Of course, those working in human resources, as it is now known, would say they are only noticed at times of strife; when everything is going well they are invisible. But new research is going to give their critics more ammunition. According to a project called 'Learning from Difficulty' carried out at the Sundridge Park management centre in south London, there is 'a poor fit between human resources strategy and the real needs of managers'. In particular, human resources departments fail to provide support when managers are having difficulty.
The most common difficulty - particularly at present - is the imbalance between life and work goals. Because managers find themselves constantly trying to cope with work at the expense of their social lives, they experience domestic strife, which in turn affects their ability to work. The result is just one aspect of what the project co- ordinator, Brian Smith, calls the 'busy fools syndrome'.
Another problem results from managers responding to situations rather than setting the agenda. By not analysing what they really need to do, they run into time management difficulties.
Related to this is preparedness. Traditionally, people are expected to grow into management jobs. The only problem is that they are given no time in which to adjust. With little support from the top, the result is increased pressure.
With lack of preparedness comes lack of confidence, which prevents managers from challenging conventional wisdom. The consequence is that they end up doing things they know they ought not to be doing.
The inability to solve problems is itself a problem. It is a ramification of being a 'busy fool': the manager is too busy fighting fires to sit down and decide what needs to be done.
Linked with this is the inability to delegate or to develop subordinates who can relieve the workload, which creates frustrations at the next level down - and so it goes on.
All are common problems among managers. But, Mr Smith argues, they could be solved by effective human resources management. Instead, many companies have departments with no real information about the people they employ other than dates of birth.
'People leave things off their CVs because they don't fit the particular job specifications of the post they are applying for. So the HR strategy of fitting the right people to the right jobs fails,' Mr Smith said.
'The last thing that HR people think of is, 'Where does this fit with the decisions that the company needs to make?' ' As a classic example of this he cited a company taking over another and laying off its workforce, only to find that it did not have the people it needed to run the new subsidiary.
At a time when change is the watchword of business, the role of human resources should be to develop a way of managing it. However, the people involved are for the most part 'people professionals' who have never run parts of the business and therefore lack the clout to challenge senior executives.
Mr Smith believes managerial performance will only be improved if there is a serious effort to develop employees.