· 3 min read · Features

The line between marketing and research has blurred


?We seem to be having a problem with truth in much of the Western world, and that includes HR

By outsourcing so many of the tasks that used to be performed inside organisations we have created an ‘ecosystem’ of businesses with a financial stake in what we think – and in turn what we buy. This means the distinction between marketing and ‘research’ has blurred.

A generation or so ago, if you wanted to know the state of play on employment issues you would turn first to government sources. You might also have gone to the CIPD, to specialist magazines like this one, or searched for relevant academic research.

But today there is a whole army creating accounts about the workplace. The information is no longer descriptive; now it is prescriptive. It alerts you to problems you sometimes weren’t even aware of, and offers solutions – for engaging employees, for example.

This is exactly like advertisements for drugs that begin by telling you about a disease you didn’t know you had. Problems such as low engagement are the erectile dysfunction of the modern workplace.

The most important of these infomercials come in the form of ‘reports’ – mainly produced by well-known consulting firms. It works if it’s a topic already in the news or that at least sounds plausible, such as the workforce is ageing or shrinking or under-skilled. Young people today want this or that. Technology is going to change everything.

These reports have an air of gravitas about them – great graphics, slick covers – and they always begin by asserting that this is a big problem and it’s going to get worse. This is typically backed up by surveys of clients, which find that these clients are worried too. Real evidence on the topic is almost always available elsewhere but rarely makes it into the report. We don’t get answers to what to do about this impending crisis except that we should be preparing for it. And who better to help you do that?

The whitepapers from vendors, the fast-published books from consultants and pundits, and the consulting company reports form an echo chamber. The more of these there are, the more others feel the need to jump in. And then whatever is being said becomes the conventional wisdom.

In the US we might trace the history of this back to a now largely forgotten but once incredibly influential report: Workforce 2000. In 1975 it argued that by the year 2000 the US workforce would be so diverse that white men would essentially be squeezed out. The reality, however, has been modest increases in diversity, causing little if any disruption. But not before endless seminars, programmes and plans were laid out on how to handle the problem that never happened.

Since then we have had a steady stream of crises that also never happened. In the early 2000s it was claimed we were facing a permanent labour shortage because of a declining population (it wasn’t declining). Then we apparently had a skills gap with no-one available to fill open jobs (despite the highest unemployment rate in modern times). Next came the discovery of Millennials, who apparently are different in ways no-one can quite articulate. Then came the claim that we are already mostly gig workers (which government data has debunked). Now we have the rise of AI that will eliminate most jobs.

The ‘so what?’ is that these echo chamber crises waste time, money and energy that could be directed at persistent and real problems. For example: how to make organisations more effective, how to get school-leavers up to speed so they can be productive and employable, and how to make the workplace less stressful.

It is easy to ignore all of this. But it’s hard to do that when you see other employers preparing for how to deal with, say, the end of jobs as we know them. In an era of uncertainty, where it is hard to get CFOs to spend money on anything people related, we should be more sceptical of ‘problems’ that might not actually exist.

Peter Cappelli is George W Taylor professor of management, director of the Center for Human Resources, Wharton University of Pennsylvania and our 13th HR Most Influential Thinker 2019

This piece appeared in the January 2020 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk