The Most Important Challenges for HR in the Next Five Years

My experience and lots of data indicate that people are not very good at predicting the future. Rather than speculate on potential HR challenges, I would like to discuss an existing challenge that, if it went away, would represent significant progress.

The Nature of the Challenge

If we think about the history of the world since the end of the last ice age (13,000 years ago), we will see steady improvement in the quality of human life. Advances in agriculture have made food more plentiful, clothes have become more functional, transportation has become more efficient, communication has expanded its reach, public health has improved, and life has become easier. There have been costs, of course, primarily to the environment and other living species forced to cohabit with humans, but the lot of common humanity has been transformed in ways that would be unimaginable 13,000 years ago.

How can we explain this improvement in our living conditions? It is probably not due to improved practices in HR. The transformations are the result of steady incremental improvements in technology created by clever, practical people who like working with things. The first big leap forward was learning to use fire, which allowed many new food products to be cooked and consumed. Then people learned to put edges on rocks to be used as cutting tools. Four thousand years ago, people living on the Black Sea learned how to smelt gold — a surprisingly complex and tedious process. Early engineers figured out how to make wheels, and early horse whisperers put horses in front of carts. It is easy to think that this accumulation of technical knowledge led to human progress.

These improvements in technology were cultural not individual; groups of craftsmen shared observations and techniques and built upon one another’s accomplishments. Culture itself depends on certain assumptions: (1) the external world is real; (2) truth depends on: (a) observations that can be repeated (this kind of wood burns quickly, that kind burns slowly); or (b) what reliable observers tell you they have seen. Progress also depends on believing that the world is real and not something we invented to amuse ourselves.

During the last 50 years, the definition of truth has changed in popular culture. There are three sources of this change. First, stimulated by the work of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), many people began to argue that what authorities claim as scientific knowledge is political and serves the interests of powerful economic interests (e.g., climate change is a politically inspired hoax). Second, as society becomes more litigious, people increasingly think like lawyers, and for lawyers, there is no objective truth, there are just more or less convincing stories to be told. Third, as politics intrudes ever farther into everyday life, people increasingly believe the world is composed of “alternative facts” and we are free to pick and choose those that best suit our purposes.

So what we see on a massive scale is radical relativism, where truth depends on one’s perspective and agenda. If taken seriously, this will lead to the end of scientific progress. But what does it have to do with the future of HR? These trends call into question important “facts” on which productive HR processes depend.

First, human nature is rooted in biology, and it changes very slowly. Specifically, this means human motivation changes very slowly. Because leadership involves dealing with human motives, this means the principles of leadership change very slowly — e.g., what Napoleon Bonaparte knew is still valid today. Unless, of course, knowledge is politically inspired ideology.

Second, much of what HR does concerns talent identification. At its base, talent identification is a special case of personnel selection. There is one right way and many wrong ways to do talent identification. The most popular and the worst from an empirical perspective is human judgment based on interviews. The most defensible method from a legal and moral perspective is well-validated psychological assessment — a well-established process whose principles have remained unchanged for 100 years. In my view, the big challenge for HR over the next five years concerns remembering the hard earned lessons of the past. To the degree that HR pursues unvalidated gamified assessment methods and forgets the lessons of the past, true meritocracy will suffer and internal politics will drive talent identification.

This article originally appeared in the May issue of Human Resource Executive.