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Are HR Departments Stupid?

Posted by: Bruce Nussbaum on October 11, 2006

Well, yes, according to Bob Sutton, who teaches at the Stanford D-school. HR departments focus on hiring individuals, not teams or networks of people, and that doesn’t help innovation, it hurts it. Hmm. Come to think of it, HR departments also focus on firing individuals, not teams or networks of people and that hurts innovation as well. Point is, we are in the first stages of a huge talent hunt sweeping the global economy and HR departments don’t get it according to Sutton.

Two weeks ago, we ran our first D-school survey and it was called “The Talent Hunt.” We argued that if you are looking for creative talent these days, you had better check out the graduates of design thinking coming out of D-schools and D and B-school joint programs. Last week, the Economist ran a cover story on “The Search For Talent.” OK, we have a trend.

Both stories talked about individual talent and Sutton is saying that most innovation inside corporations and organizations in general come out of individuals working in groups. This is an important point. He’s got lots of research about GE to back it up too.

The key thing here is that leaders and managers—and HR departments—have to start thinking in terms of social networking, not brilliant individuals. Incentives—and disincentives—should revolve around team play. Yes, I realize that the lone individual doing breakthrough work remains important, critical at times (after all, it is Bob Sutton coming up with this insight about HR Departments and talent). But as we demass, open source and team up, it’s the magic of the team that produces the value for companies.

Reader Comments

RitaSue Siegel

October 12, 2006 2:38 AM

I always thought that the networks that some companies put together over time can create a sustainable competitive advantage. I have often seen a valuable member of one of these networks or teams leave the mother ship, having been seduced into an environment with which they have no real connection. The new employer has great expectations of such a person, but reaching out and building a new network to collaborate with, in a sea of strangers requires another skill set which not every designer has. And the organization he or she joins, needs a culture that welcomes strangers.


October 12, 2006 5:45 PM

No HR department worth its salt is thinking just about individuals. In fact, HR leaders are working on longer term issues -- recruitment, benefits, succession planning -- while trying to empower managers to understand hiring issues and building teams. HR as a field is so far ahead on creating dynamic team-structured offices that the board room (and C-level groups) are only now catching up. I say this in part because my father is an HR manager -- and I've been reading his HR magazines and scholarly papers for years. They've been at the forefront of breaking down silos and innovation in management since at least the 80s. That doesn't mean that anyone in the executive suite really listened to them (it took designers, apparently, to get the 'suits' to take notice), but that doesn't mean they haven't been there. There might even be a more forgiving case to be made that the innovation culture is a direct result of HR empowering managers and team leaders to make the types of HR decisions that 'personnel' would have made 30 years ago. Like Dentists, HR managers have seen that the future of their profession was a lot less HR managers a good 20 some odd years ago.

Vin McCauley

June 24, 2009 2:49 AM

Interesting concept, not sure if I'd say HR Departments are stupid ... regardless, you may want to check out our website literally address the discussion above. Google 'employment social network' and we'll come up. Bob Sutton makes an intersting arguement about hiring networks or teams verses invdividuals.

Thanks for writing.

Vin McCauley

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Want to stop talking about innovation and learn how to make it work for you? Bruce Nussbaum takes you deep into the latest thinking about innovation and design with daily scoops, provocative perspectives and case studies. Nussbaum is at the center of a global conversation on the growing discipline of innovation and the deepening field of design thinking. Read him to discover what social networking works—and what doesn’t. Discover where service innovation is going and how experience design is shaping up. Learn which schools are graduating the most creative talent and which consulting firms are the hottest. And get his take on what the smartest companies are doing in the U.S., Asia and Europe, far ahead of the pack.

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