Our attention has been drawn to several articles recently (here, for example, hat tip to John Sumser) pitting CFOs against HR. The Economist boarded this particular train early, with its late 2008 article The Year of the CFO by Financial Timescolumnist Lucy Kellaway.
Full disclosure: I have nothing against CFOs. Many of my most respected client relationships are with CFOs. I also happen to be married to one. But I will say this, as it pertains to my little corner of the world: For right or wrong, I have found that the typical CFO approaches employee rewards in a fundamentally different way than those of us trained in the "human" professions.
If there is a shift underway, though, let's be clear that it isn't just about us and our profession(s). It is one, as Kellaway herself asserts, that "will affect how companies are managed, what it feels like to work in them, the culture of business and even its language."
But it does have pretty profound implications for people practices, as Kellaway notes under the subheader "Goodbye 'talent', hello 'staff'":
An old truth will be whispered by the brave: most workers are not terribly talented and most of them don’t need to be, as most jobs don’t require it. In 2009 a more elitist shift will occur: companies will worry about the performance of those at the top of the pyramid, while everyone else will be managed like a commodity. “Talent” will be a word we wave goodbye to. In 2009 the word “staff” will make a comeback, as will “headcount”.
I have had a lot of opportunities to review and audit the effectiveness of reward systems - particularly incentives - in organizations like this. For the most part, reward plans are designed to fairly distribute excess profits. And they do this. But that doesn't focus attention or drive any change in behavior. And so it doesn't produce much in the way of bottom line results. Because if you treat people like a commodity - or sheep, for instance, or mere cogs in some giant wheel - they tend to act accordingly.
Jerry McAdams, author of numerous reward books including The Reward Plan Advantageand someone I had the privilege of working with at Watson Wyatt, was fond of saying that it took about eighty years after the onset of the industrial revolution for management to discover the customer, and about ninety years after that to discover the employee. Could it be that this is a cycle of sorts, and we are about to loop back to our earlier disregard for the value of "the talent"?
Do we, in fact, need a reality check, a shot of responsibility, a new level of discipline and accountability in how we manage our organizations? It is difficult to argue "no" here, given some of the excesses and examples of irresponsibility we've witnessed as the walls around us have come tumbling down. But this is the age of knowledge and the knowledge worker. Whether or not we want to pretend otherwise and treat them like interchangeable expenses, they are the chief - sometimes the only - asset underlying the worth of most businesses today. In reality, how far can our organizations allow the pendulum to swing backwards and still have a shot at success and prosperity (never mind digging out of this hole)?
At any rate, let's be clear on what's really at stake here.