Paradox in HR Transformation

I was in a panel session at the Future of HR Forum last week. The conference started with a presentation on polycrises that included some interesting polarities, which I often talk about as well. In fact, I increasingly see paradox as the main opportunities to develop principles which act as the basis for organisation design, and HR transformation etc.

Anyway, the panel was on the Future of HR Careers, and as context, I wanted us to talk about changes in business, and in business careers, and in HR organisations, as well as personal expectations from our HR careers before discussing what this future would be? (A bit optimistic, but it was an hour long panel).

Putting these two things together, I thought it would be good to talk about paradox in HR organisation. We didn’t have time to discuss principles though, and I came up with this series of cascading paradoxes to think through some of the options which exist.


1) Business or people-centric?

This is my suggestion for the most important paradox informing just about everything we do in organisations at the moment, and the basis for my newish newsletter on multi-sided HR. Panel members thought this was a problem rather than a paradox, because we need to do both, which of course, makes it a paradox. I often find HR people struggle to see which of these polarities they favour, but am increasingly sure it makes a significant difference to the way we work, and how are organisations run.


2) Centralised or decentralised, and decentralised to what?

The second main paradox is the one that has traditionally underpinned HR organisation design, which is centralisation and decentralisation (the need to do both being the basis for having centres of excellence and business partners etc). Nowadays, I suggest we shoudl maybe be thinking about decentralisation to business areas (if business-centric) or to workforce segments and individuals (if people-centric). Practitioners not knowing if you’re business or people-centric may a sign that your’re mainly centralised, and not decentralised to either of these new polarities.


3) Specialist or generalist

The third paradox is mainly specialist or / and generalist. The more HR is centralised, the more opportunity there is for specialists. The more decentralised (to business areas or people) the more we need generalist staff who can deal with a range of issues (although we also talked about Tomas Chamorro Premuzic’s challenge that we can only outcompete AI on one or two things).


4) Vertically or horizontally focused

The final paradox is whether to work more vertically or / and horizontally. Generalists work more horizontally, but so can specialists, who can work either way.


I’d still prefer to develop principles from these paradoxes, but as a short-cut, if you can figure out how you respond to these paradoxes, you’ll be in a much better position to understand what sort of HR operating model (and therefore HR careers) will work for you? Eg if focused vertically then McKinsey’s Ulrich + or Leader led models may be most appropriate, if horizontal then their Agile, EX or machine powered models.

The conclusion for HR careers that I think we almost got to is that different organisations will increasingly be doing different things. As individuals wanting to develop an HR career across different organisations, we may need some variety across generalist and specialists, and horizontal and vertical experiences.

But we should also think about what work we would value. I ended up recommending Marcus Buckingham’s ‘Love and Work’ book, even though I hated it, which I thought was a fitting paradox to end on.


Other than we need to invest in ourselves, much more than we do – I therefore encouraged everyone to see their attendance at the Forum as just the start of a greater investment in their capabilities (and, of course, there’s an Academy – and HR transformation course – for that).


Jon Ingham

Director, Strategic HR Academy

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