HR and the 15-year doom loop

HR and the 15-year doom loop

The status of HR has significantly not improved in 15 years

Robert Bolton

Partner, Global HR Centre of Excellence

KPMG in the UK


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Eyes of God

As the findings of a recent survey of ours suggest, HR apparently sees the current environment as a potential catalyst to transform itself into a strategic player.

I should be encouraged by this but can’t help feeling I’ve heard it all before – for pretty much each of the past fifteen years. That’s how long I think that HR has been stuck in what I term its “current doom loop".

Fifteen years of pursuing generic best practice and benchmarks in the hope of pinning down a position of influence at the top table. Fifteen years in which this goal has been pursued at the expense of actually driving specific value in organisations.

Fifteen years in which the status of HR has not significantly advanced when I scan the business landscape.


Little wonder then that this research shows HR professionals themselves admitting to the stigma attached to their profession.

Anyone familiar with systems archetype thinking (recognising repeating patterns of behaviour in teams, businesses or society) should recognise a “Shifting the Burden” pattern evident within many HR teams.

This is a pattern of behaviour where the problem encourages a quick fix solution that shifts the burden away from finding the root cause solution.


Quite simply, the problem is that there is a perceived lack of credibility within HR and an inability to deliver value. In an effort to rectify this problem, symptomatic fixes are pursued via the latest generic best practice models.

The net result is a diversion of attention away from where the real value lies – in pursuing solutions tailored to the unique circumstances and requirements of any given business.

At the conclusion of all that, strategic involvement and influence is actually diminished and so the cycle repeats.

That’s the doom loop; that’s the vicious cycle which HR finds itself unable to break out from.

Pursuing the universally acceptable

How has this happened? It’s all about favouring the generic solution over the unique solution. I believe that HR’s pursuit of the universally acceptable approach has been its undoing.

The generic application of the classic but undifferentiated Ulrich model can be seen as a contributory factor here. I think that if you looked at a random selection of HR teams you would see more similarities than differences – and I don’t see how that can be right.

How can an HR team that supports a business whose unique selling proposition is based around product innovation be so similar to a team supporting a business based around operational excellence for example? They shouldn’t be so similar - as they should both be uniquely configured in order to drive value within their business.

Avoiding an agonizing death

The typical Finance team is often held up as an example of how implementing generic best practice can work. The difference there though is that everyone has bought into that best practice because it is clear how it delivers value to the business, reinforced by such frameworks as US GAAP and IFSR. Generic HR models have not, and will never be able to, prove their value in a comparable fashion.

This may sound simply like a debate around dominant HR ideologies but I fear that, such is the extent of HR’s decline, that HR must break out of this loop now or die a rather agonizing death.

A majority of the survey respondents predict a future in which HR is increasingly consolidated into a multi tier general business services. I could see that translating into HR’s transactional activities becoming part of an integrated back office, reporting into a Chief Admin Officer.

People agenda architects

What would remain would be a much smaller team of “people agenda architects”, probably reporting into a Chief Change Officer. To be honest, that may not even be recognisable as an HR function any longer.

Some businesses could go further still and have leadership taking direct charge of the shape of the business themselves, supplemented at the strategic level by nothing more than external consultancy support.

I leave it to the reader to decide here what is desirable and what is undesirable! However, the fact remains that HR is reaching the point at which it needs to consciously try to break clear of this doom loop.

Another fifteen years of pursuing generic best practice in the vain hope that it reaps rewards will do no-one any favours.


Robert Bolton is global lead in KPMG’s HR Centre of Excellence

This article represents the views of the author only, and does not necessarily represent the views or professional advice of KPMG in the UK.

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