Perspective: Peter Wilson on the science in HR


When purveyors and practitioners of the physical and natural sciences hear that there is science in HR, the reaction is usually one of disbelief or incredulity.

In fact, there is quite a lot of both art and science in what our profession does, and that’s evolved over the last 100 years. Early last century, personnel were first broken out of the stores and supply function. To the Henry Fords of the time, recruiting humans was a bit like acquiring nuts and bolts, even if they could speak and had feelings. In the 1920s, strikes at the Ford factory and other major industrial sites forced the organisation’s people purchasers to spread their wings into industrial relations (IR).

Although IR practice started off having more aspects of riot control than we do today, the acquisition of this role was a positive move for the profession because it began the practice of employers negotiating with workers. We began to see, craft and deliver win-win solutions between employers and employees. Then came the Hawthorne experiment, when industrial psychologists entered the HR space and studied motivation and engagement at the Westinghouse factory. Hawthorne showed that employing ergonomics, consultation, setting up healthier operating environments and introducing rest breaks actually got productivity back on track. Profitability improved, and the reports became pleasant after-work reading for the bosses.

Industrial and clinical psychology then continued their incursions into our profession, as did the arrival of people management metrics. CEOs got involved and wanted the COO, CFO and CHRO to begin cooperating on developing business cases and making them happen. So our organic workplace system became recognised for what it was. CHRO’s began to fight back after years of being shoved around, and so began the war for talent in the 1990s. In redesigning the workplace to fight that, HR professionals begin to gain measurements on how good (or not) line management was, all the way up to the CEO’s office. We also began measuring the importance of these drivers to organisational performance, and whether it was a model employer. The arrival of social media has only intensified the need to know and respect these trends.

A new combined science has emerged to help us analyse workers and workplace performance and engagement – neuro-leadership. It is a combination of neuroscience, psychological sciences and human resources. MRI technology has enabled us to measure and monitor brain patterns for human responses to different styles of workplace management. Fortunately, neuro-leadership gave us hard data confirming that modern servant leadership styles are the most effective, as opposed to the good old command and control styles that were taught in our business schools until the late 1980s.

So, over the past century the bar has lifted on what our profession is, and what’s expected from practitioners within it. As part of that dynamism, AHRI has just upgraded its Model of Excellence (MoE) for modern HR practice, based on extensive international and local research. The new MoE will underpin all our programs – from grading and certifying AHRI members, to our PD content, and also in selection of event speakers with expertise in areas relevant to the wants and needs of this modern profession.

Art and science in HR? Absolutely, and the forces adding momentum here continue unabated.

This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the August 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘The science in HR’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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Perspective: Peter Wilson on the science in HR


When purveyors and practitioners of the physical and natural sciences hear that there is science in HR, the reaction is usually one of disbelief or incredulity.

In fact, there is quite a lot of both art and science in what our profession does, and that’s evolved over the last 100 years. Early last century, personnel were first broken out of the stores and supply function. To the Henry Fords of the time, recruiting humans was a bit like acquiring nuts and bolts, even if they could speak and had feelings. In the 1920s, strikes at the Ford factory and other major industrial sites forced the organisation’s people purchasers to spread their wings into industrial relations (IR).

Although IR practice started off having more aspects of riot control than we do today, the acquisition of this role was a positive move for the profession because it began the practice of employers negotiating with workers. We began to see, craft and deliver win-win solutions between employers and employees. Then came the Hawthorne experiment, when industrial psychologists entered the HR space and studied motivation and engagement at the Westinghouse factory. Hawthorne showed that employing ergonomics, consultation, setting up healthier operating environments and introducing rest breaks actually got productivity back on track. Profitability improved, and the reports became pleasant after-work reading for the bosses.

Industrial and clinical psychology then continued their incursions into our profession, as did the arrival of people management metrics. CEOs got involved and wanted the COO, CFO and CHRO to begin cooperating on developing business cases and making them happen. So our organic workplace system became recognised for what it was. CHRO’s began to fight back after years of being shoved around, and so began the war for talent in the 1990s. In redesigning the workplace to fight that, HR professionals begin to gain measurements on how good (or not) line management was, all the way up to the CEO’s office. We also began measuring the importance of these drivers to organisational performance, and whether it was a model employer. The arrival of social media has only intensified the need to know and respect these trends.

A new combined science has emerged to help us analyse workers and workplace performance and engagement – neuro-leadership. It is a combination of neuroscience, psychological sciences and human resources. MRI technology has enabled us to measure and monitor brain patterns for human responses to different styles of workplace management. Fortunately, neuro-leadership gave us hard data confirming that modern servant leadership styles are the most effective, as opposed to the good old command and control styles that were taught in our business schools until the late 1980s.

So, over the past century the bar has lifted on what our profession is, and what’s expected from practitioners within it. As part of that dynamism, AHRI has just upgraded its Model of Excellence (MoE) for modern HR practice, based on extensive international and local research. The new MoE will underpin all our programs – from grading and certifying AHRI members, to our PD content, and also in selection of event speakers with expertise in areas relevant to the wants and needs of this modern profession.

Art and science in HR? Absolutely, and the forces adding momentum here continue unabated.

This article is an edited version. The full article was first published in the August 2015 issue of HRMonthly magazine as ‘The science in HR’. AHRI members receive HRMonthly 11 times per year as part of their membership. Find out more about AHRI membership here

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