Whatcha gonna DO about it?

About a year ago, just after CIPD13, I wrote this post suggesting it was time for HR to “seize the day”. This week sees CIPD14 – where are we a year later?

On the positive side, there are lots of great discussions going on about where HR goes in the future – as an example #nzlead and its little brother “Unfurling HR” are continuing to provoke excellent debate and, just as importantly, bringing in a bigger group of HR professionals worldwide

But what I’m not seeing are the concrete examples of what people are doing. Now it may be that I’m missing them (in which case please feel free to provide a few links in the comments below), and I accept I’m just as guilty of “talking a good game” without necessarily providing evidence (watch this space over the coming weeks!). But my concern is that for many employees, the world of work is still mundane, overmanaged and a crap experience and that “HR” are those people who tell you not to do things. The fact that we’re still getting excited by Gary Hamel basically describing what Semco did 20 years ago is pretty telling that things haven’t moved forward that much

So where are the posts that tell me?

  • We’ve redesigned our recruitment processes to attract better people and improve the experience for all candidates
  • We have a really innovative approach to flexible working – here’s how we did it
  • We tried this new way of L&D – it didn’t quite work but here’s what we learned.

I don’t mean the sort of PR puff pieces that – thankfully – seem to be less common in People Management. In the brave new world of social media, I want to be able to say more often to those I interact with: “that’s really interesting – I’d like to try something similar with one of my clients. Can I talk to you about it?” Collaboration, sharing, disruption – all the buzzwords of social media – need to have one outcome for those of us in HR: Doing Good People Stuff (a phrase I’m happy to have socially collaborated from @HR_Gem!)

My 6 Books

maverick  handy secret agentTMS cheese

A couple of weeks ago David Goddin (@Changecontinuum) wrote a blog post on the 6 books that had most influenced his approach to his coaching practice, and challenged others to do the same. After some thought, here are the books that influence my approach to HR

Maverick – Ricardo Semler

Even 20 years on, the way in which Semler transformed his traditionally run family business into one which gives shopfloor workers the chance to set their own wages, run their own production lines and take control of the way the business moved forward is still inspirational and sadly, still rare. What I particularly like about it is that Semco is primarily a manufacturing firm (not a trendy techy start up) and is based in one of the emerging economies (Brazil) – if they can do it why can’t more?

Understanding Organisations – Charles Handy

Anyone who studied for their CIPD qualification in the 1980s or 1990s will have probably used this as their “core” textbook – although it’s a fairly easy and straightforward read and not overly academic in style. It’s not a ground-breaking book in itself, but it emphasises the “human” in human resources and its influence can still be felt throughout the HR profession. It’s my first port of call if I need to refresh my memory on an aspect of HR theory.

The Secret Agent – Joseph Conrad

I’ve blogged before about Conrad and his unlikely status as an HR guru, and this is a classic case of “a novel you read as a teenager having an influence for the rest of your life”. Every character in this study of a terrorist cell in London is complex, with their own individual motivations, and their interplay and misunderstandings lead to tragic consequences – things that impact on the world of work where understanding why people are behaving in a particular way is key to resolving issues.

The Wealth of Nations/The Theory of Moral Sentiments – Adam Smith

Yes, this is two books – but both need to be read as Smith (who like Marx is often misrepresented) makes the important point that humans are both economic animals (we like to make a profit) and social animals (we have feelings for others and can understand their dilemmas and point of view). Balancing the two in business is a key skill in HR – we have to ensure that we achieve both.

Who moved my Cheese? – Spencer Johnson

Awful, patronising tripe, a heavy handed way of making the point “if you don’t adapt you die”. It’s the only management book I know to have been cited as a reason for unfair dismissal. So why is it here? Because it’s a constant reminder to me of how HR can and has been used almost as the “anti-people” department – and so it acts as a warning never to behave in that way!

The Two Kinds of HR

Originally posted February 2014

It was legendary jazz musician Duke Ellington who famously said “There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind”. I think that’s pretty much true of HR as well.

All very well you might say – but what do we mean by “good HR”? It’s worth looking at the second (and much less quoted) part of what Duke Ellington said: “… the only yardstick by which the result should be judged is simply that of how it sounds. If it sounds good it’s successful; if it doesn’t it has failed”

HR is – whether some like it or not – a management function. It’s not some internal mini-ACAS trying to look after employees within a corporate structure (there are organisations that do that – they are called trade unions). So ultimately good HR is making a significant and identifiable contribution to the success of the organisation it is located in – however that organisation defines “success”.

The way in which good HR does this is to create the conditions for the employees of an organisation to achieve. That can mean ensuring that talented employees are recruited; that they are remunerated adequately; and they are given opportunities to maximise their own potential. Importantly good HR works to create these conditions not because it’s morally a “good thing” (though many would argue it is) but because time and again studies in behavioural psychology and neuro-science show that it is the most effective way to manage. Good HR is not about clinging to the ideas of defunct management theorists.

Good HR recognises that it cannot make employees motivated, enthusiastic or empowered. But it can do things which encourage this behaviour, even when all around are sceptical or negative. Just like Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams, good HR believes that “if you build it, they will come”.

So when I see HR giving itself “tags” like Commercial HR, Social HR or Brave HR I ask why? There are only two kinds of HR – Good HR and the other kind.

Which do you practise?

Away from the Numbers

Originally posted February 2014

I’m going to let you into a not-so-secret secret. HR people don’t, on the whole, like numbers. We might do stuff with them if we really have to (“You want sickness absence statistics, Mr Finance Director? Ok, if we must”) but deep down we’d much sooner be dealing with people, whether it’s developing systems and processes or analysing their interactions.

Don’t get me wrong – people matters are very important and if HR didn’t do them no-one else in business would – but,  while avoiding numbers,  one of the things HR people do is agonise endlessly about why the senior team/C-Suite/top table don’t take them seriously. Perhaps the two are not unconnected.

We talk a lot in HR about effective communication and talking in appropriate and meaningful language. Usually however it’s in the context of talking “down” to employees – we rarely consider it in relation to talking “up” to Directors.

So if you want to be taken seriously by business leaders, you need to be able to explain things in their language.  And that means understanding the numbers and being comfortable discussing them. It’s no wonder that HR lacks credibility when I read a debate on LinkedIn (about the CIPD’s recent survey on zero hours contracts) in which a CIPD qualified professional stated that a survey of 456 out of 1000000 wasn’t significant and that the findings (which he disagreed with) could therefore be discounted.  As anyone with a vague knowledge of statistics could tell you, a sample that size is more than 95% certain to give a true reflection of the total population – indeed you could be confident of the findings with a smaller sample size.  Similarly when discussing salaries, it amazes me that many in HR don’t know the difference between mean, mode and median when they talk about “averages” – or could explain which one is used and why.  And too often we quote meaningless figures as having some authority; one I spotted recently on Twitter was that “HR spends 2% of time on recruitment and 98% on dealing with the consequences of poor hires”. Is that meant to suggest some sort of relationship between those 2 figures? If so, what, and how?

I’m not suggesting that to work in HR you need to be a maths genius – simply that to be effective in HR it’s one of the many skills you need a working knowledge of. Wilfully displaying our ignorance damages the authority of the profession.


While You’re Capturing The Zeitgeist, They’re Widening the Motorway

Originally posted November 2013

What do these business issues have in common?

A poor recruitment process leads to the appointment of a bank chairman who knows the price of cocaine better than the assets of his bank.

The government announces that hospitals must publish staffing ratios and recruit more if needed to ensure safe levels.

There is widespread condemnation at Executive pay-offs in the BBC.

The organisational “culture” is blamed for the ways in which newspapers behaved in adopting illegal practices to get stories,

Industrial relations “brinkmanship” leads to the threat of a major industry being closed.

A report talks about how businesses waste the skills and knowledge of older workers.

The simple answer is that they all reflect HR issues within a company. Not Finance. Not Marketing. Not Quality Control. Not Business Processes. But HR.

Despite the odd article prophesying the death of HR, the CIPD have recognised this sea-change within business and its Chief Executive Peter Cheese recently told its annual conference that “we can help shape the business agenda of the next decade and beyond”

But the real challenge is what is the HR profession going to do about it?  Are we simply going to luxuriate in the knowledge that we were right all along? Personally, I don’t want to look back in 5 years’ time at a business world where nothing much has changed, where the bean counters rule and HR people spend their time moaning that no-one takes them seriously. So what are we going to do to seize the moment?