What Does HR Have To Unlearn?

I’ve been taking stock of the news about HR lately and trying to find a pattern in it.  I did.

The pattern I found is the new topics about HR today are exactly the same as they were the day before, and the day before that, and the year before that, etc.  In other words – there is nothing new in the news about HR.  Same problems different day/month/year.

  • We are still talking about engagement.
  • We are still talking about performance reviews.
  • We are still talking about talent management.
  • We are still talking about furniture.

I saw a slide presentation on the “Future of HR” and compared that to an article written in 2001 about HR in the future and you know what – the topics were about 70% the same.  Yep… the things we think that will happen in HR in the next 10 years we thought were going to happen in the last 10 years.

I wonder why we are playing Groundhog Day with HR?

Could it be that we think we know things that just aren’t true?

A Test

Below is a problem that most preschool children can solve in about 5-10 minutes.  People with higher education take over an hour.

Below are a series of numbers.  Your task is to use the available information in the list to determine the final number in the list.  Ready… go!  (If you’ve seen this before don’t blurt out the answer.)

8809 = 6

7111 = 0

2172 = 0

6666 = 4

1111 = 0

3213 = 0

7662 = 2

9313 = 1

0000 = 4

2222 = 0

3333 = 0

5555 = 0

8913 = 3

8096 = 5

7777 = 0

9999 = 4

7756 = 1

6855 = 3

9881 = 5

5531 = 0

 2581 = ????

Did you figure it out?

Here’s the answer – 2581 = 2

Huh you say?  Yep… the trick is that each of the numbers after the equal sign is the number of “circles” in the previous 4 numbers.  In the last number, only the 8 has any circles in it (top and bottom) so the answer is 2.

Here’s the list to test it out: 0=1, 1=0, 2=0, 3=0, 4=0, 5=0, 6=1, 7=0, 8=2, 9=1

Now check that against the list… 8809=6…. 0000=4.

It is as simple as counting the number of circles in the previous 4 numbers.

Unlearning is Key

The reason that most preschool children can get this is that they haven’t learned about equations and numbers.  The numbers in the list are simply shapes – they don’t represent numbers like you and I think of numbers.  They quickly pick up the pattern of circles because they are looking at shapes and you and I are looking for math equations.

You need to unlearn that numbers are always associated with some sort of addition/subtraction/multiplication/division problem.  Solving the problem is hard until you disconnect your thinking from what you have learned.

What Does HR Need to Unlearn?

I’m starting to think that the reason we see similar problems and issues arise year after year and decade after decade is that we are still trying to solve those problems in a way that may not make sense.  HR may need to “unlearn” in order to solve the problem.

Here are some things we may need to unlearn in order to move forward…

  1. HR is a department (can it be a service within all the other departments – distributed not centralized?)
  2. HR is responsible for employee engagement/satisfaction/recognition and reward (Isn’t this best handled by individual managers?  Why is HR involved?
  3. HR is responsible for legal issues associated with people (is it HR or Operations issue to deal with OSHA and Safety laws?  Who does it now in your organization?)
  4. HR is responsible for talent acquisition (or should the individual department/manager have that responsibility?)

Those are just a few I could come up with off the top of my head.  I’m sure there are a ton more.

Too often we are held back in solving a problem because we accept what we know as fact when the truth may be that it is only a fact because we keep thinking it is.

I would love to see your thinking on what HR should “unlearn” in order to move forward on the promise the people in an organization hold for the company.

FOT Background Check

Paul Hebert
Paul Hebert is the Senior Director of Solutions Architecture at Creative Group Inc and a writer, speaker and consultant. Paul focuses on influencing behaviors and driving business results through employees, channel partners and consumers. Over the course of his career, Paul has worked closely with clients to design influence, marketing, motivation, incentive, loyalty, recognition and reward programs to increase effectiveness and reduce costs. Paul is a recognized authority on incentives and performance motivation. Want to know what’s going to motivate your people to perform at their best and impact the bottom line? Want to know whether your service award program really means anything at all? Curious what psychological principles drive sales behavior? Paul’s your guy… unless you fervently bow down to Maslow. Check out his personal blog at "What Is Paul Thinking?" when you're tired of his FOT rants.


  1. Thanks Paul for engaging us on this topic.
    As a global HR, leadership and talent evangelist I say HR’s time to think across silos has come. Clients want and are demanding a portfolio approach to HR. HR is not only challenged to be more strategic but also to morph into more of a business mindset: to innovate and foster high ROI. The HR business altogether is going through a huge transformation as you know, with big data, cloud and mobility. It’s much easier to look at the parage and chill. However, not changing isn’t an option anymore at the risk of becoming obsolete. HR needs to put its feet firmlt in the C-suite and add-value. We have access to a wealth of data to support decisions, let’s grab the opportunity by the horns. We’re not living like birds, let’s make sure we tap into our colelctive intelligence and elevate the discourse!

  2. Paul Hebert says:

    Thanks for the comment Johann. I’d take the question even to another level – what would a company do if they made it illegal to have an HR department? What would the org do? That is the ultimate unlearning – eliminate the department, the tasks, the strategy, the ROI, the chair at the table. If employees truly are the point of differentiation – how would you leverage that without HR? Now we’re really unlearning…

    I might even suggest that HR needs to unlearn they need to be in the C-suite. Uh -oh…now I’ve done it…

    • CT says:

      In my experience, department managers, the ones who have knowledge and abilities to think, should be sent to these little HR certifification classes to learn all the hot-button HR issues. Then, rather than hiring a whole department, just hire an attorney.

      If you think about it, no one with critical thinking, analytical, and technical skills would NEVER pick HR as a profession. So you have all these non-thinkers wedging their way into decision making positions, and they’re not equipt. That’s why they end up reducing value. It spills over into the entire economy.

  3. Logan Meece says:


    Why does it need to stop at HR then? Why don’t we eliminate the Sales team and make everyone responsible for a quota? Why have departments at all?

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Logan, Logan, Logan…. I’m not advocating getting rid of HR – I’m saying that by changing the question you might get different answers… (and I think there would be a ton of people in any organization who would love it if they got rid of the sales team. )

      My question is if you did get rid of HR how would the functions currently done my HR get completed? Should they? What is priority and what is not.

      I think sometimes we forget that ideas such as this are there to help expand our thinking process – not offer a specific remedies.

  4. Logan Meece says:

    We are certainly trying to push a lot of the HR functions to the Managers. And while my comment probably sounded more smart a$$ than intended…I think there are certain functions that everyone should champion. Why can’t everyone be allowed to make a ‘sale’? Should companies have a way to reward employees that make a referral that leads to a sale?

    And I think everyone should be in Talent Acquisition! Every manager should engage and reward their employees.

    I understand what you are asking, but I think it’s just semantics. The work doesn’t change, so decentralizing or changing the title of who does the work won’t change it.

    For instance, Tony LaRussa refused to call Jason Motte the closer during the Cardinals World Series run in 2011. But that doesn’t change the fact that he got the last out in every game they won except Carpenters complete game. He was closing games without being called the closer…and he did it the same way.

    But maybe you are talking about doing the work more ‘by committee’. So instead of having a group of skilled recruiters…you assign the recruiting responsibilities to the Manager that has the open position.

    Your question is definitely a thought provoker. But I also wonder….100 years ago did a company sit back and say “hey, instead of having each manager do all this work their own way and taking time away from what they are best at, why not have a group of employees that is really good at this stuff focus on it?”

    I really did enjoy your article though. Here is a fun number problem for you that a lot of educated people answer incorrectly:

    If a bat and a ball together costs $1.10
    And the bat costs $1 more than the ball.
    How much does the ball cost?

    • PaulHebert says:

      I’ve done that problem about 100 times and still have to take a few seconds to get my mind around it.

      It is an interesting story if you want to revisit the history of HR – it was initially designed to answer a very specific “governmental” issue. Before HR most if not all “departments” in an organization existed to advance the needs of the company – HR was one of the few that was initially designed in response to an outside requirement – in effect a defensive department – something the company wouldn’t have if they didn’t HAVE to.

      So in fact – no company decided to “…why not have a group of employees that is really good at this stuff focus on it?” They initially didn’t need it or want it. So now what do you do?

      Is the need that created the department still a need?

  5. Logan Meece says:

    “Too often we are held back in solving a problem because we accept what we know as fact when the truth may be that it is only a fact because we keep thinking it is”

    I really like this Paul. It reminds me (and I believe this is your main idea here) that the more people hear or see or read something, they begin to accept it as true or fact.

    There has always been an HR department…so how could you possible get rid of one!?!?!

    • PaulHebert says:

      Or change the purpose/function of it. That is really where I’m going. I think there is a DIFFERENT need in companies – and it is a need that HR SHOULD fulfill – but they can’t because they can’t see over the “historical” requirements of HR.

      Here’s another example of this type of thinking…

      Why are newspapers printed on large sheets of paper? The answer will surprise you – and it has no reason or rhyme in today’s world (fact – they were printed on large sheets because initially in the UK they taxed newspapers on the number of pages – therefore big sheets of paper = less pages – so why do we continue to do it?) So – should we change the size of newspapers?

  6. Logan Meece says:

    So the Government made companies have an HR department?

    • PaulHebert says:

      Not directly. My research showed that NCR corporation was the first company with a “personnel” department formed to respond to new government requirements around how labor was managed in a company. It was created to be a department that handled legal grievances, safety issues driven off legislation and new legislative issues. In other words – without the government requirements there wasn’t a need for HR.

  7. Logan Meece says:

    I guess my question is, why didn’t each manager respond to what the Government was asking for?

  8. Chris Willis says:

    Paul –

    You have hit upon the fundamental problem with what we call “HR Transformation.” So many organizations who believe they transformed themselves through various costly initiatives over the past decade far and large attempted to improve, automate, or outsource what was already in place. Calling an HR Generalist an HRBP and dubbing an HR Specialist a COE does not a transformation make!

    True Transformation can only take place when one is willing to envision a future that isn’t based on the past, then put their talent and skills to use in shaping that new framework. It is indeed time to Unlearn HR.

  9. Logan Meece says:

    Hey Paul,

    I think it start before that…it started as “Industrial Welfare” in the 1830s…factory inspectors. Then regulating the number of hours a child could work to 60 in the 1860s

  10. Logan Meece says:

    And Paul…I think the question is should we have Newspapers at all?!?! (I think so)

    • PaulHebert says:

      exactly – and if yes – do they serve a different purpose today than they did in the past? is it more about permanent information than it is about “news?”

  11. Michelle says:

    Great discussion here. I strongly believe that HR is an important strategic function at the leadership perspective. That is, it must operate strategically. The right people are the most important asset to an organization, so how do we acquire one more like our best, continuous discipline in development of our talent, should all be conceptualized at a high and strategic level. On the execution level, that’s when HR should serve, support and multiply people-focused efforts through education and strong partnerships with each area leaders and engage,et of employees.

    Johann, thanks so much for your comments. Excellent businesses have always pushed itself to make data-driven intelligent decisions, so HR should function with that mentality. How do we apply metrics and collect valuable data to help with drive decision around the most important asset in the organization? That should be constant thoughts on excellent HR leaders minds. How do we build a strong and sustainable culture that facilitates top-down (mindset of the leader) and bottom up (engaging all employees from the frontline up) to continuously keep our talents. We have to develop strategies, and execute through, emphasizing once again, strong support, partnerships, education through the whole organization so we could multiply impact. One thing to unlearn is that HR is not to regulate and administer but to serve, support and make an impact on the organization’s mission through optimizing the potentials of its human capital. Jim Collins says “first who, then what.” It is our job to promote the focuses on the “who”. I like to see the our educational systems out there to continuously teaches transactional HR AND transformational HR. Lets learn to master our offensive and defensive strategies!

  12. anne sweeney says:

    Get Rid of all those ditzy, empty headed Blondes ! Stop Ageism ! Hire College Grads and Give that experience you keep asking them to have !

  13. @fredericw says:

    Agreed with your post! I was playing with the same kind of idea: “reverse HR” : http://fredericw.com/who-i-am-what-i-believe-in/

  14. Charles Crabtree says:

    I believe that HR or any other company representative should not be allowed to place personal information on a retirees folder to black list him/her
    without notifying the retiree as to what it is because this information prevents subject from being employed,
    and harms the whole family.

  15. PJ Zupanski says:

    I have to say I have some points of contention with this:

    First- I must be a Pre-schooler or perhaps being in HR for a few years I’ve learned a thing or two about humans and their development- whether it’s MBTI and its development stages, Predictive Index, disc, etc. I would expect my fellow HR are also familiar with several of the recent tools to assess ‘personality’/ communication styles as well as in-house silent experts on human interactions. I would also think my fellow HR are well-versed on motivation centers and techniques by generation.

    And since when has any functional department’s essential responsibilities change more than 70%? Last I knew Customer Service was still finding the best way to serve customers, and to communicate within a company the customer feedback highlighting key issues for development to work on. They use their skills at influence too to reduce customer complaints and improve customer retention. Last I knew their tools were changing too- but their essential mission doesn’t.

    Since when has HR’s knowledge area and essential mission of being a resource to managers and employees on human interaction changed? Like every other functional department, we have our efficiencies and economies of scale in employment records, benefits, recruitment sourcing strategy, etc. However we also key areas of knowledge in incentive compensation, training resources, and communication. So depending on the company strategy we in HR devise our strategy out of our wealth of knowledge and tools to help any company breakthrough and reach the next level.

    Advice columns are one thing, but please don’t make HR look like were administrative assistants treading water and falling over ourselves. Maybe next time you could talk about what HR does bring to the executive table.

    • PaulHebert says:

      PJ – I think you’ve missed the point. I’m sure you and many other HR professionals have learned a ton. I’m sure you’ve gone back to your companies and instituted well-thought out impressive HR practices and procedures. No one is saying HR isn’t doing their job. I’m saying that the history shows that the same issues seem to keep coming up over and over. As Doctor Phil would say – “how’s that working out for you?”

      My suggestion is that HR may need to stop thinking the same way and expecting different outcomes.

      In fact MANY functional areas have had to reevaluate their value and their process. You mentioned customer service – have you not seen all the ways that social media has changed how customer service is provided, managed and monitored. In fact, customer service is becoming LESS of a department and more of a line item on every employees job description.

      I can also say without a shred of worry – that a huge number of HR departments do NOT understand motivation and what makes humans tick – regardless of generation (which fyi – is a huge red herring sold to HR by consultants.) I can attest to that simply based on the programs I’ve had to revamp, rework and scrap that were based on “the latest theory of motivation” that HR read in or heard. Yeah – I’m looking at you Alfie Kohn and Dan Pink.

      I never once suggested that HR were administrative assistants – I said that it might be a good idea to test assumptions and see if there are different ways to achieve the objective – assuming the objective is even valid any more.

      I hope you’re doing what you say HR is doing in your comment – that would mean you are doing an awesome job. I can say that based on the sheer volume of information on blogs, twitter, etc. – and my experience with a couple of companies I’ve worked for – you are an anomaly.

  16. Umberto says:

    I think this could be the right time to rethink to HR mission but this means we have to prepare a new generation of managers (at all levels) able to face with all kind of personnel issues.

    It is a problem of competence development and attitude as well.

    Dispite official declarations my experience confirms that managers frequently dislike to deal with unconfortable discussion with people and prefer to delegate this to someone else. This is probably the main reason why HR depts survive.

    Then, until managers are not ready to take the responsability of the all the HR activities, the HR dept will survive or it will be replace by external consultants like George Clooney just to say “we fired HRs!”

    • Paul Hebert says:

      Umberto – I’m with you 1000% here – the managers need to be tasked with some of this work. Until we put that responsibility in their job descriptions we will be having these same conversations in the next 10 years. THAT IS THE #1 thing on the to-do list if HR wants to be more relevant. IMHO.

  17. Shannon says:

    In the 2 retail companies I’ve been in, all the things you’ve described above are done by managers in the field; they are their own Tier 1 HR. They handle most of their own employee relations issues, performance issues, recognition, and engagement. They also do all their own “feet on the street” recruiting–drumming up employee referrals, contacting local sources, etc.

    This was not the case in the traditional corporations I worked at previously.

  18. Tatiana Beale says:

    Hi there, I find your post interesting. I believe HR needs to unlearn the notion that HR may not have a voice at the table with other business leaders. It’s difficult for HR to get in the business conversation as a strategic power player because HR is viewed as benefits administrators and payroll at large organizations. What about the impact HR has on the success of employees? Aren’t employees responsible for creating happy, loyal customers and driving results? HR does have a voice, and HR should use it. HR could have a substantial impact on business performance by using its voice and getting in the conversation to drive employees better.

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