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Modern HR: From ancient Rome to Times of AI by Neurofied

Modern HR: from Ancient Rome to Times of AI

HR, the management of work, culture, and people towards a desired end, is a fundamental activity in any organization. It is an inevitable consequence of starting, growing and developing an organization. Before we explore modern HR, let’s see how this sprang from the way the Romans recruited their army.

To the Romans of the early republic serving in the legion and war itself were the same thing. For Rome had no army unless it was at war. As long as there was peace, people stayed at home and there was no army. Rome is still known today for being in a state of near constant warfare. The changeover from peace to warfare was a mental as well as spiritual change. When war was decided upon by the senate then the doors to the temple of the god Janus would be opened. Only once Rome was at peace would the doors be closed again.

From Ancient Rome to modern HR

For the citizens, becoming a soldier was a transformation far beyond simply donning their armor. It depended on the capitol that the consul(s) would, together with their military tribunes, select their men. First to be chosen from were the wealthiest, most privileged. Last to be chosen from were the poorest, least privileged. Care would be taken not to deplete completely the number of men of a particular class or tribe.

The typical recruit to the Roman army would present himself for his interview, armed with a letter of introduction. The letter would generally have been written by his family’s patron, a local official, or perhaps his father. The title for this interview was the probatio. All classic elements of managing human resources seem to be present: selection, change, recruitment, interviews, network, transformation, managing resources.

The History of Modern HR

The term human resource management has been commonly used for the last ten or 15 years. It became a household name in the 1980s and 1990s as a shorthand for the management of human resources next to all the other resources that needed to be managed. HR took off as a response to competitive pressure that mainly American organizations began experience in the 70s.

The phenomenal economic growth in the 60s and 70s of the 20th century saw a large demand for skilled and experienced employees. It was in this intermediate period that personnel management started to develop into early Human Resources and that employees were transformed from a cost item on the balance sheet into an asset. However, it was not until the 20th century that HR departments were formally developed and tasked with addressing misunderstandings between employees and their employers, becoming the link between strategy, planning and execution. 

The origin of the term “HR” is believed to have emerged in the late 19th century, when the generic term “personnel” came into fashion to refer to the management of people within an organization as a source of production on an almost machine-like basis. John R. Commons, an American institutional economist, first coined the term human resource in his book The Distribution of Wealth, published in 1893. The name change is, however, not merely cosmetic.

It formally coupled three fields: administration, management, and resource planning. Prior to that the field was, and was for a long period, generally known as personnel administration. Staff and personnel are synonyms, but nor always interchangeable. The latter usually refers to organization charts (personnel department) and accounting (personnel expenses) and is used more generically. Staff, on the other hand, often refers to the individual people within the organization.

From administration to staff function

Personnel administration, emerging in 1920’s as a clearly defined field, was largely concerned with the technical aspects of hiring & firing, evaluating, and compensating employees. At its best it was very much a ‘staff and support” function in most organizations. 

The field did not normally focus on the relationship of separate employment practices, a.k.a. organizational silos, on the overall organizational performance or on the systematic relationship between such practices, Nor on the aspect of organizing and retaining knowledge, which did not appear until the The Information Age, also known as the Digital Age, which begins in the mid-to-late 20th century CE and lasts to the present day, representing the current time period we are now in.

HR development was a further result of other external factors such as globalization, deregulation and to keep up rapid (technological) change. The field of human resources as we came to know it today, however, did not truly develop until the 20th century. The increasing complexity of the modern workplace and the need to manage a diverse workforce led to the creation of specialized roles and departments devoted to managing personnel.

The Human Resources (HR) function has always been on the forefront of integrating technology in organizations. In fact, one of the earliest business processes to be automated was the payroll administration. Since then, HR has continued to merge new technology with old processes; increasing efficiency, producing reports and improving decision-making. 

These departments and their staff were still regarded as facilitating the process rather than playing a strategic role. There have been notable attempts to capture the changing nature of personnel roles in response to major transformations in the workplace and the associated rise of ‘HR’. But which ideas were the backbone to the evolution of modern HR?

Thought leaders behind modern HR

In 1992, Storey explored the emerging impact of workplace change on personnel practice in the UK and proposed a new fourfold typology of personnel roles: ‘advisors’, ‘handmaidens’, ‘regulators’ and ‘changemakers’. Have these four roles changed now that HR has increasingly become part of the rhetoric and reality of organizational change and performance?

If Storey’s work provides an empirical and analytical benchmark for examining issues of ‘role change’, then Ulrich’s work (1997) in the USA offers a sweeping prescriptive end-point for the transformation of personnel roles that has already been widely endorsed by UK practitioners. He argues that HR professionals must overcome the traditional marginality of the personnel function by embracing a new set of roles as champions of competitiveness in delivering value. Is this a realistic ambition?

The new survey findings and interview evidence from HR managers in major UK companies presented here suggests that the role of the personnel professional has altered in a number of significant respects, and has become more multifaceted and complex, but the negative counter-images of the past still remain. To partly capture the process of role change, Storey’s original fourfold typology of personnel roles is re-examined and contrasted with Ulrich’s prescriptive vision for the reinvention of the modern HR function.

Storey’s typology has lost much of its empirical and analytical veracity, while Ulrich’s model ends in prescriptive overreach by submerging issues of role conflict within a new rhetoric of professional identity. Neither model can adequately accommodate the emergent tensions between competing role demands, ever-increasing managerial expectations of performance and new challenges to professional expertise, all of which are likely to intensify in the future.

A high performance organization

A high performance organization (HPO) cannot exist without an elevated value placed on human resource management (HR) and human resource development (HRD). However, a complementary pairing of HR and HRD has not always existed. The evolution of HRD from its roots in the transference of human knowledge to HRM and present day HRD activities reveals that environmental, social, and political influences have escalated the need for organizations to focus on employee development in the areas of flexibility, innovation, and capability. Building on a close association between the attributes of a HPO and the skills transferred through an effective collaboration of HRM and HRD activities.

Human Resources (HR) is a commonly used term in the business world to refer to the department or function within an organization responsible for managing personnel. Some organizations may use alternative terms such as “people and culture” or “talent management” to reflect a focus on employee engagement and development. However, the term “Human Resources” is widely recognized and understood.The future of HR is likely to involve a greater focus on technology and automation, as well as the use of data analytics to improve decision-making and drive business performance. Additionally, there will likely be a greater emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion, as well as on the development of a more flexible and agile workforce.

Other trends may include the use of virtual reality and other emerging technologies for training and development, and the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to assist with recruitment and talent management. HR officers can play an important role in the decision-making process of a company, and as such, it can be beneficial for them to have a seat in the boardroom. They can bring valuable insights and perspective on issues related to the company’s workforce, such as recruitment, retention, employee engagement and compliance with labor laws. However, whether or not HR officers should have a seat in the boardroom depends on the specific needs and structure of the company.

The CHRO as part of the executive leadership team 

The time of the reactive HR department is gone, and is not coming back. Modern HR must function as a full leadership member of the senior strategy team. The CHRO has become one of the most important and enhanced roles on the executive leadership team. This has by no means, always been the case. The CHRO, previously director of personnel, traditionally played a largely administrative role and was not always part of the decision-making unit. Trends over the years:

1980’s HR goes strategic but still in the silo

1990’s HR at the table part of the Decision-Making Unit (DMU)

2000’s HR at executive level and the C is added to the function

Today’s HR leaders face challenges that affect his functioning: competitive business environment, changing economy, multiple crises, and hybrid working. This in turn creates challenges for leaders and employees. There is no magical formula but there are important lessons to be learned. Success depends on active roles:

  • External business leader
  • Internal business leader
  • Employee advocate
  • Knowledge advocate
  • Team leader
  • Brand ambassador 

Why does the CFO always have the ‘ear’ of the CEO? Because of the numbers. We now have tools and methods to quantify the capabilities of HR by leveraging new scientific insights and technological developments. Let’s discuss some of the supporting factors of modern HR.

Supporting factors of modern HR

Neuropsychology can be important for HR because it can help HR professionals understand how the brain processes information and how that can impact employee behavior, decision-making, and performance. This knowledge can be used to improve communication and training, design more effective management strategies, and create a more positive and productive work environment. However, it’s important to note that neuropsychology is just one aspect of modern HR and there are many other factors that are important to consider when managing and developing a workforce.

It can predict skill needs and development, steer learning and development, tackle diversity, inclusion and equality. Attracting a more balanced workforce, improving employee satisfaction and future revenue. We can now add human capital as an strategic asset and manage it the same way other, hard and legal assets are managed.   

The value proposition for consultancy based on neuroscientific insights is that it can provide businesses and organizations with a better understanding of how the human brain processes information and makes decisions. This knowledge can then be used to create more effective change strategies and interventions, improve product design, and enhance employee training and development programs.

Additionally, neuroscientific insights can be used to develop more engaging and effective user interfaces, and to create more personalized and effective customer experiences. Overall, the use of neuroscientific insights in consulting can help organizations better understand and influence human behavior, resulting in increased productivity and profitability.  AI has the potential to significantly impact the hiring process by automating certain tasks and making the process more efficient.

However, it is unlikely that AI will completely replace human hiring managers. AI can assist in tasks such as resume screening and scheduling interviews, but ultimately, human decision-making and judgment are still necessary in the hiring process. Additionally, AI can be biased, due to the data it has been trained on, which was in turn often biased by humans. Therefore, it is important to ensure that AI systems are designed and implemented in a transparent, fair, and unbiased manner.

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