Insy or outsy?

I’m hearing it all too often at the moment, “we need to take an outside in approach”. It’s a movement that finds a proponent in the form of one Dave Ulrich, he of the failed HR operating model that encouraged a slavish implementation, that set the profession back the best part of a decade.

But of course, Ulrich wasn’t responsible for our misinterpretation of the model and nor is he responsible for the potential screw up we could make on an outside in approach by assuming we need external expertise and perspectives.

It’s not you, Dave, it’s us.

So let me start by suggesting that what we really need to take is an inside, outside, inside approach.

It doesn’t trip off the tongue as well, admittedly, but stay with me.

You see, everything starts with your employees. I can almost guarantee that any problem that you have, any barrier you need to overcome, any issue that needs improvement, can be better identified by the people within your organisation than anyone outside.

My evidence?

The first thing any external third-party does when you hire them? They suggest carrying out a series of interviews, focus groups, listening groups or some sort of questionnaire to understand the needs of your employees.

It really is the equivalent of giving someone your watch and asking them to tell you the time.

I’m the first person to suggest that HR people need to get their heads up and scan the horizon, but that starts by looking outside the HR function and only then outside of the business.

Yes we need to understand the economic and socio-political context in which we operate, yes we need to focus on the markets and environments in which our businesses exist. But that only has any relevance if we know where the skills, capabilities, weaknesses and opportunities exist within our own enterprises.

Look outside by all means, but first work out what it means to be inside. Because that’s is where your organisational value lies.

Education is too important for politicians

I’ve written before about our supply chain.

It always strikes me as bizarre that as a profession we talk about the value of people, but we seldom discuss, in real detail, the production of the resource that is central to our being.


Anyone who has been involved in education in any form will know that the one thing that defines our education system is constant change.

We plan our education policy on cycles of a maximum of five years. And yet our educational cycle is a minimum of 14 years. Which means that as a child, as a student, you could easily have four or five different educational policies in place during your education.

Different targets

Different focus areas

Different  inspection regimes

Different syllabuses (syllabi?)

Different exams

And the changes introduce unnecessary drag and inefficiency in to the supply chain as teachers and leaders attempt to understand, assimilate and implement the requirements of the latest policy.

But not only does that inefficiency mean that we’re not maximising the return on investment in educational resource, it also means that we are providing confused and often contradictory messages to both students and parents.

If we are serious about skills and education providing a competitive advantage to the UK, we need to take a longer term approach that builds consistently towards a future skills agenda and underpins our economic success.

Which means taking it out of the hands of politicians and raising it above the quagmire of vote winning, electioneering soundbites and delivering it into the hands of expert educationalists and economists.

I wrote a piece for HR Magazine recently on this, but simply put, if we want to be serious about our role in the strategic direction of our organisations and United Kingdom Plc, it needs to start with us taking education seriously.

So when the canvassers come and stand on your doorstep, don’t just ask them what their policy on education is, ask them how they’re going to ensure long-term stability in education.

Regardless of who is in power.

The future of work is…

A recent fad appears to be making predictions about the future of work. Made by the same demographic that watched Tomorrow’s World in the 70s and proclaimed that by the year 2000 we’d all be going around in flying cars and eating meals in the form of pills.

The excitement is real and genuine, every time a high-profile organisation does anything goofy, we hear “that’s the future of work”. Which totally misses the point. This isn’t about,

  • Social connection
  • Collaboration
  • Mobile technology
  • Holacracy (I can’t even bring myself to say it)

At the end of the day, the basis of work is an exchange of labour for reward. Not much changing there any time soon.

Too much of the debate is led by the middle-income, middle class, semi professional demographic. Who, it seems to me, are forecasting what they would like to see happen rather than basing it on anything solid.

So what are the trends that we are definitely seeing?

But none of these things are new. We’ve seen them all before. In fact, they represent the trend for significant parts of the history of work and employment.*

  • A gap between rich and poor
  • The skilled and the unskilled
  • Regional wealth
  • Longer working life and the dependence of the infirm*

In some ways, you could argue that the last fifty years have been the blip. When we look at the future of work, we need to look a little bit further afield…..

But it isn’t forward, it’s back.

And there’s not a single, shiny new management trend in sight. Just a significant challenge for all of us involved in the world of work to face up to.

*UPDATE: Thanks to @FlipChartRick for seeking clarification on this point. The use of the word “trend” is perhaps a little loose and reality might have been a better choice of words.

Modern meeting mayhem

You know why people like the period around a bank holiday so much? Because they get stuff done. For some reason, the organisational cogs seem better oiled around a bank holiday and we come away feeling productive and ending our days with a sense of achievement.

Is this coincidence?

No. It’s directly related to a reduction in the number of meetings being held, because people are on holiday and they become harder to schedule. And the time saved is used on more productive activity than locking grown people in a room.

Because there is an irony in business that the amount of time you spend on unproductive activity is directly proportional to seniority and the amount that you’re paid.. The higher you go, the more time you waste being sat in a room with other well paid people and an agenda.

It really is a thing of dumb assed organisational beauty and some people even boast about it, “I’ve been back to back all day”.

Think about it…..

1) Time slots – Meetings happen in half hour and hour blocks because Microsoft Outlook tells us that’s how it should be. We extend the content to fit the time, we never start with content and then work out how long it will take. You’re allowing yourself to be run by the bastard offspring of a paperclip.

2) Creativity – I don’t know about you, but I normally have my best ideas in the shower or the gym. Rarely have I sat in item 2 of an agenda and come up with a stroke of genius related to the stated topic – no matter how far in advance the agenda was sent out. Sometimes I come up with a brilliant idea for a holiday or something to do at the weekend, but that’s another thing.

3) Physicality – I’m sure the modern meeting is morphing into some sort of modern endurance sport. Here’s a thing….stand outside a meeting room and watch people’s faces as they come out. How many other contexts in life can you come up with where people come together sat in a rectangle, in a room with little air or light that doesn’t constitute a war crime?

4) Inclusion – Imagine you were fighting a zombie apocalypse. Every single person in that room is one less person nailing closed the doors and shooting the shuffling, drooling onslaught in the head (which I’m reliably told that this is the only sure-fire way to kill them), would you still have invited Bob from Accounts, just to keep him “in the loop”?

5) Actions – We spend all our time talking about what needs to be done and making lists, but nobody has time to do them. Because they’re in too many meetings. So we  meet and make them b/f or c/f until they no longer have relevance and we can move on to the next agenda item. Seriously.

So that’s all very good Neil, but what are the alternatives, we need to run this business after all?

Well, I’m not against meetings per se, I get they sometimes need to happen for governance purposes. But I can guarantee that I can diagnose the health of an organisation by their approach to meetings. Take the top 20 leaders in your organisation and look at how much of their time is taken up with meetings. Why? Because you can as sure as hell know that they’re replicating it down the organisation. And ask yourself whether this is why you hired them, to do this.

If we genuinely want people to collaborate, we should facilitate but allow them to come together organically to solve problems and create value. We need to trust and empower people to deliver against an overarching purpose. We need to set them free to contribute.

And meetings, well they don’t even touch the sides……