What’s the point of HR?

W.L. Gore and Partners, the manufacturer of Gore-Tex, in addition to over a 1,000 other innovative products, has been described by Fast Company magazine as “the most innovative company in America.” It regularly comes top in rankings of the best places to work. Its founder Bill Gore believed in the importance of trusting people to do the right thing and in the unifying force of a strong corporate culture. He wanted to create a non-hierarchical, non-bureaucratic, self-regulating business, without rules, built around self-managed, small teams.

Over 50 years later, Gore continues to adopt a flat, team-based structure – they call it a ‘lattice structure’ – that is underpinned by a corporate philosophy that encourages initiative and a focus on personal fulfillment. You won’t find any organisational charts at Gore, any sense of hierarchy, job descriptions or prescribed chains of command. Decisions are made by those closest to a project, no one can be told what to do, bosses are described as ‘sponsors’ and teams largely self-organize around specific projects, typically without any pre-defined leadership.

Ann Gillies has the interesting challenge of heading the human resources function for W.L. Gore in the UK, which mirrors its US operation by rejecting a traditional hierarchy or formal job titles. True to the company’s ethos, there aren’t any HR policies and procedures. One of the practical benefits of this approach is that there is far less paperwork generated than in a typical HR department. It also means that the department operates with a much smaller headcount than the norm and allows the HR team to focus its time on the important stuff: helping people understand the Gore values and culture, rather than pushing paperwork around the office. In an interview with Personnel Today Magazine, Gillies explained how decision-making works within Gore: “We do need to make decisions here, we’re not a hippy commune,” she insists. “It’s about making sure something is happening, but not taking control – you’re not managing people, you’re letting the team work out the how and then get on with it …. I can imagine that in the military or in law enforcement you need some sort of control-and-command structure, but elsewhere, if you trust people, they will do a good job.”

This is the future of the HR function, as the guardian of the corporate culture, rather than the master of employee compliance. In fact, if HR departments renamed themselves as ‘culture departments’ and consigned the job descriptions and appraisal forms to the waste bin, they would almost certainly make a more effective contribution to corporate life.

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One Comment

  1. Posted October 16, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    HR should be about helping, rather than dictating – good ethics to have is to trust your workers to get the job done, and leave them to evolve further naturally when they show they can.