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People Management: Art or Science?

Considering the definition of the word “Art” one is confronted with several meanings describing human activities varying from decorative to performance art and from the written word all the way to construction.  What seemed interesting is that most definitions referenced human responses: love, hate, like, dislike and many other reactions mainly describing polarities in opinion.

This seems to clarify the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” which seems to make Art situational, cultural, age, language or simply multi-dimensionally-behavioural specific.  As one’s reading continues a fundamental concept of the science in Art appears.

Whether it is a great musical composition, a delightful book, a timeless painting, a striking image, a scrumptious meal or a brilliantly constructed building – there are certain fundamentals essential to its creation. A simple system that is repeatable that aids the creator(s) with the process of creating Art.  It seems that if these elements are not present the Art and its appreciation might be a “one hit wonder”, short lived, not valued or simple unimportant – a craft: “something to keep one busy”.

At the risk of over simplifying I am going to call these fundamentals the scientific underpinning or erudite elements of the Art.  The science of Art seems to be a system (complex or simple) that is repeatable and can be learnt, that can be fine tuned through practice, trial and error – but is seldom incidental.

In short as one practices the science of the system one stands a far better chance at creating Art. I know this is simplified and ignoring many aspects like interests, attitude, skill, competence, experience, mood, time etc., all essential to creating Art. But key here seems to be that one cannot become a great artist and produce brilliance and value without a repeatable scientific system.

So is great HC an Art?  Is there science in HC?  Where is this science?  Is there different hypothesis of Total HC? Can we plan, predict and control this science?   

It has become very fashionable for Executives and CEO’s to refer to their respective Organisations as people based. Often stating that ‘People are truly at the heart of this Organisation’ and that its competitive edge and success can be and will be determined by its People.  I do not doubt that is true or that they really mean what they say but is this concept of People at a heart of the Organisation really understood by those uttering it?

Do we as professionals really understand what it takes to get the Organisation to this point and do we understand the science of this process well enough, so we can master the Art or is it a necessary evil and a grudge spend?

When looking at previous employers, clients and short term engagements in the petroleum, consulting, education, manufacturing, mining, construction, financial and public sector industries – differences in the Art of People Management is very clear.  There are very specific unique elements to People management one needs to understand and practice to be successful at the People Business in each of these industries. But are there certain underpinnings that transcend all?

From observation there is significant confusion between the Art and the Science of People Management, which in the heart of many line managers degrade it to a craft and often a necessary evil.

Lifting HR from a craft to a science surely means that we firstly have to all agree what the science looks like? This highlights a great missing link. Defining and practicing the science element of People in Business is part of the Professionalisation of the People Industry needs. This will play a critical role in this Art being valued and seen as a strategic function in modern Organisations.

In a search for the science in People Management I have been confronted by many seemingly conflicting ideas and concepts. Trying to look through all the coherent and sometimes incoherent practices regarding People in Business, I found great elements of science and fascinating elements of Art. Only as I separated these, did the true science start to emerge.

Those interconnected elements and universal truthsthat might indicate a repeatable system for optimally linking and managing People in organisations.

The segregation between concepts in Human Capital, Talent Management, Human Resources, Industrial Psychology, Organisational Development and several other specialisation areas like Performance Management, Learning and Development, Remuneration etc. add to the confusion.

I get the separation part! We all just want to feel important and have a sense of self worth and value. JBut can we – just for the moment look at the dynamic relationship of People in Business and the true workings of that science? Linking all these elements together into a true whole?

In the process of unpacking these to get to the Science and the Art the following needs to be discussed:

  • What is the true relationship between People, Processes and Technology in modern Organisations and should we put People truly at the heart of that relationship?
  • Is there a repeatable system for building and integrating people practices into organisations? Can we call that an evolving science?
  • Can we truly standardise how the different component part in HC links?
  • Can we define those minimum elements in the design of HC solutions that make the rest simply work?
  • What is Strategic People Management and what is its link to evolving the science?
  • What is the role of technology and its relationship with running a mature people function in organisations?
  • So, what is the role of the Head of the People Function?

By: Otto Pretorius

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