholders and published research (also known as evidence-based practice). Remember, you’re not trying to solve a puzzle but do what’s most likely to get you closest to the result you want.
3. Start to build information systems that give you the information you need. There is still a lot of mostly over-hyped excitement about big data and data analytics. But don’t be blinded by statistical science. Start simple. Maybe some organisations need the management information system equivalent of a super-computer, but for most of us relevant, valid and basic spreadsheets with some simple analysis are probably fine. The key is to identify the decisions you need to make and therefore what data you need to help you make them. Where is it? How can you get it? In what form and when is it best for you to get it? You are the only person who has the answers to these questions. Information systems need to be designed around your information needs and, quite often, those needs are straightforward.
4. Start paying more attention to the boring but important stuff. Everybody has seen those silly two-by-two tables that so over-simplify the world they stifle critical thinking and analysis. Well here’s another one. Going left to right the columns are ‘exciting’ and ‘boring’. And the bottom row is labelled ‘trivial’ and the top ‘important’. Of course, we all love the stuff in the exciting-important quadrant. The bad news is that there isn’t much in that box that needs doing and, because it is exciting and important, we’ve probably already done it. We really should take a look in the boring and important box as, like it or not, that’s probably where the action is. My hunch is that doing really effective HR is (probably like doing good stuff in many jobs) not a roller-coaster ride of thrills and is an inherently slow process with few quick fixes. Intervening to shape or develop people’s behaviour takes time – and it may be quite a while before effects are seen.
5. Start to boost your levels of healthy scepticism and become a more critical HR consumer. What’s so great about being sceptical? Well for one thing it’s a lot of fun. Yes people get irritated, and yes they hate you for challenging their cherished beliefs. But, in the end, they always appreciate it. Scepticism is great because it makes you a much better and wiser HR consumer. It fine-tunes your BS detector and alerts you to overblown claims and marketing nonsense. When you hear something like 'employee engagement is the number one driver of organisational performance' your BS detector immediately goes off. Is there really a number one driver of performance? What’s the evidence? We should take all claims about the effectiveness of HR practices with a pinch of salt. And if that isn’t working for you, try a shovelful.
Rob Briner is professor of organisational psychology at Bath University's School of Management