HR to HD: how AHDO is making ASEAN the front-runner in human development

April 4, 2021

The first meeting of ASEAN Human Development Organisation founders took place less than a year ago, in Jakarta on 6th November 2018. At that meeting, we didn’t really know if such an ambitious social enterprise would take off. Less than a year later AHDO has achieved the critical mass of representation in the ASEAN region representing two-thirds of the region's population.

The founders of AHDO started out with a common idea: what ASEAN does NOT need is another HR club. Given the development of the region, AHDO's founders believed that it was time for professionals in the region to define their purpose in terms of human development.

On 20th September 2019, at the VNHR conference in Ho Chi Minh City, the founders signed a declaration with these key statements.

The Founding Members of AHDO define human development in alignment with the United Nations framework and the International Labour Organisation mission of decent work. Human development at work includes economic development and human capital, but also freedom, human rights and ethics, capabilities, lifelong learning, self- development and social and cultural development. Human development is aligned with the ASEAN missions of sustainable development, preservation of the environment and the biological heritage of the region.

The enthusiasm of the HR professionals who joined the early founders confirmed that they wanted to have a purpose beyond the traditional HR function. They wanted to be part of a human development community that included business leaders, higher education professionals, thought leaders, consultants, technologists, trainers and NGOs.

Why turn the page on HR? 

When it comes to traditional HR, many experts have written that the HR model itself is broken. For example, the Harvard Business Review ran a special issue on HR in 2015 with this cover title:

It's time to blow up HR and build something new: here's how

While this overstates the disruption, it is clear that transition beyond HR is well underway.

Why? Part of the reason is that HR is organised as an in-house administrative function for managing humans as a resource. That function is shifting away from full-time jobs and work is being done by outsourced firms, and some of it is taken over by automation such as HR bots. Also, it is more efficient if some of the administrative HR is done by the employees themselves as well as directly by managers.

But the real reason is that a function in a company that manages people as a resource doesn't really address the human dimension of management. The essential capability of the function is now human development and its responsibility is to stakeholders. The difference is captured below (the picture on the left is of a Foxconn factory producing Apple products in China).

Although the word HR will probably remain in use for a few more years, human development has become the preferred term. In fact some of the new national HR organisations being created in ASEAN are following our lead and calling themselves human development organisations. There are compelling reasons for to change the name HR to HD:

  • People are agents, not resources: they self-develop, make decisions and set goals. People are individuals and need to constantly develop in their work and in life.
  • Their value is not only defined by the economic criteria of human capital but also by aspiration, values and meaning. The goals of work include personal development, human rights and the social good. Human capital is a component of human development – not the other way around.
  • Human development has scientific and practical measurement criteria defined at a macro-level by international organisations like the United Nations, and at a company level by key development indicators (KDIs) that include aspirations, learning, self-determination and capability. These are all measurable.

The Historic Evolution to HD

Historically the first organisations were created to ensure the welfare of workers during the industrial revolution. We are now entering a new period of nobility of purpose, where human development is defining the people function in companies.

The chart above shows how the shift from HR to HD represents a new phase and an upgrading of the function. HD professionals see themselves as leaders rather than support staff; they are not limited to an in-house administrative department but are professionals and experts in many areas of development for business.

Impact for HR professionals in ASEAN

While the shift beyond HR is a global phenomenon, for ASEAN HR professionals it has a special impact. Most of the concepts, tools and processes we use have been created somewhere else. At the same time, we are well into the "Asian Century" where the three largest workforces are taking a leadership role for the future of work. China and India's models for developing people are based on national foundations. But in ASEAN, the foundations have to be multinational, like in the European Union.

The AHDO founders took this challenge as an opportunity to lead in the transition beyond HR to a regional HD model. We have identified capabilities in different ASEAN countries where the region has something to bring to the world. In other words, ASEAN has global capabilities already. We used these capabilities as the basis for the ASEAN human development model in a book that will soon be available, Leading Human Development in ASEAN. The purpose of the book is to begin the process of thought leadership coming from ASEAN.

As the author of the book, I have worked with the founders of AHDO to create this model and establish the foundations of human development in alignment with the ASEAN commitments and guidelines, including human rights, sustainability and reducing inequality.

That ASEAN's rapid economic development is actually aggravating the region’s inequalities may come as a surprise to human development professionals. It is a wakeup call that we must take a leadership role in providing fair access to decent work, health, education and technology.

In conclusion, it has been an honour to do this work in contribution to human development in ASEAN -- I strongly identify myself with the region even if I was not born and educated here. I believe in the promise of openness and collaboration in ASEAN whose people are among the most open and welcoming on the planet. For me, transforming ASEAN's cultural openness and collaboration into development capabilities is the main driver for ASEAN's path for global leadership.

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