Neil Morrison: Right language is the key to commercial HR

Neil Morrison, HR director at Random House, believes an appropriate use of language is central to the concept of commercial HR.

For example, if he is talking to his company’s publishers about recruiting different skillsets into the organisation, he will explain it in the context of digital publishing.

“That is something our publishers understand,” he says. “If I was talking about competency based frameworks and diversification of skill base, they would probably look at me wide-eyed and tell me to go away. Being truly commercial is about being able to get an agenda that is best for the organisation because people understand the value in the context for them, rather than it being about having a separate HR agenda that nobody really understands and gets fearful of.”

Using plain English is also important, says Morrison. “The concept of HR-speak drives me nuts because most people don’t understand it because they’re human. If we talk about human capital, it means nothing to the vast majority of people. When I’m talking to publishers, I need to talk to them in a language they understand, not in some sort of weird lingo that only happens in my department.”

An understanding of the limitations of business metrics is also key, says Morrison. “I remember one of the key turning points in my thinking on this was at Home Retail Group [where he was HR manager]. I did a big project on employee engagement and we were looking at business-linkage models and whether we could demonstrate that engagement would increase business results. I can remember working with statisticians doing all sorts of analysis and going to see the managing director at the time, sitting down and saying ‘we can show this and we can show that’. She pushed the papers to one side and said, ‘it’s kind of intuitive, isn’t it?’, and me thinking, ‘that just told me, and you’re right; we can cut to the chase, be more agile and get things done.’

“What it told me is there are certain things where being commercial isn’t just getting caught up in analysis and statistics and trying to demonstrate that. If I’d gone and said ‘it seems to me that people who are better engaged are more likely to serve the customer better and therefore give a better experience, what do you think?’, I’m sure everyone would have agreed and we would have probably got a reaction more quickly and delivered more, and that would be me being more commercial than thinking I’ve got to justify myself and my existence.”

Morrison has since avoided making similar mistakes by learning to be more confident in presenting his business cases. “Most HR data, in my experience, can be argued either way pretty easily,” he adds. “You can produce gazillion pieces of data that don’t actually give you insight.”

Neil Morrison is HR director at Random House