So HR is imperfect!, but so is mathematics – get over it!

photo credit: All rights reserved by shellydelight – Flikr

updated March 2016

It started as a jovial discussion with some office colleagues about the “Meaning of Life” – that yet unanswered question which has plagued human kind since the beginning of our existence. Naturally we considered all unconventional opinions such as that of Monty Python,

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

“The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything = 42”

and to the more serious, such as concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl’s resolve to  “Having a sense of purpose that keeps your eyes on meaningful goals ahead” and general theological views which purport “To love and serve your god, and love and serve others”

But it didn’t take long before the flavour of the conversation became focussed on People…. more so the people in the workforce. We found ourselves asking a singular and fundamental question:


It’s a profound question that may have been asked before, but probably not simply answered.

In trying to answer the question our natural HR instincts lead us to describe HR activities – you know, the tons of things HR gets involved with in-between “Hiring & Firing” such as recruitment, talent development, learning, administration, workforce planning, comp & benefits, strategy etc. We raised our discussion to a “People Impact” and “Value through people” view which got us a little closer, but we were still unable to reach consensus on the proverbial question.

I reached out to my good mate Lyle Cooper, who likes to ponder difficult HR questions. He reminded me that “No person has been able to absolutely define and therefore control human behaviour”- he makes it a life-rule to run as fast as he can from anyone who claims to have a definitive answer about people, culture, life, afterlife etc.

Lyle’s point really goes to the heart of social (or human) sciences, the basis for much of what HR does, in that they are not perfect sciences. No matter how hard we try, we are not going to create the perfect performance management environment, a perfect engagement model or the ultimate user experience.

And it was this point that reminded me of the ongoing debate among mathematicians about the answer to the mathematical statement 00 (zero raised to the power of zero). The arguments as to whether the answer is 1(one), 0(zero) or indeterminate are excruciatingly painful to read and understand (especially if you are not a mathematician like me).

But while there are extreme views, most mathematicians agree  that  00 = 1 is preferable, as it is more useful than the alternative choices, leading to simpler theorems, or feeling more “natural” to mathematicians.

“The choice is not “right”, it is merely nice”, is resoundingly similar to the “lack-of-evidence” and “soft & fluffy” disputes HR finds itself embroiled in.

So, while not perfect in any way, my response to the question “WHY DOES HR EXIST?” is “00. It fits perfectly with mathematician’s dilemma.   Business functions and HR professionals are unlikely to ever agree on a common reason for HR’s existence, but by accepting 00  = 1, HR professionals are able to move forward. HR will make validity concessions, builds faulty frameworks, creates imperfect processes and design software to support an imperfect business environment – and that’s okay!

One day we may find that much of what HR is doing is wrong, in the same way many mathematical assumptions may be questioned if and when someone conclusively proves what the answer to 00 is. But until it’s proved otherwise, let HR execute its stuff…its time to stop focusing on the equation!

HR is imperfect!, but so is mathematics (and therefor finance, procurement and operations management) – the next time someone challenges  your HR framework, assumptions or software choices, be sure to remind them that the meaning of HR = 00.

Rob Scott is the Global Lead: HR Strategy and Innovation for Presence of IT, A global HR,Talent, Payroll and WFM consultancy.

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