The skills debate is changing, but you’re still doing the same

I’m fascinated by the changing employment market. I’m fascinated by education. And I’m absolutely fascinated by the crossover between the two. Any HR professional worth their salt (and there are more than you’d imagine) should be intrigued, concerned and curious about the changing landscape of skills and education.

Let me put it simply,

  • If you’re a carpenter, you need to know that you’re going to get enough good quality wood.
  • If you’re a butcher, you want to know where your meat is coming from.
  • If you make wine, you care about the grapes.

Do we have a skills shortage, a skills deluge or a skill mix problem?

Well, probably a bit of all three.

I was taking part in an interview last week about over skilled and under utilised employees. I won’t take you through the whole thing, you have better things to do with your lives. But a couple of comments stuck in mind.

At the end the interviewer said to me, “thank you, it is great to hear from a company that recognised the presence of a skills mismatch. Most of the companies we’ve spoken to said they haven’t witnessed it.”

Really? My response was, “ask their employees what they think”.

The second was an observation that had been stuck in my brain for a while. When I talk to my colleagues in Germany, a large proportion of the HR people have a PhD. I can’t think of a single one in the UK. Clearly they are over skilled and over qualified. Or not?

I’m not sure there is any point to this. I’m not sure I have a great reveal to make or any insight to give, just more questions.

At a time when we are talking about a skills shortage.

Do we actually have more than we think? Is the labour market broken? Has immigration, the democratisation of tertiary education and the mobility of labour changed the rules of the game?

And are we all struggling to catch up?

Define the why of I

In our imperfect world we talk of skills, we talk of structures, we talk of competency frameworks, of behaviours and values. But for some reason, we rarely speak about beliefs. We focus on so much else, but give little, if any, time to define the why of I.

I’ve been mulling this one over for a while and my friend and co-conspirator Michael Carty recently caught the debate on this here. The thing that struck me about this brief foray, was how quickly the conversation turned away from beliefs back to behaviours.

Like so much of our work, we focus on the how and the what. But not the why.*

You see, it seems to me that if we can develop this, if we can define the belief system we work within, if we can create a shared higher purpose for our work, then we are simply more likely to taste success.

Let me give you something more concrete to consider:

–       I believe I can make the workplace a better place for everyone

–       I believe that everybody comes to work to do their best

–       I believe I have as valuable contribution to make as everyone else

–       I believe everyone is allowed to be wrong, including me

If you want to change behaviour, you need to address the beliefs that underpin it. Contrast with this. How many HR people come to work, instead with a mindset that says:

–       I believe that people don’t take me seriously enough

–       I believe that people don’t value HR

–       I believe that managers are incompetent

–       I believe that employees are always trying to get one over us

And what different behaviours would be demonstrated by someone with each of these set of beliefs?

The challenge I’ve had thrown at me is that organisations drive the belief systems. That’s rubbish. They can influence it sure, but only the individual truly controls their own beliefs. Almost every inspirational character in history has held a belief system that wasn’t dictated by their environment.

You can fiddle with the behaviours, you can focus on competencies, you can tinker with your structures. But unless you identify the belief systems that underpin them, my guess is, you’ll find yourself just a busy fool.

* (A hat tip to @GrumpyLecturer for that one).

HR skills aren’t transferable

In the coverage of the BBC redundancy payment enquiry, something stood out for me. It wasn’t about the importance of HR being the moral compass of the organisation, I’ve written about that before. It wasn’t about the fact that behaviour not words drives culture, I’ve covered that too.

It was a question that Justin Tomlinson MP raised regarding a statement made by Lucy Adams, the HR Director, in an interview that she gave back in 2010. The exchange went something like this:

Q183 Justin Tomlinson: Lucy, going forward, how important do you think human resources skills will be in ensuring that licence fee payers get value to money?

Lucy Adams: In relation to severance arrangements?

Justin Tomlinson: Yes.

Lucy Adams: What Tony and I have done in the last few months is put in place a range of governance arrangements, policy changes and communication to make sure that things are better understood. So in many ways, because room for exceptional payments has been closed down, room for payment in lieu of notice has been closed down, and room for anything above the cap has been closed down, it will be an easier role for managers because there will be very little room for manoeuvre. 

Q184 Justin Tomlinson: But you have had to use your HR expertise and skills to ensure that those systems are watertight.

Lucy Adams: Yes. 

Q185 Justin Tomlinson: Do you remember your interview with the CIPD-an organisation “leading HR into the future”-in 2010, when you were quoted as saying that you are not an HR person and you do not have a traditional HR background? Do you have the skills to put those systems in place? 

Lucy Adams: I have been a senior HR director for over 10 years now. What I was referring to in that interview was that, first and foremost, I am not somebody who is isolated from the business that I am in. I believe the remainder of the quote was, “I’m first and foremost a business person”, and that was to point out that you can have people who understand policy and best practice, but who do not get engaged in the business. I am very keen to be involved in all aspects of the BBC. 

Q186 Justin Tomlinson: Have you ever run a business? 

Lucy Adams: I have not run my own business, no. 

Q187 Justin Tomlinson: You are not a business person. [and then continues questioning]

Now I wasn’t there and these notes, albeit official, are still uncorrected. But they raise a really interesting point about “business skills” and “HR skills”. It also comes back to a favourite topic of mine, “commercial HR”.

When I interviewed for my current role 5 years ago, I described myself as “a business person who understands HR”. I was wrong. I’m actually a “HR person who understands business”. It isn’t semantics, it is an important yet subtle shift in emphasis.

It isn’t possible to just “do” HR without any skills or experience, you can’t just learn it, there is no other complete transferable skill set from any other profession. Organisations are systems, and the HR interventions that are properly needed to support them are systemic in their nature. You need to understand the range and complexity, the feasible, the impossible. Too many times Adams refered to “custom and practice”, the last vestige of the lazy or unskilled, as if that somehow explained everything.

As I get further into my career, I appreciate more the experience that I’ve had – both good and bad – and how it helps me to see different things in an organisational context that other parts of the organisation don’t, and shouldn’t be expected to, see. The best part of two decades worth of experience can’t be absorbed overnight.

The problem with positioning yourself as a “business person” or arguing that we need more “business people” in HR, is that we belittle the skills and experience that organisations desperately need to run effectively. And these are the skills and experience that only those who are genuinely interested in building their personal competence in HR can provide.

You don’t understand how to build successful compensation systems, how to develop organisations, the hard wiring of recruitment to talent to performance to results, the importance of a good employee relations agenda or how to successfully develop leadership cultures by watching from afar. You’ve got to be in and amongst it.

Of course everything exists in context and we need to understand the other areas of business too, so does everyone who works in an organization. But we are HR people, not business people. And that is something we should celebrate, not shy away from.

Frugal HR

There was a time when the newspapers were full of the “end of DIY”. We were all so cash rich and time poor that it was much easier to get on the phone (or increasingly the internet) and get someone to come and do it for us. Broken gutter? Kitchen door not working? Skirting board looking a bit 1960s? And within a click or a call we were all good…disposable income spent, time saved, work carried out.

The thing is that underlying this apparently virtuous circle of events was a slightly darker reality. We were slowly becoming unable to carry out these relatively mundane and low skilled tasks. Why learn to do something, when it is quicker and cheaper to call someone in to help? Why bother debasing ourselves to these menial tasks, when we have so much more important things to focus our minds on? Like which of the 96 TV channels we are going to watch an American import on this evening.

But wait. What is this? Is this some attempt at a social critique of our times?

No, not really. Just a cack handed metaphor for the way that I see the HR profession developing. You see, back in the early days of my career, when livestock filled the street, we were all obsessed by the pending devaluation of the florin and Cliff Richard had just had his first number one hit, HR people had to do fairly much everything for themselves. So we weren’t called HR then, but that is another story and one that I don’t have time or space for here.

External consultants were few and far between. Ok, you might pull in a Compensation or Remuneration specialist to help you with your pay strategy, benefit review or a bit of job evaluation, you’d have a Recruitment Advertising Agency that might advise you on your copy or your “house style” and of course your legal advisors to tell you what you shouldn’t do, but not what you should do (there are a range of options…..). But that was fairly much it. The rest, you used your internal knowledge, your external networks and if you couldn’t get the answer, you researched and created.

Of course, that was after the last recession and budgets were tight. But as young HR professionals we learnt to turn our hands to a number of things. We might not have been experts, but we knew a bit about fairly much everything.

L&D? Check. Resourcing? Check. Employee Relations? Check.

And here is a thing…..we used to represent the company at Tribunal ourselves.

Over time I’ve seen things shift. Partly because the economy picked up and we had more “disposable cash” in our budgets, partly because we were being constantly bombarded with articles and case studies about companies that had implemented x, y and z (the organisational equivalent of keeping up with the Joneses) normally instigated by the suppliers with the sole aim of showing their wares in the market place and drumming up more business and partly because of the shift to the Business Partner model which led HR generalists to think that they were too strategic and important to sully their hands with the likes of practical HR solutions when they could be sitting in meetings talking about……stuff.

Rather than reskill the profession, which is what many would like us to believe, in many cases we have instead deskilled the profession. There is only so much room for strategic thinking within human resources. So what value is being added by the others?

In the same way that many of us have to learn to tighten our belts at home, to rediscover lost skills for cooking, sewing, mending, fixing, creating….the current economic situation offers an opportunity for HR professionals to really hone their skills and to become proper generalists. There will always be a need for external support and guidance, but that will never beat the learning of new skills, the development of our own abilities and the broadening of our own talent profiles.

There is time to think about the greater bigger issues of the workplace, there is a need to consider the greater strategic issues of the day, but a good HR professional also knows what great looks like and how to deliver it themselves. Being practical, being hands on, these aren’t bad things. The sooner we get the balance back in our professional lives the better.

And given the economic environment that we’re in there is no better moment to start than right now. And who knows, we might all have a little bit of fun in the learning process too! Now who could argue against that?