Learning to Swim in HR

by Michael Haberman on January 3, 2007 · 1 comment


First let me wish everyone a Happy New Year!

My favorite author, consultant and “hero” is Alan Weiss. He has a monthly newsletter that I look forward to receiving at the first of each month. His newsletter this month began with an article entitled Sink or Swim. He starts off with the relating that he read the entire O’Brian series on Jack Aubrey, a captain in the British Navy. (Russell Crow starred as Lucky Jack in the movie Master and Commander Far Side of the World.) Alan relates that in reading the historical notes he learned that “…virtually no British common seaman knew how to swim. In an age when a sinking boat meant almost certain death, these sailors couldn’t swim a mile to a beach or even a hundred yards to floating wreckage or a stray boat. Although the admiralty never thought it necessary to teach the skill, surely the sailors could readily have learned it during the long assignments when ships were often becalmed for days on end. They didn’t. “

Alan then goes on to say “I meet a lot of people like those sailors. On the lighter side, there’s the 20-year airline ticket clerk, still using one finger to type and taking five times as long, never having bothered to learn to type despite it being a key element in the job. On the darker side, there is the teacher who never did understand the need for testing understanding, and never got around to mastering it, thereby undermining learning.”

He then has the admonition “If you insist on being the bartender at the party but have to keep apologizing because you can’t make a margarita, I have a suggestion: Either stop being the bartender or learn to mix a margarita, which I’m pretty sure is somewhat easier than splitting an atom. While it may seem astonishing to you that sailors, whose lives were spent on the ocean, never learned to swim, then contemplate the fact that I constantly meet department store clerks who have no idea where anything is.”

He then ends his comments with the statement “I have no idea why people make little attempt to master the simple things in the environment which can vastly improve their lives and, perhaps, even save them. I mean, you’d think people would rather swim, than sink, wouldn’t you?”

I was astonished by the fact about the sailors and amused and dismayed by his other observations, but, it is this last statement that really got me to thinking. I thought about things that I may not know or may not do that fall into this catagory. And that got me thinking about HR departments in general.

Dave Ulrich, in his book Delivering Results: A New Mandate for Human Resources Professionals, talks about delivering flawless administrative services as one of the necessary steps in being seen as “business partner” material. You can’t have a place at the table if you can’t deliver even the basic services of HR flawlessly. Which brings me back to Weiss’ point about mastering the simple things.

At the beginning of this new year can you deliver, can you answer the questions, do you know the answers? Or are you like the sailor thrashing about in the water unable to reach the flotsam that will save his life. If there are things you should do or know make it a resolution to make a change. Learn to swim and be determined not to sink.

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{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jim January 5, 2007 at 6:42 pm

The routine, the pace of corporate changes and the daily tasks are common obstacles to getting out of the comfort zone to learn new things. Unfortunately unless challenged, rewarded or disposed of, few folks will venture beyond their comfort zones. That is why managers must force the issue of changing the status quo, reward the optimists who challenge the unknown and dispose of those who refuse to trade in their typewriters.

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