The hope here is that HR can empower organisations with robust tech and data to turn the art of people management into a science

Perusing an article from HR Magazine yesterday about the impact that technology is having on the HR industry, I started to wonder what it is that people really mean when they say that they want to turn their industry or profession into a science.

I come from an academic subject, sociology, that has been perpetually asking itself if it is an art or a science. Science, according to the modern oracle Wikipedia, is

a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe

Now one can see why the latter part (the predictions) of that might be alluring. As Chris and I discussed on the WB40 podcast this week ways of predicting the future is something that we seem almost hard-wired to seek. The challenge is that good predictive models predict things that are predictable. What most businesses actually want is predictive models that predict the unexpected. This is usually called “insider dealing” or similar.

And the baggage that goes with science to create those models would be unsustainable in most organisations. “What do you mean you want to repeat that experiment again Smithers?!” The scientific method is slow, methodical, repetative and not at all like the pace of change that most commercial or government organisations demand these days. They don’t want science, they want miracles.

We are entering into a period of peak hagiography this year with the 10-year anniversary of the launch of the iPhone. Whilst I’m no great fan Steve Jobs, if there is one thing that I would point at that put Apple onto a trajectory to become the world’s most valuable company, it was his positioning of the firm at the intersection of science and the liberal arts. He was the person who spotted that the rest of the industry was dominated by engineers and scientists, and that what was missing was the art. Disciplines like HR should stop thinking that adopting a scientific approach will make them any more right, and that to trust to art or judgement is inferior. It should never be forgotten that it was from moments of intuition, or even just chance, that most of the greatest scientific discoveries were made.

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