Article (October-2021)


Integrating theory and practice in HR

Prasad Kurian

Designation : -   Senior HR Leader

Organization : -  Expert in TM & OD, Bengaluru


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"Those who say theory and practice are two unrelated realms are fools in one and scoundrels in the other", I came across this quote (from 'Letters of Ayn Rand') some time ago, and it reminded me of an issue that has taken up quite a bit of my psychological space over the last decade - that of integrating theory and practice in the domain of Human Resources (HR).

When I was doing my MBA in HR, there was no doubt in my mind that the theory and practice in the domain of HR, should be, and can be integrated. But, when I started working and watched 'real' HR professionals in action, I experienced a lot of cognitive dissonance. Most of the HR Professionals (especially, those who have taken their behaviour science education seriously), acted as if they had some sort of split-personality disorder. When they are in their Personality 1 (the dominant personality) they carry out their jobs without any application of their behaviour science knowledge and when they are in their Personality 2, they go to HR conferences and HR team meetings and talk about applying theory to practice (without ever getting around to implementing what they have discussed). It also seemed that these personalities co-existed without being consciously aware of the existence of the other!

Since these HR professionals that I interacted with were indeed very intelligent and competent, I couldn't attribute this (lack of integration of theory and practice) to their lack of capability. When I probed a bit deeper, it seemed that they developed these multiple personalities to deal with the conflict between the 'mundane' nature of their jobs and the desire to apply their behaviour science knowledge to their work. This prompted me to look at this issue at a more fundamental level.

Let's begin by asking ourselves the most fundamental question - Is there really something like 'HR theory'? This question becomes important as HR is essentially an applied field. Yes, one learns many theories during one's HR studies. However, these theories are mostly borrowed from psychology, sociology and anthropology. We must also remember that HR is a relatively young field even as compared to other social sciences.

To be pragmatic, any theory that helps us to understand, predict and possibly influence human behaviour at the workplace, we would consider to be an HR theory regardless of its field of origin (e.g., Vroom's Expectancy -Instrumentality- Valance theory of motivation).

Since I was aware of the risk of not being able to apply what I have learned, I wanted to ensure that I did something beyond common sense. So, I learned the various tools and methodologies (job evaluation methodology, change management methodology, tools for competency mapping, tools for data analysis, psychometric instruments, behavioural event interviewing etc.). While it gave me some satisfaction, later I came to realize that what I have become is more of a 'mechanic' and not a scientist or even an engineer. From that point, I made a more conscious effort to apply theory to practice and the following thought fragments are based on my learning from that effort (and from experience of young HR specialists I mentored) during the last decade.

First, some good news! Contrary to popular belief, most of the business leaders do want us to bring in our specialist expertise to our work (remember, they are paying us higher for our HR expertise). Yes, they want us to bring our expertise to solve the most important business problems (forget 'HR for HR') and that too in such a manner that they can relate to it.

There is an entire continuum from abstract theory to middle level theory (principles) and models. While it makes sense to understand the entire continuum (so that higher levels can inform the choices at the lower levels), the lower levels are easier to communicate and apply in the business context. For example, when it comes to Learning and Development, we have theories of perception (abstract theory), principles of adult learning and 70:20:10 model of learning.

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Prasad Kurian - Organization Development & Talent Management