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How to do HR, Circa 1988

March 7, 2011
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One of the nifty things we’ve added at our organization is a “Business Library,” housed in our HR Department, with books and periodicals covering a wide-range of topics.  The majority of the books were originally purchased and read by employees and managers who then, over time, ‘donated’ them to the library so that their co-workers could check them out.   The Library Catalog is on our company intranet so employees can browse the offerings and either stop in to HR to check-out a book or send us a request (if they’re off-site) to have the book shipped to their office.

The other day I was doing some trench HR librarian duties and realized that we’ve got a seemingly out-of-date ho-hum collection:

  • “Forecasting Financial Benefits of Human Resource Development” (1988)
  • “All the Math You’ll Ever Need” (1989)
  • “Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990” (basically the Federal Register, bound and published in 1991)
  • “Legal Compliance Guide to Personnel Management” (1993)

But lest you think we’re relying strictly on the classics, we do carry some more current titles:

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Whenever I pop into the municipal library or a used book store I tend to get caught up browsing through old books, so needless to say, the oldies in the HR Library fascinated me.  As it dawned on me that 1988 was 23 years ago (how is this possible?), I figured I HAD to browse through “Forecasting Financial Benefits of Human Resource Development” (Swanson/Gradouse) to see what nuggets of wisdom we were discussing back then.  I latched on to a few quotes:

“Until recently, many managers viewed human resource development (HRD) departments as supportive to the organization but dispensable.”

“HRD departments have achieved a high degree of visibility in recent years.”

“It is important for you, the HRD professional, to understand the relationship between what you do and the financial benefits you produce for your company.”

“Although the notion that new technologies and employee skills can be purchased as commodities may be disliked by some, such is the economic reality of some very successful organizations.” (WOW!! – Hello 2011 !!)

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I was an HR newbie at the time this particular book was published so reading through it was like a trip through a personal time machine. Circa 1988 my HR Department (which had just shed the name ‘Personnel” a few short months before I came on board) was working very diligently to move to a new model of HR.  Top of list was tying our departmental activities and output to measurable (and financial) results for the company while simultaneously moving past the image of being “supportive but dispensable” (as cited above). The company had been in existence since 1923 so we had interesting transitions ahead of us as we recruited, trained, developed and managed benefits (self-insured no less) and compensation programs.

Our department of 7 shared one PC (DOS) and thought we were pretty high-tech with our IBM Selectric that could be connected to the PC in order to print letters that had been composed in WordPerfect.  We tracked and measured and calculated data points on Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets so that we could share updates with the Senior Leadership team.   So Messrs. Strouse and Gradous would have been pleased at the performance of my 1988 HRD department – we did become more visible; we did remain supportive but began to prove that we were indispensable; we did understand and show the relationship between our activities and the financial benefits to the organization.

We didn’t quite get the gist of purchasing technologies and skills as commodities.  But I’m sure that the company, now nearing 90 years of existence, has probably moved in that direction.

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It’s fascinating to browse through an old cookbook, a primer for dating-in-the-1950’s, or an old business book.  We no longer need to debone our our own fowl, wait-for-the-boy to call, OR strive quite-as-hard to show that HR is an essential component of business success.

Or wait…do we?

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2011 7:25 am

    Thanks for the memories. Some things change some things don’t but we must always think of what we are all about. thanks

  2. March 7, 2011 9:27 am

    if i did HR circa 1988 – which was when i was a freshman at tulane university in new orleans – all of our employees would be dead, in jail, or lying face down in a ditch. thanks for taking me back, though.

  3. March 7, 2011 3:42 pm

    Wait, chickens have bones? Even the nuggets?

  4. March 7, 2011 4:45 pm

    i was 12 when that book came out – i should’ve read it & maybe i would have made better choices!

  5. March 7, 2011 10:31 pm

    OK, 1988 was when I had the first major confrontation with a mill HR manager. He told me “someday you’ll be on this side of the desk, and some young kid will be telling you what you should be doing, and I hope you remember this conversation”.
    Obviously, I do, but I haven’t had that confrontation with some ‘young kid’, as those are the people I enjoy the most at work!
    And where I worked in 1988, we had “Sneaker-net” – we ran spreadsheets from one PC to the next via a 3.5″ floppy (because 5.25″ floppies were so 1984).

  6. Robin Schooling permalink*
    March 9, 2011 6:43 am

    @Peter – looking back makes us glad, often, to be in the present 😉

    @Charlie – but they probably woulda had a hell of a lot of fun

    @Laurie – they grind the bones up IN the nuggets

    @Jeremy – I think perhaps we all might have…

    @Tim – that “sneaker-net” sounds WAY awesome!

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