The Meaning of [HR] Life?


It started as a jovial discussion with some office colleagues about the “Meaning of Life” – that yet unanswered question which has plagued human kind since the beginning of our existence. Naturally we considered all unconventional opinions such as that of Monty Python,

“Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.”

the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

“The answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything = 42″

and to the more serious, such as concentration camp survivor Victor Frankl’s resolve to  “Having a sense of purpose that keeps your eyes on meaningful goals ahead” and general theological views which purport “To love and serve your god, and love and serve others”

But it didn’t take long before the flavour of the conversation became focussed on our area of expertise, and we found ourselves asking if there is a singular fundamental reason for the existence of HR Management. It’s a profound question that may not have been asked before (nothing that Google had to offer) – well perhaps it has been asked, but probably not answered.

In trying to answer the question our natural HR instincts lead us to describe HR activities – you know, the tons of things HR gets involved with in-between “Hiring & Firing” such as recruitment, talent development, learning, administration, workforce planning, comp & benefits, strategy etc. We raised our discussion to a “People Impact” and “Effective business through people” view which got us a little closer, but we were still unable to reach consensus on the proverbial question.

We reached out to Lyle Cooper, who likes to ponder difficult HR questions. He said that “No person has had any luck in being able to absolutely define and therefore control human behaviour”- he makes it a life-rule to run as fast as he can from anyone who claims to have a definitive answer about people, culture, life, afterlife etc.

Lyle’s point really goes to the heart of social (or human) sciences, the basis for much of what HR does, in that they are not exact sciences. No matter how hard we try, we are not going to create the perfect performance management environment, a perfect engagement model or the ultimate HR process.

It was this point that reminded us of the ongoing debate amongst mathematicians about the answer to the mathematical statement 0^0(zero raised to the power of zero). The arguments as to whether the answer is 1(one), 0(zero) or indeterminate are excruciatingly painful to read and understand (especially if you are not a mathematician like me). But we did find a pragmatic commentator with a view that suggested using 0^0 = 1 was preferable, as it was more useful than the alternative choices, leading to simpler theorems, or feeling more “natural” to mathematicians. His quote “The choice is not “right”, it is merely nice”, is resoundingly similar to the “lack-of-evidence” and “soft & fluffy” disputes HR finds itself embroiled in.

So, while not perfect in any way, our answer to the question “What is the Meaning of HR?” is “0^0 “. It fits perfectly with mathematician’s dilemma.  HR is unlikely to ever agree on a common reason for our existence (the answer). We make scientific concessions, build faulty frameworks, create imperfect processes and design software to support this imperfect HR world. All of this so HR professionals can deliver people services in a way that suits their organisations needs.

One day we may find that much of what HR is doing is wrong, just like many mathematical assumptions may be questioned if and when someone conclusively proves what the answer to 0^0 is.

So HR is imperfect! But so is mathematics (so it seems) – the next time someone challenges you on your framework, assumptions or software choices, be sure to remind them that the meaning of HR = 0^0.


Published on 13 March, 2015