Monday, January 28, 2008

Follow the (Thought) Leaders

We talk a lot about Thought Leadership within the HR space. But what does that really mean? What is a Thought Leader? Why should I listen to one person versus another? And in this age of blogs, and wikis, how do you know who is a Thought Leader, and who is just opinionated?

The term Thought Leader is used a lot on business, but isn’t necessarily understood. According to Wikipedia, “the term was first coined in 1994, by
Joel Kurtzman, editor-in-chief of the magazine, Strategy & Business. The term was used to designate interview subjects for that magazine who had contributed new thoughts to business…Since that time, the term has spread from business to other disciplines and has come to mean someone who enlivens old processes with new ideas”.

That’s an interesting definition, someone who enlivens old processes with new ideas. It’s a very inclusive definition, suggesting that a Thought Leader isn’t limited to a professor in an ivory tower, or an executive with a certain rank or title. It means that a Thought Leader could be a line worker who comes up with a new way to reduce waste on the production floor. Or someone who parachutes in from another industry and brings new ideas with them. Or a researcher who changes up processes when proposing new tools for automation.

But I do have a problem with this definition: it doesn’t take into consideration the source or the effect of those ideas. If I decide that I’d like to have all my recruiting candidates participate in a Survivor-style competition, it might “enliven” the process, but would it make it better? What effect would it have on the qualities of the candidates I’m recruiting? Where did I get that idea (too much TV!) and what makes me think it would have a positive impact on the process?

To me, the best Thought Leaders are those who practice both research and application. They experiment, but do so with a goal in mind, and then act on the evidence. And they are vocal about what works and what doesn’t. They take the time to contribute to the body of knowledge within their space, and they challenge others to contribute as well. Nicholas Higgins did a series at the end of last year on the
Top 25 contributors to Human Capital Management. His list is strongly weighted to the research side, but it’s a good list of the primary influencers in HCM. I don’t argue with anyone he included, although I’d like to also see a list of HR practitioners or influencers to get a more complete Thought Leadership profile. Any nominations for Thought Leaders? Who do you look to in the HCM space? And more importantly, why?

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