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TD Magazine Article

John W. Boudreau

An interview with John W. Boudreau, Professor and Research Director, Center for Effective Organizations, University of Southern California


Wed Jan 08 2014

John W. Boudreau-7cab660b97689bb0a91122edb7fae11432f4eb49dd218aad8a8bc7e2207a59ba

Professor and Research Director

Center for Effective Organizations


University of Southern California

Los Angeles, California

John Boudreau is recognized worldwide for breakthrough research on the bridge between superior human capital, talent and sustainable competitive advantage. He consults and conducts executive development with companies worldwide that seek to maximize employees' effectiveness by quantifying the impact of superior people and human capital strategies.

What drew you to the field of management, and your concentration in human resources?

My dad worked for IBM when I was younger, and I remember an episode when he had been working a couple of 24-hour-straight shifts fixing computers. I asked, "How are you feeling?" And he said, "Look, we have a great sense of accomplishment, IBM is a great company, but I can't help but notice that the manager is taking our sales group out because they beat their goals by 10 percent—they are all having a steak dinner." And he said, "I have a good manager, but if he knew how much it would mean to us technicians if he would do that with us, I think he would do it."


There are thousands of places everyday where an employer or a manager could do a little bit better if she had an HR professional that was helping her think about this. I have my dad and people like him in mind—the notion that these terrific HR professionals I have the privilege of working with may take some small idea I have and make work life better for people.

What is your Global Talent 2021 project about?

That's interesting first because of the findings that we generated—and I say "we" because it was through the efforts of a lot of great institutions and people.

It was an opportunity to conduct hundreds of interviews with leaders of all kinds, particularly HR leaders in various countries, about what we envisioned were the friction points of work and labor markets going forward as we look toward 2021.

Some of the findings were quite telling. For example, when you do the projections, it turns out that Western Europe and the United States are more likely to have labor shortages than places like India and China, which is very surprising. How could that be? Well, when you think about it, it's the interface between the skills that are going to be needed and the ability of the education system to provide people who have those skills.


One of the things I took away is that the education systems in some of the more developed countries are less likely to change in response to skills that will be needed in the future; whereas less-formed education systems in developing countries look like they're going to change.

We're still analyzing the data, so these are not conclusions but my personal impressions.

What led you to be such a strong advocate of corporate-academic partnerships? I attribute that to the immense good fortune I had of starting my career at Cornell University, at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. Unlike a business school, you have an entire school devoted to the employment relationship. People like Walt Burdick (former chief HR officer of IBM) and others strongly supported the school and were in positions with leading organizations, and were available a lot. I had the privilege of interacting with them in the course of my work there.

I was immersed in an environment that provided both the value system and the commitment to the idea that academia plus industry is a formidable power for illuminating the answers to questions about the workplace.

Soon we found a way to create a center for advanced HR studies that would be an institutional embodiment of those things, and a way of creating a hub for them. Through my Cornell experience, academic-organization partnerships became part of my DNA.

What do you believe are qualities of outstanding chief HR officers?

What strikes me most is the degree to which they are outstanding executives in their own right. You encounter them and you realize that this is a seasoned executive, this is a savvy individual, this is someone who could be an executive in almost any field and be outstanding in it for those softer qualities. Not so much the technical qualities, but the qualities of human understanding, of understanding how to work with an institution—the gravitas and the discretion that comes with operating at a high level in a fishbowl with a lot of scrutiny.

I think the outstanding ones today, interestingly, are making a transition from the very important job of just being the person who runs the HR function in support of the organization, to an extended job where they're often called upon to become chief reputation officer, the chief communications officer, etc.

What are your thoughts about evidence-based human capital decision making?

One element of evidence-based management—the one that I think intrigues the academic side—is how leaders in organizations could be helped to make more use of findings that those of us on the research side spend our lives building and publishing in scholarly journals.

As academics we strive to advance the means by which people in organizations find a way to incorporate some of the principles that are pretty well-developed but may be unknown or unused by decision makers for lack of the right kind of collaboration between the two sides.

So, that's one element of evidence-based management—some people call it the capital E, the evidence from the journals and science. The little "e" version of it is the idea of instilling an evidence-based value structure in decision makers, particularly about human capital.

Yes, that can mean using scholarly research, but it also means that leaders understand the principles of rigorously using the evidence they have available to them as they make decisions about people. It isn't just a gut-level exercise; in fact there are ways of thinking about human capital that will lead you to a more systemic definition—hopefully using evidence from science, though sometimes it's also a matter of rigorously using the evidence you have in your organization.

How is the changing dynamic of the workplace, globalization, new technologies, and the like, specifically affecting HR professionals?

First of all, there is the emergence of the trend. In the case of globalization, for example, the realization of this is now probably 20 years old—that businesses and organizations are going to operate in global markets and they're going to need to think about the synergies among regions. Sustainability is another good example of a trend that was developing five to 10 years ago and is now better understood.

Then there is the period of embracing the trends within the HR profession. The competencies begin to change, so it's a rare competency element of HR that doesn't include global perspective. That was not true 20 years ago necessarily. We start with the more functionally obvious stages of bringing these trends in. Well, let's have HR people with global competency. Let's make our HR processes more environmentally sustainable by getting rid of paper.

As things develop, we start to see nuances that are often fruitful for the profession, but that emerge in less obvious ways. We see HR today applying gaming principles to health and benefits programs to get people involved, make them like a video game.

To me, the territory that's about to emerge is the idea that when you attach gaming principles to something, you often change the way people see it. It seems to be more fun and less like work. So, there's some brain chemistry shift that happens, which is quite fascinating.

Same thing with sustainability. When we ask the question, "What would a sustainable employment relationship look like and how would that be constructed?" I think that leads to some very interesting underlying principles of work and life balance—let's say, about the notion of how much rest should be in your system so that your employees don't get burned out. To me, that's the fundamental thing that's underneath HR. It's about your relationship with your work, and understanding it better and making it more fruitful.

Disciplines like values, community, attitudes, and motivation—HR should be the profession that'll lead on them.

In what ways can HR professionals work better with management?

Certainly one of the ways the profession works better with management outside of the HR profession is that we make sure that what we're doing is supportive of what management is doing, and that we communicate and measure that effectively.

I like to think an effective way of working is to shift from persuasion—convincing people to do things, convincing people that we're adding value; and think about it as education, where we leave them with the tools to be smart enough to see things for themselves, that they have a framework when they think about motivation or engagement or employee turnover or the pipeline of talent.

I've talked in the book Beyond HR, with Pete Ramstad, that the territory for HR—the true measure of our effectiveness—may lie outside of our profession in the simple question of how smart our leaders are when they're making decisions about people and we're not there to require them to do something.

What do you enjoy doing for fun and relaxation?

The most prominent thing I do when I'm not writing or teaching is yoga. Like so many of us of a "certain age," I discovered it about 10 or 15 years ago and it's become a big part of my fun and relaxation.

And my daughter, wife, and I are fond of getting outdoors and hiking. Because I live in Los Angeles, I get a big kick out of opportunities to support and watch emerging artists grow. So, that's fun—whether it's poets or performance artists, or singers/songwriters—to find venues where you can see that other kind of "talent" emerge.

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