“Sound Human Resources Development is Guided by the Concept of Evidence-based Management”

An Interview with Dr. Viktor Lau

Dr. Lau, most would agree that HR development plays an important role in companies and that it has major significance for business success. But what should actually be done in practice can be a contentious point. What do you believe is good HR development? And what are the issues faced in this area at the moment?

The hallmarks of good HR development – that’s both professional and respectable – are that the services that are provided are based on business needs or job requirements; the task does not involve trying to “save” workers or managers. Genuine HR development acknowledges limitations laid down by civil law and respects the aspirations of employees with respect to physical and psychological integrity – so it doesn’t keep on pestering people with psychotherapeutic gimmicks. Proper HR development also restricts itself to measures that have some sort of reasonable foundation in terms of rational, comprehensible and empirical justification. Ideally, it revolves around the concepts of evidence-based management.

I think the big problem with HR development – especially in medium-sized enterprises – is that the function is increasingly becoming infiltrated by management esotericism. What I mean by management esotericism is irrational or unsubstantiated psychological techniques such as neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), or personality types that draw on crude fragments of C.G. Jung to categorize employees into blues, reds, greens or yellows. What I mean with this is a kind of zoo-oriented management development – with managers being sent into horse stables, wolf dens or falconries, based on frivolous metaphors – or organizational planning centering on ideologies and all sorts of gray imports from do-it-yourself Buddhism or Taoism. At the moment this problem’s getting worse, not better.

You’ve been working in personnel and organizational development for almost 20 years now, also, or especially, at medium-sized enterprises. HR development issues are difficult for small and medium-sized enterprises due to the lack of resources. Which projects and services are particularly in demand from SMEs in the field of HR development?

Primarily training and continuing professional development services, for which there’s an extremely big and thus also unfathomable market of external suppliers. Blended learning and e-learning models are big, and will remain so. There’s been a significant rise in demand over the years for staff training and postgraduate courses, but also coaching services for managers.

Staff surveys have also gained in importance. This is a welcome development; it shows that management is eager to enter into more discourse with workers. Despite the number of indications that leadership is poor, there are differing degrees to which management development measures can actually be implemented. Naturally it all depends on senior management and the management culture of the company. The way I see it, lots of SMEs are still too reticent about HR development and use the lack of resources as an excuse. Clever concepts are needed in this respect, such as cross-company initiatives.

You published a “Black Book of HR Development” through Steinbeis-Edition and heavily criticized lots of personnel development methods, calling them “baneful management esotericism.” What motivated you to write this book?

First and foremost, the apparent maelstrom of management esotericism, which also came at me as a head of HR development. In almost 20 years in business, some of the most outlandish ideas landed on my desk. Aside from the aforementioned one, there were purely esoteric concepts like “shamanistic personnel development” or “spiritual coaching,” but also markedly perilous mixtures of psychological techniques, alternative medicine and therapeutic approaches. Trainers, coaches and personnel development experts are now mixing up all sorts of HR development concoctions – for example NLP with kinesiology and EMDR, or NLP with organizational structuring etc. Leadership development techniques inspired by zoology also seem to be capable of conjuring up further digressions – there’s a major German bank working with lamas at the moment. It wouldn’t be exaggerating to call the underlying concept daredevil. There’s also a dangerous tendency to overstep the mark since therapeutic methods offered by laypersons are out of place in occupational HR management.

Workers are expected to get older in the future and the decline in the number of up-and-coming workers as a result of demographic changes will present challenges for HR development specialists. What do you think can be done about this?

If we assume that HR development turns its back on esoteric and unprofessional concepts in the medium term, given the demographic trends – and this especially affects SMEs – it will be important to consider personnel threats and opportunities at the same time, and manage this. I’ve coined a term for this: potential-oriented succession planning. In the future, there won’t be so much choice anymore, you’ll have to work out really early on who could replace key workers if something unexpected crops up. Potential-oriented succession planning can do this because it links personnel risk management with strategic elements of HR development.


Dr. Viktor Lau writes specialist books for Steinbeis-Edition and has been working as a consultant for international consulting companies for more than a decade. His focal areas include personnel strategies and organization, HR development and continuing professional development, and HR and training benchmarking.

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