Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Negative HR: Missing, Presumed Dead


There currently seems to be a particularly worrying trend in writing about our beloved HR Profession that should be giving us all some cause for concern. 
 
The defining characteristic of this genre is a tendency to describe HR in a very negative light, painting a portrait of a lumbering giant of a function, populated by sluggish employees who are resistant to change, generally have a can't do attitude, heavily reliant on policy and procedure, risk averse, out of touch with the commercial demands of the business they are in, technologically illiterate. You know the sort of thing because you've read lots of this type of stuff.
 
Once the ogre has been sufficiently fleshed out, the author conveniently offers us a simple solution which will rescue the profession from the edge of the abyss and miraculously transform it from ugly duckling to beautiful swan in one easy movement. The silver bullet of salvation is frequently a variation on the theme of Getting Disruptive, Getting Social, Funking up the Workplace or Doing Something Wonderful with Big Data. 
 
Well, there's some good news and some bad news.
 
First the bad news. 
 
As the saying goes : For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.
 
 
Rarely is there one single initiative that will Make Everything Right. Complex problems generally require a range of complex solutions to remedy the situation. 
 
But here's the good news:
 
Generally the highly negative portrait of sluggish HR is one of a function that actually died many years ago. 
 
I don't know about you, but my experience of 21st Century HR professionals is largely at odds with the negative view described above.
 
The vast majority of HR professionals that I have the privilege and pleasure to encounter are positive, switched on, smart, proactive, constructive, challenging, eager to help, keen to develop their own capability, solution-focused, innovative and open to change. And much more.
 
In reality, most - but admittedly not all - of those that were anything else died out like dinosaurs when they failed to respond to the challenges and changes of the contemporary workplace. There's actually no place for those matching the negative description outlined above in the present day, be they an HR professional or one from any other function.
 
So here's a plea : if you encounter one of the doom and gloom merchants narrating the story or painting a picture of a moribund HR function populated with uninspiring dullards, ask them how in touch with reality they themselves actually are, or what they are currently doing to enlighten the final few specimens of a bygone age and drag them kicking and screaming into the 21st Century.
 
Just ridiculing them will achieve nothing, will it ?

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

HR: Helping to Reveal the Elephant


 
Two stories. One point
 
Story One (Completely True)
 
A few years ago I was speaking with the Engineering Director of a very large aerospace and defence organisation (one that makes Big And Expensive stuff. (Did you see what I did there?)) about a new-fangled HR initiative that was to be rolled out across the entire business. To be honest, I can’t remember exactly what the initiative was, but chances are it involved some form-filling and a significant amount of time commitment from already over-burdened managers.
 
“I’ve a question for you, Graham,” he said. “Tell me, why can’t we get one of our Big And Expensive products off the production line in under 24 hours?”
 
“Poor inventory management?” I said. “Or a failure in component delivery from our suppliers? Inadequate factory layout? Lack of 24-hour shift patterns?”
 
“No,” he responded. “There’s just one reason. The Laws of Physics. That’s the only factor that makes it a physical impossibility. So our job – and yours, Graham – is to eliminate everything else other than the Laws of Physics that stops us getting our products out of the factory and onto the runway (Whoops! Bit of a clue there!) in the shortest time physically possible. So let me ask you if you think that this HR initiative will help or hinder us in shaving time of the development and production process.”
 
Stunned silence
 
Story Two (Possibly True)
 
On the pavement of a Burmese street sat a man with a rough block of teak in from of him, and a chisel in his hands, watched over by a European tourist. Slowly, bit by bit, the craftsman chipped away at the wood, and slowly the intricate and smooth form of an elephant emerged from the block of wood.
 
“How on earth do you make something so intricate and beautiful out of something so raw and rough?” asked the European.
 
“Simple” responded the craftsman. “All you do is take away all the bits of the block of wood that isn’t an elephant.”
 
One Point
 
So, dear HR colleagues, here’s your challenge for 2015: do your trendy HR initiatives help get the product onto the runway faster, or do they hinder it? Or, to put it more poetically, what HR initiatives could you discard that would allow the elephant to emerge more smoothly?

Monday, 13 October 2014

The future is social. But only for a one-legged ladybird.

You never have to travel very far in the Twitterverse or Blogosphere these days to encounter those preaching the Gospel of Social.

The Evangelists of E-Connectedness urge us to link in, keep tweeting, and altogether network, network, network as if our lives depended on it. Collaboration, it would appear is something that is best done online, and preferably on a constant and continual basis.

Cloudsharing, tweet-ups and hackathons are (according to this particular Gospel) the way that knowledge is acquired, shared and implemented. We are always at our best when we are together, and solitary working is anathema to progress and innovation.

Well, if you're a disciple of this particular denomination, here's bit of good news: Dave Ulrich (the much-maligned and cool-to-criticise Grand Fromage of HR practice) agrees with you!

In his recent book "HR From The Outside In" (and, Dear Reader, you have read this, haven't you?) Ulrich is passionate about using technology to remove low value added or bureaucratic processes, and connecting everyone in the business through technology (and using this to provide alternative solutions to the "we all need to be based in the office" paradigm. He's as evangelistic as it's possible to be about leveraging social medial for business purposes:

"Social media is also emerging as a way to connect employees with customers. Beyond simply addressing customer problems, these platforms are becoming a knowledge hub for collaboration among employees and customers to solve problems and generate new ideas to improve products and services. Businesses cannot afford to ignore this new reality."

So, let's get connected and the world will be ours ...

Or not.

What is clear from reading Ulrich (and, I'd say, from an application of balanced common sense) is that the focus on becoming what he calls a Technology Proponent is but one of a number of competencies (six to be precise) that those of us in HR need to develop if we wish to be effective and influential. To be part of the Next Generation of HR, we also need to become much better at understanding the strategic context within which our businesses operate, increase our overall credibility and track record of delivery; concentrate on building the organisational capabilities of the businesses we work in; become adept at managing and championing change; and role model innovation and integration in everything we do.

You may choose to criticise Ulrich's particular selection of competencies, but there's not doubt that if all of us became better at all of these six areas, we'd be more effective in our jobs and improve the reputation and standing of the profession.

So it has to be said that although the future is social, it's only one leg of The Ulrich Ladybird!. And ladybirds may not be the most inspiring of creatures, but they do seem to function best when then have six legs, not just the one.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

The 10 most common responses upon reading a list of the 20 most influential HR Thought Leaders


Following the publication earlier today of yet another list of the (apparently) most influential HR Thought Leaders, the editorial team of HR Case Studies has undertaken an in-depth and independently verifiable study of the 10 most common immediate responses upon reading such a list.

The results, dear reader, are presented below for your enlightenment and education. And perhaps also for your amusement.
  1. Who?
  2. Influential? They've got fewer twitter followers than me!
  3. Well if they are on that list, there's hope for me yet.
  4. No, it's not sour grapes and no, I'm not jealous, but why am I not on that list?
  5. Oh look! The guy that has pulled the list together has put himself on it!
  6. Top 20 Global Thought Leaders? List created by an American? Oh look! Everyone on the list is American!
  7. I wonder why the guy who has created the list has selected predominantly blonde women aged 25 - 35?
  8. Well at least the list gives me a good reason for unfollowing 20 people on twitter
  9. Thought Leaders? 12 of the names on the list are recruitment consultants!
  10. Oh for heaven's sake! I give up! What purpose are these lists actually supposed to serve anyway?

Monday, 22 September 2014

HR Models? Who needs them anyway?


Just what is it about British HR people that makes them so averse to adhering to any form of theoretical model ?

Or, as John Lewis puts it much more eloquently in my well-worn 1962 edition of his History of Philosophy: 

It is a characteristic of the British tradition to be highly suspicious of the theory underlying practice.

Recent discussion on Dave Ulrich's recent book has flushed out the usual HR suspects chanting the mantra of "Oh I don't subscribe to any of this HR model malarkey. I think it's much more important to find out what works for you and the business you're in. None of this one size fits all for me."

It's as if models and theories are some form of dirty word. (And as for paradigm ... well, wash your mouth out with soapy water!)

But ...

Picture this: 

"Hey", says Bobby Moore to Sir Alf Ramsey, "When we're playing in Mexico, are we sticking to the 4-4-2 formation that contributed to us winning the World Cup in 1966?" "No" says Sir Alf; "I've given up on all that stuff. Just hoof the ball all over the place when you're in Mexico and find what works for you. Make sure you're engaged with Mullery and Hurst and we're sorted." 

Or this:

"What key do you want me to play Straight No Chaser in?" says Coltrane to Miles Davis. "Hey", says Miles; "Key signatures are so unhip, man. Just play in whatever key you want. It'll sound fine. You listening too, Philly Joe? Don't bother with that time signature shit any more. If you think six in a bar works, then go with the flow."

Or this:

"Can you give me a few tips on perspective" says Da Vinci's apprentice to his master. "Actually", says Leonardo, "I'm not bothered about perspective any more. Or composition to be honest. Just paint how you feel you should paint. No need to stick to the rules or the models. Perspective is just so 1511."

Be it football, music or art, there are conventions, paradigms, structural approaches and (shh!) models that are there for the simple reason that they work. They are there because they deliver the goods, and to ignore them is to court disaster.

So why our reluctance to profess allegiance to any particular model of HR?

One reason is probably down to the lack of understanding of what a model is. One rather excellent text-book definition describes a model as an "imaginative mental construct invented to account for observed phenomena. Its chief use is to help one understand the world." Put like that it doesn’t sound quite so scary, does it? It just tells us what generally works in a given set of circumstances.

Right: time to get provocative!

I suspect that a more significant reason for the readiness with which we dispense with (in particular) the Ulrich model is that to enter into an informed debate on the subject requires you to have actually read his stuff in the first place! Let's face it, many of us just can't be bothered to put the intellectual investment into ploughing through the 261 (count 'em!) pages of his recent book, can we? Basically, it boils down to laziness!

So, where does that leave us?

Yes, there are shifts in what is popular: for every 4-4-2 formation in football there is a Total Football model to replace it; for key and time signatures there's always an Ornette Coleman or a Schoenberg waiting in the wings to usher in something new; for every Leonardo there's a Picasso or a Dali to offer a new way of looking at reality. But rarely in life does a complete iconoclast come along and destroy everything that went before and offer nothing in return.

But in HR, before we throw out the Ulrich baby with the bathwater, let's at least make sure we fully understand what we are discarding.

After all, as has been observed before: Nothing is quite so practical as a good theory

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Charity sector HR: where the real action is!


I suspect that the air turned blue in many of the UK’s charities this week when the sector’s HR community read an article in this month’s People Management magazine in which an (alleged) careers guidance expert gave the advice that experience in the charity sector was probably a factor which may have limited an individual’s ability to progress into a senior level HR role.

“Our three experts show People Management readers how to get their working lives back on track” claimed the article, which then posed the question of “Is my charity career putting people off?” asked by  a Regional HR Business Partner who felt that his career had stalled, but was looking to become a Head of HR or HRD, ideally within the private sector. 

"I don’t think your age is a factor ... It’s more likely to be your charity experience" was the supposedly helpful advice given to the above individual, who voiced concern that “common misconceptions about charities are leading to my applications not being shortlisted.”

If there are any common misconceptions about the validity of HR experience gained within the charity sector, it’s time they were consigned to the dustbin of history, not only so that the solid professionalism of the sector’s HR community is recognised, but also so that those recruiting into critical roles outside this sector don’t overlook a talent pool filled with some of the most highly qualified, able, committed and inspiring individuals you could ever have the pleasure of meeting.

Let’s have a brief look at why far from providing limiting HR experience, a career in the charity sector can give an HR professional exposure to challenges which will develop skills in a way that the private sector will not be able to.

Working alongside HR colleagues in the international development provokes me into asking the following questions:

  • How many HR professionals in commercial organisations can claim to have experience of managing life-threatening negotiations with rebels who have kidnapped a number of their company’s staff? 
  • How many have been part of the rapid deployment team mobilising the response to one of the recent global disasters such as the Haitian earthquake or Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines?
  • Hands up all those who have managed the people implications of transforming their organisation from one based in the UK to one based in South Africa with regional hubs spread across the continents? 
  • How many private sector HR professionals not only do an amazing job during the week, but also are actively involved in campaigning on behalf of their organisation during their spare time?

It also needs pointing out that particularly within campaigning charities, and especially those involved in international development, the competition for roles across the organisation as a whole is overwhelmingly intense. As was pointed out in a recent article in The Guardian, 98 out of 100 applications for an internship position (in my current organisation) having either a Masters, a PhD or a Law Degree was nothing out of the ordinary. Far from getting OUT of the sector being an issue, it’s getting INTO it that is difficult for the thousands of people who want to carve out a career in a meaningful and high impact role.

Many individuals within the charity sector have made a conscious decision to move into an organisation that is in alignment with their personal values, often leaving behind a successful (and frequently more lucrative!) role in the private sector in order to genuinely make a difference in their chosen field. I’ve personally worked with fantastic HR colleagues who have earned their stripes in organisations such as BBC and IBM, as well as some of the most prestigious management consultancies, financial services organisations, political bodies and High Street supermarkets. 

On a personal note, prior to a move into the international development sector, I’ve had the privilege of working with some outstanding HR colleagues in not only the fast-paced world of manufacturing but also the high technology environment of aerospace and defence; I wouldn’t for one moment wish to downplay any of their skills, impact and achievements, but I will have to say that for professionalism, capability, enthusiasm, hard work, inspiration, engagement, and recognition from managers of the provision of a strategic and operational high quality HR service, you don’t need to look any further than my current HR team.

There's a lesson to be learned from the article in People Management magazine for all those seeking career development advice: make sure that the expert you turn to for guidance knows what he or she is talking about. Sadly the one referred to above clearly doesn't.

Monday, 16 December 2013

The year ahead in HR: Your month by month guide to 2014


Yes, it's that time of year when the blogosphere is alive with predictions of what is going to happen in the year ahead.

But here, to save you valuable time which otherwise might be wasted in wading your way through the plethora of predictions for the HR profession for 2014, courtesy of the prophetic skills of the HR Case Studies editorial team, are the only predictions that you will need for the year ahead.

Money back if not entirely satisfied!
 
January
While every prediction of what will happen in HR in 2014 fades faster than a festive hangover as soon as the clock strikes midnight on New Year’s Eve, this month also sees the publication of the 2014 "HR Professionals Who Have Been Very Influential and Achieved Far More Than Those Who Appear on Completely Subjective and Unverifiable Lists" list. It is long.
 
February
This month kicks off with the earliest appearance yet of the ubiquitous and perennial “How to Avoid Embarrassment at the Christmas Party” articles in various HR journals and websites.
 
March
A journalist with little or no knowledge of the profession announces its imminent demise. HR professionals work themselves up into a frenzy about the inaccuracy of the article, shortly before realising that no-one else is either reading the article, or in the slightest bit interested anyway.
 
April
There is despair in the UK coaching profession when a scientific study proves conclusively that motivational tweets have no effect whatsoever on personal performance. "Never mind" says Sharon (NLP Master Practitioner, Yoga Black Belt, and author of "Discover Your Inner Lioness") “The answers can be as clear as day, but if you keep looking for dark storm clouds, you will never see the sun of truth”
 
May
Rumours surface of a candidate actually being satisfied with the service received from a recruitment consultancy. Despite a lengthy investigation, ultimately no evidence of the existence of the candidate is found.  
 
June
"The seven secrets of how to achieve mega-stardom by including a number in the title of your book, while at the same time appearing awesome at interview,  redefining your personal brand and achieving fame as a thought leader" becomes the longest title to be listed on Amazon while simultaneously failing to sell a single copy. 
 
July
England crash ignominiously out of the World Cup, provoking cries of “How can this load of muppets justify the amount of money they are paid?” and “Don’t they realise that Alf Ramsey only earned £7,200 per year when he guided England to glory in 1966?”
 
August
A user of LinkedIn claims that it actually helped him find a job. This is later shown to be a marketing gimmick devised by LinkedIn.
 
September
IKEA announces its new Ulrich range of furniture. It features a stool with an interchangeable number of legs.
 
October
A case reaches the European Court of Human Rights in which the plaintiff alleges that they were discriminated against by being the only person in the organisation who couldn’t bring a claim for discrimination on any grounds. They claim that this is a fundamental breach of their human rights.
 
November
During the 2014 CIPD conference in Manchester, police are called to intervene following violence between opposing factions in a debate on the role social media can pay in promoting employee engagement and participation
 
December
The entire HR profession shouts as one, “Please, JUST FOR ONCE, can we have a year that ends without the interminable and meaningless predictions for next year?”