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Why L&D and HR separation will cause debilitation

July 15, 2014, Perry Timms - Is it time to split HR?
Why L&D and HR separation will cause debilitation

In this month’s Harvard Business Review, Ram Charan suggests that it’s time to split HR. He argues that the HR department should be divided into two strands. One (which we may call HR-A for administration) would deal primarily with compensation and benefits and report to the CFO. The other (HR-LO?) would deal with leadership and organisational issues. It would focus on improving the people capabilities of the business and would report to the CEO. Charan goes on to conclude that the HR function needs to gain better business acumen to help organisations perform at their best and this would facilitate this process. 

It is certainly an interesting viewpoint. And perhaps a better aligned concept than that which is often put forward by many in Learning and development today – that is that L&D would be better off out of HR altogether. Indeed some go ever further to suggest that it is the HR function that is holding Learning back. 

Of course there are many different ways to structure an HR department. But taking Charan’s viewpoint, if the HR function were to be split at all, surely it is possible to make a far better case to maintain a Learning and development function in a strategic HR operation than many other of the more administrative functions. 

But there is more to this assertion than just kinship of function. Anybody planning such split would also do well to consider the following seven points before leaping into further action first:

  1. It's about the people. Why carve up a function desperately trying to get its occupational psychology head around the ever shifting shape of people and work? This will just lead to more divisions, more silos and disconnect. This will in turn lead to disjointed communication and possibly duplicate delivery and planning.  Separating Learning from engagement and performance must make the people proposition harder to deliver coherently. 
  2. HR & Learning professionals should support, challenge and learn FROM each other. I have often noticed an untapped or overlooked interplay between HR Generalists/Advisors and their Learning counterparts over their own professional development. If you are too busy to spend time developing yourselves, then you're too busy to improve and do better for those people you support, advise and skill. Improve each other and the value from HR should increase in line and help you drive your organisation forward more effectively.
  3. HR & Learning professionals have more than enough to do. Combining and pooling efforts in many areas is surely the only practical way forward. Take metrics and data for instance. HR has a relatively poor reputation within many organisations in this area. Likewise, L & D professionals have also bemoaned the lack of impactful evaluation.  So instead of driving the departments away from each other, surely it makes sense to join together and create all the people metrics systems and data hacks possible. Reports and outputs will also be more impactful and ‘holistic’ giving greater collective clout. 
  4. HR manages talent - v - talent is only as good as the Learning they have access to/can make good on. Some argue that HR doesn't manage talent. Rather, everyone does that. Others say that L&D drives talent through interventions and HR simply maps it and tracks it. Whatever the truth, HR & Learning need to come together on the talent question as it is not a turf we need to see war on.
  5. HR does the heavy loading "real people work" whilst L&D does the "non-work" Learning. This is, of course, a generalised statement and almost certainly a myth. Learning is work. Learning outside of a working environment (i.e. a classroom or e-Learning lesson) is not done instead of work. It is because of, and for work. The reality is that there is a beautiful, blurred line between Learning and work. You learn while you work; you work hard whilst you're Learning for some form of gain - something better - a new and useful skill. Learning is the only way to keep up with the changes around you.
  6. HR doesn't get I.T. whilst L&D people are all ‘e-Learning'd’ up! Once again, this is probably a myth. But in my experience, the HR generalist functions can be behind the technological curve (as it's not viewed as a core competence) whilst more L&D teams have Technology capacity and e-Learning authoring capability. Again, both elements can learn from each other.
  7. HR is retrospective and reactive; L&D is star gazing and has pipe dreams. This is a ridiculous but still firmly held view by many in business.  Though this is almost certainly a fakely polarised spectrum, having Learning and HR under the same banner does present more chances to balance both aspects and provide the best opportunity to produce an ‘entire people’ proposition. Together, HR and L & D can trade on innovation, capital and realism reckoning.

So there are seven reasons, myths, stereotypes or realities heard almost every week somewhere about the state of HR and Learning. 

And still some people want to see the Learning & Development function elsewhere and not within the rest of the fraternity.  A move I fear could debilitate nor liberate the Learning function and impair HR at a time when it can and should step up to the plate and really show impact and value.

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