Posted On May 15, 2014

On one hand, the history of harnessing human resources, or manpower, stretches back to the first endeavour by a prehistoric tribal leader to organise, plan and build the team needed to bring home a woolly mammoth dinner. For millennia military, economic and religious factors combined to ensure that chieftains, pharaohs, kings and, later, upper-class landowners enjoyed almost total control over their workforce. It was all pretty straight forward: people did what they were told.

The genesis of marketing—or at least advertising, the form of marketing so familiar to all of us—can also be traced back to the dawn of time. That’s when a “tablet” was actually a stone slab upon which messages were carved to bring laws, products, services and opinions to public notice. The earliest-known example of written advertising is a piece of papyrus over 3000 years old, found by archaeologists in Thebes, offering a reward for the return of a runaway slave. (Interestingly the first newspaper advertisement, in 1650, also offered a reward: for the return of 12 stolen horses.)

The point of all this is that advertising, similar to HRM, was for centuries one-directional. People read what someone else (usually the wealthy elite) wanted them to hear or see.

Manpower, amplified

The Industrial Revolution (1760-1840) changed the essential nature of both HRM and marketing—but one more so than the other. Let me explain.

Firstly, HRM.

With growing industrialisation, the centuries-old role of the foreman changed from that of supervising a relative handful of field workers and other serfs to being tasked by wealthy industrialist bosses to keep workers, including growing numbers of women, busy at their new jobs in industries and factories.

And when issues about long hours, poor wages and woeful conditions were raised by the growing labour movement in the mid-1800s, the foreman’s role became less about muscle and control and more about industrial relations and diplomacy, or today what we’d call personnel management.

The term “human resource management” was first used in Australia as a job title by American multinationals in the 1950s. Fuelled by studies and theories such as Hierarchy of Needs from Abraham Maslow (1908-1970) which turned the spotlight from workers’ productivity to increased efficiency via worker satisfaction, the term’s use reflected the belief that workers are a strategic input into the production process alongside capital and material resources.

Since WWII the HR profession has taken on additional responsibilities such as recruiting, hiring, training (L&D) and, because failure to comply with regulations put companies at risk, assessing workers’ legal compliance. To that list we can more recently add staff assessment, remuneration, change management, team building, intra-company communication, conflict resolution, talent management, succession planning, organisational development and much more.

The modern day HR function has evolved to the point where it is seamlessly aligned with, and closely attuned to, the core business operations of the organisation.

Or is it? More than six decades after Maslow a view persists that the HRM department—so intrinsically linked to efficiency—typically struggles to demonstrate the value it adds. And while the number of chief human resources officers (CHROs) is certainly growing, power and status at board level still eludes most HR leaders.

The rise and rise of advertising

At about the same time as the first factories of the Industrial Revolution sprang into life, crude advertisements were leaping off flyers and wooden shingles and into newspapers of American and European cities. Just as the great expansion of 19th-century commerce and industry spurred the growth of sophisticated management roles in the workplace, so too it kick-started advertising as we know it the world over. Billboards and posters appeared, as did dealer displays, the first trademarks and promotional items from branded matchbooks, playing cards and calendars to hats for horses. Even spam, believe it or not, on the telegraph. Mass-produced consumer goods led to the creation of advertising agencies that designed campaigns for magazines, radio and then television.

During the mid-20th century—when Maslow was defining the dynamics between worker satisfaction and efficiency—mail-order copywriter John Caples (1900-1990) was pioneering basic testing of advertisements using split runs of multiple versions of the same ad to dramatically improve consumer response. His work would in time catapult advertising far beyond a simple one-to-many, one-size-fits-all pres-sales activity.

That’s not to say that the tactical need to broadcast a single message to as many people as possible has faded. To be sure, one-to-many messaging still has a role in building awareness and connecting with large audiences. Just ask the advertisers of 2014’s Super Bowl when a 30-second ad could reach the largest consumer audience in history: more than 112 million viewers.

Caples’ work, however, was the first step in the long march of advertisers collecting, aggregating and analysing customer data to determine, then satisfy, needs and wants of buyers.

In a word, marketing has become strategic. As management and marketing guru Peter Drucker succinctly puts it the goal of marketing is “to know and understand the customer so well that the product or service sells itself.” Understanding what buyers are looking for (even when they may not know it themselves), engaging with them one-on-one and building relationships is where all the marketing action is today, whether it’s online, instore or in the letterbox.

A way forward for HRM?

Like any department, including marketing, the HRM function is under pressure. Quite possibly it’s coping with a reduced workforce in a tough economic climate, being asked to achieve more with less and, let’s not be sensitive, prove its worth.

In the same way that marketing has evolved into an insight-driven function, today’s successful HR function is striving to become a strategic enabler of organisational capability. To paraphrase Mr Drucker, the goal of successful human resource management is to know the business so well that its people and culture are inextricably linked to its competitive edge, profitability and growth. Susan Davies, director of HR, administration and customer service at TNT Australia, expressed this eloquently in a recent interview with Human Resource Director magazine, saying HRM professionals “need to have a deeper understanding of the business itself—how it operates, what customers are expecting, sustained profitability—and you need to be delivering around these three imperatives.”

The challenge in many HR departments, however, is that there’s not yet a clear narrative about how to make this happen. One clue they might glean from their marketing colleagues is this: data gathering and analysis, beginning with a training needs analysis and learning strategy, can generate true (and valuable) insight. So can profiling tools, competency matrices and leadership frameworks used to plot the current skills and knowledge of employees, then learning pathways that help individuals navigate their learning, skill development and work experiences to the benefit of both themselves and their employers.

Just as there’s much more to a marketing function than crafting headlines for the next advertisement, the delivery of standard transactional HR operations must now be aligned with the strategic agenda of the business, ensuring it has the necessary knowledge and skills to compete and grow.

This can only be achieved by understanding the business imperatives and, armed with that knowledge, engaging with the business at every level. With that, HRM’s relevance and impact will undoubtedly increase and its leaders viewed as business partners who add real, lasting strategic value.

About the author: Stephen De Kalb’s marketing career began in retail advertising and includes senior-level positions with multi-national corporations in the information and technology industries. He has significant exposure to the HR function, first with HRMS vendor PeopleSoft, later with LMS provider SumTotal and more recently with knowledge and productivity improvement (KPI) leader TP3. Stephen has also consulted to education organisations such as NSW’s Department of Education and SunGard Higher Education, and managed a range of public information campaigns for NSW Roads and Traffic Authority.