The Plain Truth About Democratization In Business

One of the articles I was sent as a result of signing up for business research spoke glowingly about disruptive technology trends in Human Resources (HR), and I was struck by the article and by what it represented as part of a larger trend. These trends are said to be “enabling the democratization of HR processes” as if this was a good thing [1]. Combined, the rise of applications that serve the goals of employee engagement and performance management, typically within the bailiwick of HR Departments, is putting control over HR processes in the hands of employees and especially managers in companies. This is part of a larger trend by which specialized fields have seen their specialties disrupted by technological improvements that have allowed more access to particular areas by others, but has also tended to increase the burdens and responsibilities placed on these people as a result.

Whether we engage in business computing with desktops or laptops or smartphones or other devices yet to come, one aspect of these various methods that is shared is the ease of use of applications that do various tasks. Yet this ease of use, at least relative in comparison to the difficulty of mastering the often arcane means by which Human Resources departments often act, shrouded in tradition and procedure, adopting idiosyncratic means of storing vital information and often being in a silo that does not make it easy for their behavior to align with the goals of other departments or the corporation or institution as a whole. Whether one is looking at performance evaluations, hiring and firing, or enforcing standards of workplace conduct, it is not always easy for companies to be able to have a smoothly functioning and effective HR department. That said, anything that makes it easier for others to do HR work tends to reduce the prestige and pay and availability of those people whose focus is Human Relations in the context of business, which can be dangerous if there are no other or few other people with the same kind of orientation in their focus in a corporate context.

There is yet more. In practice, the democratization of any kind of field means not only that more people will be able to engage in tasks outside of their expertise or that belonged to another area previously recognized as a profession but reduced to a job task to be conducted by more generalist-minded people, but that more people will be expected to do so. Either this means that managers will be expected to be, in at least some fashion, their own HR managers in addition to other tasks, or that the managers will delegate this particular task to a trusted and often busy individual contributor to do so. In both cases, democratization seeks to solve one problem by making many millions of other problems in a similar fashion to the increased burdens that have fallen on women as a result of the replacement of what was once fairly easily available domestic service by every wife and live-in girlfriend becoming her own maid, her own cook, and so on. The democratization of those tasks did not lead to any greater honor to the people who were doing those tasks, rather they reduced the honor of people by making them responsible for what are often seen as thankless chores. The same processes in the workplace are likely to have the same results, making the list of responsibilities that people have to fulfill ever longer even as they decrease the human resources available to undertake these tasks, making it ironic that processes that have been going on for a long time in other parts of business, for example with secretarial work, has now reached the lofty heights of professional work.

There appear to be a variety of underlying motivations for this process wherever it has occurred. Part of these motivations involve a certain forgetfulness about the social good that business and other institutions provide. Namely, the social goods that business provide is in providing worthwhile goods and services to people that are more efficient and effective than people can do on their own. Good business is often worthwhile because it takes advantage of opportunities to counteract the democratization of life by allowing people to focus on what they do well and not have to do spend a great deal of time and frustration in doing tasks that they are poor at, to take advantage of the economies of scale and the efficiencies that result from people being able to do something better than they can do themselves. Another aspect of the social goods that business and other institutions provide, apart from their goods and services to customers at large, is the fact that they provide jobs that provide honor and respect to people and also allow those people working a standard of living sufficient to live honorably and decently. Where companies do not provide high-quality and reasonably priced goods and services and decent and respectable labor conditions and wages to employees, they cease to be a force for good in the communities where they operate.

What often tends to happen is that the democratization and disruption of fields tends to result from difficulties in communication that do not, ultimately, benefit the institutions that follow these trends. An entrepreneur may desire, for example, to do all the tasks for his or her small business that are necessary, and may not be able to afford the sort of employees that would specialize in those tasks and be able to do them well. That said, what may be necessary for one person to do for their own small operation, and not particularly inefficient for them to do, may be particularly inefficient for a larger company, where efforts at providing benefits plans could be delayed for years, or where performance evaluations could be similarly laggard simply because managers are so burdened by momentary crises that they are unable to spend any time in the important but not necessarily urgent tasks of providing periodic encouragement of employees, or occasionally guidance and evaluation on a formal basis. The costs of these lacks show themselves over time, but the existence of these problems is predictable when people wear too many hats and are expected to do too many tasks simultaneously with too few resources. In such a context, whatever is the least urgent task tends to suffer, and if a task is never seen as urgent its corresponding likelihood of being done is low.

What, then, can be done about this? Improving communication, not merely in the formal sense but in the informal sense as well, ought to be an area of importance. A great many of the problems that result in HR problems are the result of failures to communicate, whether that is failure to communicate with others at all, or failures to communicate boundaries and expectations, or failures to respect the boundaries and fulfill the expectations of others, regardless of where they exist on the corporate hierarchy. Other problems result from the failure to provide others with the resources in work systems and processes to be able to do the tasks that are expected of them. It is because communication is poor and systems are often broken down that Human Resources departments are of such importance, often serving as the judiciary that allows for injustices to have some chance of being righted in the absence of acceptable behavior among lines of authority. The removal of such departments from companies tends to combine the executive tasks of management with the judiciary tasks that provided the ability to redress, at least on occasion, problems that occurred within the business. The reduction of these departments and the spreading of their duties elsewhere removes an important check against difficulties within companies, and reduces one of the primary ways that internal stresses and pressures within departments and within companies and other institutions is resolved in a peaceful and satisfactory manner. We ought therefore to pay more attention to replacing these departments, or in bolstering them so that they can continue to serve the larger interests of companies and the communities that those companies serve.

[1] See, for example:

http://searchfinancialapplications.techtarget.com/podcast/Bersin-names-disruptive-HR-technology-trends-for-2016

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in History, Musings and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Plain Truth About Democratization In Business

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Death By Money Report | Edge Induced Cohesion

  2. Pingback: Leaping The Hurdle Of Low Expectations | Edge Induced Cohesion

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