HR Technology Column

Harvard Business Review Becomes an HR Journal

CEOs must finally be starting to care about talent when the Harvard Business Review publishes a package of profiles of three companies, and their very different paths to maximizing talent. Surprise, shock and awe await you. And some useful tips for your own organization.

Monday, January 6, 2014
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For at least the last 20 years, I have cynically declared the large quote seen in nearly every corporate annual report -- "Our people are our most important asset" -- to be a lie!

I've been saying it publicly and privately for so long that others have started to echo those words as well. Or perhaps they were first. The truth is a holdover from the days when employees were seen exclusively as cost centers to be minimized, and not assets to be invested in. In many industries, you know that's still true.

Since the Great Recession, lots of surveys have appeared seeming to indicate that I'm wrong, showing large percentages of CEOs indicating they care about employees (or talent).

My response to that has been similar to companies declaring they use a full slate of competencies when they've only got 12 spread around every job in the joint. I think what the CEOs are saying is they care about their six direct reports who are getting their work done for them. And they're concerned about who will replace them.

Naturally, none of this applies to any industry CEO (or former CEO) I might know personally.

But my cynicism on this subject is starting to crack like pond ice in the spring. It's due to a cultural occurrence: The current Harvard Business Review running three stories about HR, talent, company culture and leaders. I figure HBR must know its audience better than I do.

Credit where credit is due: I'm not a regular HBR reader, and this cultural phenomenon was brought to my attention first by Carol Anderson in The Human Capitalist blog and Jarret Pazahanick and Luke Marson on the HR Technology ® Conference LinkedIn Group.

My take on the articles is a little different from theirs.

All three company profiles are worth a look, even though they are likely very different from your organization. Each probably has something you can use.

The editors call the package "Spotlight on Talent and Performance." I think most people will be most interested in the article "How Netflix Reinvented HR" by its former chief talent officer Patty McCord.

Naturally, Netflix is the most extreme example because it is in Silicon Valley, which I've long considered a Disneyland for how companies conduct business. I am struck by much in the profile, but most of all by the arrogance of believing -- as McCord and CEO Reed Hastings seem to -- that a company of 100 people or more can have employees who are all "A" players.

For the sake of humanity, I cling to the belief that in the precisely right role, everyone can indeed be an "A" player. But that might be based on a high-school reading of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World with its genetically-engineered Alphas, Betas, Gammas, etc.: humans created for specific work roles.

Instead, consider how hard it is to find just the right role for so many people that they will all shine.

Or consider Netflix's attitude when an "A" player's job grows beyond her skills. Retrain her after years of loyal service? Nope, never gave that a thought. Instead, fire her and give her a "spectacular package" so she can retrain herself. McCord wrote the woman in question was delighted. Really?!

Netflix's decision to abolish formal vacation allotments and travel-expense limits would be universally cheered, but you have to wonder how many companies have the culture for people not to abuse the freedom. Or outside the Valley, the widespread sense of company ownership that would make employees feel they were misspending their own money.

Definitely read it.

Also read the profile of design firm IDEO, which doesn't take employee collaboration, what it calls "IDEO's Culture of Helping," for granted. Too often, collaboration is described like a 1940s movie with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, gleefully shouting, "Let's do a show!" and dozens of friends show up to lend a hand.

Instead, this profile recognizes:

"Individuals in social groups experience conflicting impulses: As potential helpers, they may also be inclined to compete. As potential help seekers, they may also take pride in going it alone, or be distrustful of those whose assistance they could use. On both sides, help requires a commitment of time for uncertain returns and can seem like more trouble than it's worth.

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". . . Many organizations discourage helping, at least implicitly, because it is seen as incompatible with individual responsibility for productivity. Some have cultures that actually promote competition among peers, so aiding a colleague seems self-defeating."

That's exactly what I've long thought.

But abandon all cynicism, ye who enter here. The profile has terrific advice about how to get employees collaborating, at least in a creative profession. But to our dismay, IDEO did it all without any "fancy collaborative software tools or other technologies (although email and videoconferencing are used frequently)."

Most importantly, at IDEO, financial incentives don't play a big role in promoting the culture of help.

Any reader has to bring extreme skepticism to the profile of Wall Street firm BlackRock in "Building a Game-Changing Talent Strategy." Perhaps it should be read before viewing the current movie Wolf of Wall Street, but you already knew that, on Wall Street, you only eat what you kill.

This is the only article that disappoints with standard HR-speak of aligning employee goals with corporate goals and the necessity of getting "top executive team" commitment to talent management.

The article's main saving grace is the revelation that the company has The Block, an online chat room and collaboration hub, plus other types of communication to foster dialogue. Unfortunately, no real details are given about how it's used.

If you dive in, be aware: HBR requires you to register to read more than one article from an issue, but how much more will NSA's Prism Program learn about you?

HR Technology Columnist Bill Kutik is co-chair emeritus of the 17th Annual HR Technology ® Conference & Exposition, returning to Las Vegas, Oct. 8-10, 2014.  You can comment on this column at the Conference LinkedIn Group, which doesn't require prior or future conference attendance to join. He is also host of The Bill Kutik Radio Show ®. He can be reached at

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