Most experienced HR professionals will accept that as a function we have an unhealthy addiction to “the latest thing,” and I could instantly relate the hype cycle to how the HR community frequently operates.

In the world of IT and software developments, Gartner Research reigns supreme. As one of the world’s leading IT research companies it’s latest pronouncements on what’s “hot” and “in-vogue” are eagerly awaited by professionals and corporates alike. A key feature of their approach is their Hype Cycle analysis which seeks to track the maturity and adoption of specific technologies. This interesting model identifies five cycles associated with maturing technologies:

• Technology TriggerThe hype cycle
• Peak of Inflated Expectations
• Trough of Disillusionment
• Slope of Enlightenment
• Plateau of Productivity

As an experienced global human resources professional I was recently involved in a leadership workshop where the hype cycle, concerning a particular software application, was being discussed in great detail. On learning of the concept, I was immediately struck by its relevance to the world of HR. Most experienced HR professionals will accept that as a function we have an unhealthy addiction to “the latest thing,” and I could instantly relate the hype cycle to how the HR community frequently operates.

The hype cycle in HR
In the organisation and HR world a simple trawl back through the years will reveal many “triggers” of “inflated expectations” and “troughs of disillusionment.”  Consider some of the following:

  • 1980s & 90s - Quality and “Customer is King” initiatives
  • 1990s – Business Process Engineering, Ulrich’s HR Model, Core Competence
  • 2000s – Knowledge Management, Emotional Intelligence, The Learning Organisation and the The War for Talent
  • Today – Staff Engagement, Wellbeing, Evidence Based Management, Dumping the Annual Appraisal & Digitising L&D and core HR Processes

So often the above concepts have been triggered by one or two break away and often highly innovative “first adopter” companies. In the case of quality in the 1980s, it was companies like IBM who led the US fight back against Japanese successes involving their motor car industry and the likes of Canon and Sony who similarly pushed the Total Quality agenda. Jan Carlson and his leadership of SAS airlines led to a huge focus on customers in the Europe of the 1980s. Today it is companies like Facebook and Google with their huge emphasis on engaging employees and creating a unique corporate environment of “happiness and well-being.” Or the likes of Accenture and GE, who have decided to abandon and reject the universally accepted “annual performance appraisal” and in doing so created a predictable tsunami of followers in the HR world. The role of early corporate adopters in the HR hype cycle is easily seen. Once the likes of PWC, Accenture, Unilever etc are in, it’s game on. Soon the HR media are hard on the heels; always on the hunt for something different to write about and off we go up the curve.

I vividly recall attending conferences in the late 1990s featuring Leif Edvinsson, who was then the world’s first Chief Knowledge Officer (CKO) of a Swedish financial services company called Skandia. For a period-of-time Mr Edvinsson was a business conference superstar. Along with works such as “Intellectual Capital; The New Wealth of Organisations,” by the US management guru Thomas Stewart, it was not long before the topic was enjoying “inflated expectations,” throughout the corporate world. Even the much-vaunted Fortune magazine carried a front cover on the topic of Intellectual Capital and Knowledge Management.

Indeed, after companies it has often been successful academics and consultants who have been responsible for triggering the hype cycle. People like Tom Peters, Gary Hamel, Charles Handy, Michael Hammer, Dave Ulrich, Jim Collins have all made significant impacts on creating hype cycles. Professor Jim Collins’ work “Good to Great” is probably one of the most impactful in recent times. Mimicking in many ways the 1970s success of Robert Peterman and Tom Peters and their “In Search of Excellence” work, Collins set out a distinctive recipe of competitive success for major corporations. In doing so he initiated a whole new focus on leadership in the HR space. Very soon everyone was asking “what are we most passionate about as a business?” and is my boss a “level four or five” kind of leader? Just like Waterman and Peters, so many years before, he highlighted many companies and portrayed their practices as a recipe for success.

The reality is interest wanes

But the reality is, as Gartner’s Hype Cycle depicts, all too often, interest wanes in these topics and implementations fail to deliver. Advocates of the approach frequently meet with failure and early adopters cling to the essential elements and try to continue along as new fashions emerge. Just as many of the companies cited in Search of Excellence subsequently failed, so did many in Good to Great. Just as Skandia subsequently got itself into all kinds of difficulties and was eventually acquired by another firm.

The same outcome resulted for the global hype associated with Michael Hammer and Jim Champy’s business process re-engineering methodology of the 1990s. A radical approach to fundamentally re-inventing businesses was hi-jacked as a simple route to cost cutting and slashing corporate jobs. Within a few years, and after creating a multi-million dollar consulting market, the hype was over and the powerful concept drifted into the trough of disillusionment. However, as the hype cycle indicates, business process thinking still exists today and it remains a very credible approach. But it has settled into the plateau of productivity, where it is simply viewed as a useful tool to highlight some organisational problems or challenges.

The current hypes enticing HR professionals

Today, HR professionals are being enticed along the curve of inflated expectations by the brave new world of digitisation and expert systems. Use it all to totally transform the HR offer. Radically reinvent learning and development through “gamification” and super apps. Use big data and artificial intelligence (AI) to identify which people have more potential than others and when people will leave the organisation. Use the technology to target specific people we want to hire and get away from the scatter gun approach of past recruitment processes. Use apps to give instant colleague feedback thus rendering old HR processes such as the annual appraisal obsolete and redundant. The machine and data will do it all. According to the hype cycle some of this will happen but a lot won’t.

At the same time pick up the monthly copy of People Management as you’ll be hit by the hype of work-life balance, wellbeing and “building employee resilience” that has also taken centre stage of the HR agenda. Currently HR is being encouraged to turn their organisations into temples of calm reflection with a zen like attention to the feelings of oneself and others. Clearly there are in many companies today, enormous issues with the daily pressures that people face. The 24/7 pressures of email and workload is an incredible problem and many people are indeed permanently stressed and tired. But the idea that we can solve it by adopting the generous practices adopted by the likes of Facebook and Google who are buffeted by the mega profits they are making seems to really fall into the sphere of inflated expectations. Will running courses in wellbeing or setting up stress free zones and rooms in a tough business that is under severe global and margin pressure result in a transformation of people engagement? Such approaches might well work in the confines of a small loft house and a digital start up team in Copenhagen, London or Munich but for a large manufacturing or distribution company? The fact is these initiatives can make a genuine contribution but they are not the magic answer or cure all we are currently being led to believe. All too often we need to recognise that someone is selling these ideas and concepts and that the ability to step back and objectively discriminate is vital to avoid the hype.

Rather like the failed attempts to build true learning organisations in the early millennium and the short comings of Dave Ulrich’s ubiquitous organisation model, HR professionals do fall victim to the trough of disillusionment and slowly come to recognise that such approaches are only tools and not panaceas for our organisations many and complex short-comings. Many approaches will no doubt move from being “hyped to the hills” to being simply viewed as new and efficient processes and approaches that improve our daily work. We will have then reached the slope of enlightenment and the plateau of productivity. Alternatively, some will no doubt be consigned to the corporate landfill site of “failed HR initiatives.”

As a HR professional are you able to escape the peak of inflated expectations and trough of disillusionment?



HR processes

About the Author

Mark Thomas: Leading International Expert on Business Partnering

Mark Thomas

Mark Thomas is an international business consultant, author and speaker specialising in business planning, managing change, human resource management and executive development. Prior to working with PPI he worked for several years with Price Waterhouse in London where he advised on the business and organisational change issues arising out of strategic reviews in both private and public sector organisations.