They might have been being facetious, but I recently absent-mindedly eaves-dropped a conversation comparing HR with alchemy. The snatches of the conversation that I overheard were along the lines of turning base metal into gold, rather than exploring some of the other goals of a now archaic discipline – formulating the elixir of life (an aim now pursued more by cosmetics companies and surgeons and by life coaches) or creating the ultimate panacea. As a metaphor for talent management, I guess ‘turning lead into gold’ works rather better than elixirs, and panaceas can stand in for engagement strategies and BUPA membership. But it was an interesting reminder that the urge to discover the legendary magic formula that makes everything all right lives on, regardless of the fate of the disciplines that spawned the different approaches we’ve abandoned over the centuries.

I also couldn’t help but think – possibly as a measure of the prevailing lack of other stimulation at the time – that it was interesting that the other strand of alchemy had somehow dropped out of the equation. To quote everyone’s favourite wise friend (Wikipedia): “In general alchemists believe in a natural and symbolic unity of humanity with the cosmos.” This spiritual and philosophical strand was an integral element of alchemy, but one that fell by the wayside as the scientific discipline of chemistry evolved and displaced its metaphorical parent.

As I toyed with one difficult decision (mince pies or tarte au chocolat), my wandering mind wondered if the evolution of HR might be following a similar ‘philosophy to science’ route. If you search this blog for ‘raw materials’ (or just click here for one we prepared earlier), we’ve been sceptical about applying a materials science approach to HR before: for instance, when we said:

Unlike chefs, artists, builders or countless other workers with an enormous variety of materials at their disposals, as managers of ‘human resources’ we face a unique challenge: handled inexpertly, insensitively or so as not to achieve the best outcome, our materials may spontaneously decline to take part in our work anymore.”

That’s not to say there’s anything fundamentally wrong with ‘the appliance of science’, just that it helps to remember what you’re applying it to. And to remember that the nature and manner of the application can be more critical to the outcome than the scientific process or method. The leap from ‘six step approach to …’ to actually doing is more complex that the written word (or flowchart, or process diagram) can lead you to believe – something memorably expressed in a Richard Thompson song, Read About Love:

I do everything I’m supposed to do
If something’s wrong, then it must be you
I know the ways of a woman
I’ve read about love
When I touch you there it’s supposed to feel nice
That’s what it said in reader’s advice”

If you insist on doing it by the book, so to speak, then pick the book very carefully, be prepared to interpret as well as implement – and possibly practice on some cartoon characters before you wrestle with flesh and blood. And remind yourself that the situation you are addressing will evolve and change over the time: despite these changes, the advice in the book will stay the same. In a demanding world, there’s an understandable comfort in something that presents itself as a simple route map to salvation, even if an inner alarm bell about gift horses and looking in their mouths ought to be ringing. (The price label on the ‘gift’ should come as a further alarm too, surely?)

Meanwhile, back with the alchemists … Am I the only one wondering quite what the obsession was with turning everything into gold? It’s not so much the lessons from King Midas I’m thinking about as much as the desirability of turning everything into just the one thing. We wrote about monocultures in the early days of this blog, but the warning – that monocultures are more vulnerable to external events – stands. The much misunderstood ‘fittest’ that Darwin taught us stand the best chance of survival are not the strongest: he meant those best adapted to changing circumstance.

Gold has many desirable qualities: it’s easily worked, highly malleable and can be beaten till it can be spread incredibly thinly. All qualities many organisations would seek in a workforce. But it’s also expensive and hugely attractive to thieves. (Shades of the talent war there, perhaps.) I understand that gold is an allegory – gold medals, gold stars, gold awards – but allegories are supposed to be supplements to understanding, not substitutes for it. Over-indulging in allegories is a route to delusion. And for too many organisations, ‘the best’ is automatically equated with leadership. We’re always going to need wise, talented and inspiring leaders, but they’re going to need something to lead.

My train of thought didn’t get much further when I switched tracks to another metal that turns up in a lot of management allegories: steel. I think what we mean by referring to steel is something like integrity, determination, resoluteness, although there are also implications of coldness and – more disquietingly – a hard rigidity. This is the age of flexibility: for all the macho appeal, steel isn’t the only thing we would want to construct an organisation or a workforce from.

Looking at most organisations, the people that comprise them need a diversity of qualities to best perform their different roles. Leaders must inspire and engage, often through storytelling: apart from their other skills and knowledge, the ability to not just communicate but motivate is essential. Finance directors need an emotional sang froid, a dispassionate calm, but they need more than enhanced numeracy: they need to be able to interpret financial data in the context of the situation. It’s not all data handling: it’s interpretation too. I might be the only one old enough to remember the Marvel Comics Metal Men series – where Platinum was always being precious in more senses than one, and Lead spent half his time in a metaphorical dunce’s hat – but even a kid’s cartoon had grasped that it was a matter of horses for courses.

Every quality has its time and place, and they can work together to complement each other’s best features. Tin may not be gold, but it still shines with a little TLC and a bit of polishing. And even where qualities are amalgamated, you don’t want everyone to be the same metaphorical alloy. The idea of the panacea is just as much a hopeful folly as the daydream of the philosopher’s stone. There’s nothing wrong in HR teams wanting their organisations to be as successful as JK Rowling but Harry Potter was a kid’s story, not a management blueprint.

Similarly, organisational life isn’t a chemistry set to play with, enjoying the sparks, explosions and the colourful smoke. Physical Sciences saw alchemy evolve into chemistry and materials science. For HR, alchemy also needs to evolve. If the 21st century is a time for innovation, isn’t the time ripe to invent a new discipline: Human Materials Science?

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