Paradigm paralysis: Shake it off!


At the end of November last year I was invited to present a paper at a convention in Harare organised by a human resources consulting firm.

On the sidelines of the convention, I had an opportunity to interact with some of the participants, who predominantly were human resources (HR) managers and officers.

One participant asked me why HR is not respected in most organisations and why it is always the case that HR is required to “earn” their place at the boardroom table when seats for all other functions are already guaranteed?

If it is true that “people are our most important asset” as most organisations are won’t to say, why is it that HR does not have automatic ticket to the boardroom?

Of course, I had a ready answer to the questions. The problem is no further than HR itself. HR professionals define their job too narrowly.

To illustrate what I meant, let me pluck out a paragraph from a brilliant article entitled Marketing Myopia by marketing guru Ted Levitt: “The railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined.

That grew. The railroads are in trouble today not because the need was filled by others (cars, trucks, airplanes, even telephones), but because it was not filled by the railroads themselves.

They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business.

The reason they defined their industry wrong was because they were railroad-oriented instead of transportation-oriented; they were product-oriented instead of customer-oriented”.

This paragraph was written thirty years ago. How true this is even today!

There is only one disease afflicting many HR professionals. It is called paradigm paralysis. Paradigm paralysis is our inability or refusal to see beyond our current models of thinking. It is similar to what psychologists call “confirmation bias”.

We see what we want to see. We remain stuck in modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past. Perhaps this is their greatest undoing. In primary school, we learnt of Galileo and his theory of the heliocentric universe.

For daring to say that the world was spherical in shape when convention had it that it was tabular, Galileo spent the last part of his life in solitary confinement!

Paradigm paralysis can block our vision of the future. There are so many famous examples outside HR to prove this:

“This telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” — Western Union internal memo, 1876 “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”

— Charles H Duell, Commissioner, US Office of Patents, 1899 “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” — HM Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927
“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” — Thomas Watson – chairman of IBM, 1943.

“There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in their home” – Ken Olsen, chairman of Digital Equipment Corporation, 1977.

Just how wrong can a person be! All these statements were made by capable men leading successful organisations.

Predictably, and befittingly, all those who failed to make a shift in their mindsets in unison with the changing times met their demise after leading their organisations along garden paths.

Many leading companies plummeted from the pinnacle of success to the depths of failure when market conditions changed. What are the lessons for HR?

In a Harvard Business Review article entitled Competing for the Future, Hamel and Prahalad note: “All of us are prisoners, to one degree or another, of our experience.”

The inability to adapt is inherent in all of us. How many HR practitioners are prisoners of their own experience, unable to come to terms with rapidly changing circumstances?

They are so preoccupied with the past that the future is passing them by. They get stuck in their tried-and-true activities, even in the face of dramatic shifts in the environment. Instead of digging themselves out of the hole, they dig themselves in deeper.

What have been the common HR excuses? From my experience, there are four of these. “I did not know it was my responsibility”; “I knew it was my responsibility, but did not understand what I was supposed to do and/or how”; “I knew it was my responsibility, knew what and how, but did not have the time”; “I knew it was my responsibility, knew what and how, had the time, but frankly did not see the value to the company or me!”

We are all aware of the less than flattering stereotypes of HR professionals. But as we all know, perception is as important as reality.

A study by the University of Michigan in the 1990s directed by Professor Wayne Brockbank has confirmed that credibility is a key factor in how people assess the competence of HR professionals.

This is corroborated by research findings in the 2006 McKinsey Quarterly where the influence of HR departments was found to be declining.

The majority of line managers surveyed did not regard HR as a strategic business partner (60%) and they said HR lacked the capabilities to develop talent strategies aligned with business objectives (58%).

Over the years, we have been bombarded left, right and centre by research findings such as these, haven’t we? Many HR practitioners are angry, even frustrated at the barrage of criticism they experience every day.

The common thread passing through most of these studies is that HR professionals see themselves as people managers rather than as business managers.
HR professionals have to smarten up their act. This is not an option, but an imperative.

Those who choose to fall asleep at the wheel will certainly miss the turn-off to the future. Luckily, there are so many good examples to draw from. Some HR professionals who are adaptive are well ahead of the curve.

I recall a local guy by the name Shepherd Shonhiwa who left Zimbabwe in the early 1990s and made a mark in the South Africa corporate world as CEO for McDonald Corporation there.

Rose Nhamo, formerly MD at Pioneer, Jack Murehwa, CEO of TA Chemicals and Steve Kuipa, CEO of CFI Holdings, are some of the individuals who have made it big in the corporate arena from a distinctly HR background. If they “did it”, why can’t you “did it” too?

Isaac Mazanhi is a labour analyst. He writes in his personal capacity. He can be contacted on e-mail: