Contributors

The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same

How transformational HRO can be used to achieve standardization.

by Paul Davies

The infinite variety in the world seems, on some days, to teeter on the brink of uniformity, and global corporations could be the engine that pulls us over the edge. However much one longs for the unique regional character of a bygone age, the march of conformity in store fronts, lodgings, clothing, architecture, or just about anything continues unabated. Perhaps the irksome, though resolute, nonconformism of incompatible technology will be the last outpost to fall, but generally speaking, global oneness is a key corporate mantra of the times. Everywhere, that is, except HR.

When William Blake claimed, “I must create a system, or be enslav’d by another man’s,” he was surely a precursor to some human resources managers, and, at some point or another, every transformational HRO has to face off against this sentiment.

Commenting in general and with the risk of having one’s neck resting on the chopping block, the North American HRO executive who thinks that standardizing HR processes between facilities in Alabama and Pennsylvania is proof it can be done between Turkey and Norway should never be given a passport.

Equally, the European who thinks that having a unique employee performance metric expressed in runic script is essential for a successful labor relationship is blowing enough smoke to warrant a life sentence for environmental offenses.

The answer, as always, lies in the equivocal middle—or does it? At risk of severing the head from the body permanently, substantial standardization within and between countries is clearly possible, and transformational HRO is one method of achieving it.

However, “standardization” should not mean taking one country’s norm and applying it to all; neither does it mean being identical in every detail. Standardization of personnel processes benefits from a harmonization approach with documented deviations and can be achieved as a matter of organization will.

The most legitimate source of deviation is law, particularly relating to control of employment, tax, or pay and social benefits. The meaning and treatment of “benefits administration” can be significantly different between Europe and the U.S. However, often the legal differences are less in the administration and more in the expert knowledge. At the simplest level, the concept of taxable benefits is universal, but the expert knowledge of which benefits are taxable can be different.

What matters is whether one concentrates on the harmony or the discord, and the discovery of inevitabledifferences does not negate the fact that much more can be standardized than cannot.

Collective bargaining agreements (CBA), where they exist, are an unavoidable source of variety, but they are not set in stone. Changing a CBA at the whim of an HRO trend is rarely possible, however, not being able to change a CBA over, say, a 10-year period smacks of conflicting priorities or an inert labor function.

It is arguable, especially in Europe and to a lesser degree in Asia, that common treatment of workers across borders is something with which employers struggle more than labor organizations. Standardization may rely on unpredictable negotiations or may spill over into harmonizing terms and conditions. Though difficult in itself, and perhaps even undesirable, this does not mean that unions or the works council necessarily stand in the way of HR process standardization.

Provided sufficient time is available, common HR processes are negotiable by labor relations managers, assuming they are given enough freedom to design a successful strategy. For example, processes may need to evolve flexibly in line with negotiation timetables. Equally, insisting that a performance pay process from a non-represented, deregulated jurisdiction must be applied universally to represented, highly regulated jurisdictions simply won’t work. This is not the same as saying that standardization won’t work.

Beyond legal regulation and standing agreements, the objections degenerate into a seemingly endless list of historic, cultural, and other peculiarities that could only possibly be handled by bespoke systems and processes. It is as if the identification of one irreconcilable difference debunks the whole concept. The organization that wishes to realize the benefits of standardization can use transformational HRO, but it is only the “will” of the organization that can ensure it is achieved.

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