Weather man says fine today

Radio 4’s ever interesting Thinking Allowed programme recently featured a report of a study into weather forecasters- and specifically what it referred to a “science rooted in unpredictability”. The research was based on a long-term study and its key findings were:

  • The core of the profession was based on evidence and data – whether this was an analysis of historic trends, mapping variable data in to the future, or using latest research to inform and update their modelling and prediction techniques
  • At the same time results needed to be interpreted and presented in a meaningful way to the recipient. While it might be scientifically accurate to say that there is a 65% chance of rain, what the end user wants to know is “do I need to take my umbrella out with me?”. So a key skill is clear and effective communication
  • Personal experience and “intuition” are still a vital part of managing the unpredictability – the research revealed that forecasters might spend significant time observing the sky and sharing stories and anecdotes as well as poring over computer models and satellite images. Being able on occasions to use this accumulated knowledge is essential to develop appropriate solutions. In fact the report gave an excellent example of this. The computer model predicted that Kansas City would not receive its first snowfall of the winter one night. Experienced forecasters believed it would. The decision was to go with the computer model, and the result was chaos as the city ground to a halt, unprepared for heavy snow.

Very interesting you may be thinking, but why are you writing an HR blog about it? It seems to me that this research also describes HR management pretty well. We’re dealing with unpredictable elements all the time (we call them “human resources”, though I prefer “people”). We should be using evidence and data wherever possible to support our activities (sadly, we don’t on too many occasions) but we also need to rely on our own experience to inform the judgments and decisions we make. And we need to communicate our advice and decisions in a way that is understandable and useful to managers and employees.

You can listen to the full Thinking Allowed report here



HR Theory, HR Practice

As everyone gets ready for the CIPD’s Annual conference in Manchester this week, I thought I’d provide a helpful guide for newer attendees on some of the various  HR terms they may encounter and what they really mean

Best Practice

The Theory:

A series of academic studies which suggests there are universal “best practices” that an HR department should be doing to enhance organisational performance. These practices include rigorous selection procedures, allowing employees to have some form of ownership of the company, and a strong training and development ethos.

The Practice

  1. Taking ideas that appear to have been successful in other organisations and transplanting them into your own
  2. The killer argument when a sceptical CEO or Finance Director questions your new HR initiative – “But it’s best practice!”

The Ulrich Model

The Theory

An academic view, put forward by Professor David Ulrich, that HR has four basic functions in an organisation: Strategic (or Business) Partner, Change Agent, Admin Expert and Employee Champion.

The Practice

The reorganisation of HR departments, mostly by re-designating middle-ranking HR professionals as “HR Business Partners” and creating mindless admin jobs in “Shared Service” call centres (often then outsourced to developing countries).  Usually followed by further reorganisations of HR departments as “That Ulrich model is a load of (insert own term of abuse)”

Big Data

The Theory

Extremely large amount of information (often but not always created online) which is complex to analyse, but by doing so can sometimes lead to more accurate predictions of likely outcomes

The Practice

Introducing new software to churn out employee statistics – such as turnover, applicant tracking or absence, and to give this data red, amber or green “traffic lights”.

Talent Management

The Theory

There’s considerable academic debate about what talent means – whether it relates to an inherent genetic ability to do something or a willingness or commitment to the organisation and the work required. A related but separate debate is how talent management can be aligned to business strategy

The Practice

  1. Pushing up salaries to retain existing staff and to attract staff from competitors (“the war for talent”)
  2. Moaning about the poor standard of candidates when you are recruiting (“there’s a lack of talent in the market place”)
  3. Giving some employees (“the talent”) better training and development opportunities than others

Feel free to add your own in the Comments section below…

Swallows and Amazons

You may have missed it, but the New York Times published an “exposé” of the culture and working practices at online retailer Amazon at the weekend. If you did miss it, then you can find it here. It’s caused quite a furore, with lots of condemnation of Amazon, and company founder and CEO Jeff Bezos having to issue a formal statement in response.

I don’t know anything at all about Amazon’s working conditions and culture. However I can spot emotively manipulative journalism when I see it, and the fact it’s in what is apparently America’s “newspaper of record” doesn’t make it any more palatable.

Let’s leave aside all the “they texted me on Thanksgiving Day” “I saw grown men cry daily*” “I was criticised for having poor wi-fi on holiday” stuff which may be true incidents but are simply anecdotal evidence (*As an aside, presumably women crying at work every day would not be worth reporting since, as we all know, they are over-emotional little creatures). Let’s look instead at the managerial and HR practices that are criticised.

  1. They have leadership values and (shock, horror) actually use them in management and recruitment, rather than leave them as nice words stuck behind a reception desk, where of course they should be.
  2. They encourage feedback from all sections of the workforce on performance. Other companies call this 360 degree appraisal and use it a lot.
  3. They want contributions from all members of staff and expect challenge, regardless of position
  4. They use data to inform their business decisions
  5. They work long hours
  6. They use performance rankings to dismiss staff they deem to be poor performers
  7. Poor performance is managed by performance improvement plans (which according to the article is “Amazon code for ‘you’re in danger of being fired’”. In a similar vein, the Daily Mail once informed its readers that cloud storage was “not an actual cloud”)

Points 1-4 would be considered as good practice by most HR professionals. If anything the NYT article shows that we should be alive to the ways to which even “good practices” can lead to negative consequences. 5 and 6 are both poor practices but aren’t exclusive to Amazon in any way (even if again, Amazon apparently take them to an extreme). While 7 is again a fairly normal managerial practice in most companies – not an Amazon exclusive “secret code”.

Amazon may have very poor working conditions and an aggressive, over competitive management style. So do many other companies. They may have high turnover and many disgruntled ex-employees. So do many other companies. I’m certainly not defending either the company or poor HR. But why single them out? The old journalistic adage is “follow the money”. The New York Times’s major rival as a “newspaper of record” is The Washington Post. Who owns The Washington Post? Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos.