The focus of HR isn’t to be commercial: Day three of #cipd2012

A time for some final conclusions from the CIPD conference, before I jump on the train and head back to the world of work, emails and slightly irate family members wondering why I’ve been living it up in Manchester. Living it up is probably too grandiose a term, but from the time of some of the text messages I received last night/this morning, there was a party going on…..somewhere.

Anyway, I digress. Back to the matter in hand. Or the matter that should be in hand, but strangely isn’t. And by that I mean, the standard of our profession.

It seems almost a lifetime ago now that I was watching Gary Hamel on stage as the opening keynote to the conference. Gary was inspirational he was challenging. he built on the opening address from Peter Cheese. They both talked of setting a high bar for the profession, of re-engineering our purpose for the future world of work. It was heady stuff and long overdue.

But so much of what I’ve seen and experienced since then has reminded me how far we have to go. Slipping back into our comfort zone of process and procedure, of task and activity, of compliance and control. I attended a session yesterday entitled, “Commercially focused HR Business Partners” partly because I wanted a laugh and partly because I’m kind of curious about why we are still having this particular conversation. I wrote about “Commercial HR” a while back for the kind people at XpertHR. You can find that series of posts here. I also had a great conversation with FlipChartRick about this and his experience of another session, “How can HR improve its influence with the Board” and he has written a post about it here.

The thing that strikes me most is this; we should be bringing something unique to our organisations, something that other departments can’t bring and which outsourcing can’t do more cheaply. At the session on Commercial HR, I asked a question of the speakers – whether the debate about commercial HR wasn’t actually defunct and redundant and shouldn’t we talk about values led and culture led HR instead? The general consensus was that yes it was….and then they went back to discussing “commercial HR”. You see, I don’t understand how anyone can get any joy out of work without being interested in the operation of their organisation, the purpose, intent and performance. It would be like driving a car without looking out of either the windscreen or in the mirrors. In order to be of any sort of use, you need to be commercially aware, but that isn’t the same as being commercially focussed.

As Rick points out in his post, “you don’t need to do the CFO’s job but you at least need to learn his language”. Correct. You don’t need to try to outdo the experts in the room, but you do need to understand the conversations that are going on and be able to contribute. However, our focus should not be commercial. It should be something else that brings something new to the table. Can you imagine how things might have been different in some of the companies that have recently encountered “credibility” issues if they had experienced a strong voice talking about the importance of values, culture, integrity and sustainability? What is they had experienced someone working with the senior team and coaching them on tackling their challenges in a different way? Both because they understood the business, the challenges but also because they brought a different angle, a different approach to solving them?

I don’t buy this constant banging on about being commercial. I’ve never been anything else and nor have the people who I’ve recruited into my team and have worked with. I get that there are HR professionals out there that aren’t and they will never be successful, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be the focus of our profession – it is a pre-requisite to being a good business person. Our higher purpose, our contribution should be something else. Our focus should be on performance through people and the culture, values and leadership of our organisations. Really, it should. Trust me.

The speaker experience – #CIPD11 Day Two

I’m a lover of words, that is part of the reason that I write a blog and also a big part of the reason I work in the organisation that I do. But if I’m honest I prefer words in the written format rather than spoken. I do speak at conferences but whereas some people are dying to get on the stage, I tend to do it more with a mild sense of trepidation.

When the opportunity came to speak at the CIPD conference, I didn’t think twice.  Despite how it can come across sometimes, I’d like to do anything I can to support the profession and in turn our membership body.  But the time gap between being asked to speak and actually having to do it always makes the decision a lot easier!

This morning, I ran a session with Matthew Hanwell from Nokia, chaired by Gareth Jones who many will know from the ConnectingHR community, entitled “HR, Harnessing the Power of Social Media”. Matthew for those who don’t know is a regular speaker on the circuit as well as a top guy and uber knowledgable professional.

The session was slated for one and quarter hours in front of, I’m told a couple of hundred people.  Given the circumstances, the last thing you want to happen are any last-minute hassles, blunders, or admin cock ups.  You just want to have time and space and then to get up and deliver.  And this is where the CIPD came into their own.  I’ve been kicking around conference since Tuesday morning, but the moment I moved into speaker mode, I couldn’t have been better supported or welcomed by the CIPD staff.  The professionalism of everyone from the meeters and greeters, to the chaperones, to the AV guys.  Every thing was top class.

Now this may not seem a lot, but believe me in those circumstances it is exactly what you need.  Add to this the fact that I had some friendly faces up close and personal in the audience (thanks Rob Jones, Natalia Tomson, Mervyn Dinnen, Doug Shaw and Rob Moss) and it helped to ease the nerves nicely. The list of CIPD people is too long to mention, but from the bottom of my heart, THANK YOU……you’re all stars.

If you want a summary of the session (and to see my ludicrous shirt) then I’d check out Doug Shaw’s excellent blog here.  Now, I’m looking forward to relaxing a bit, attending the CIPD “Tweet Up” this evening and practising a little of what I preach on social media. But if you’re ever asked to speak or support a CIPD event, then I’d grab the opportunity with both hands – they really know how to make these things work.

But enough of that, I’m thirsty…..whose round is it? Make mine a large one.

Is there anyone out there? – #CIPD11 Day One

Day one at the CIPD conference and as I said yesterday it has been a while since I was here.  Now it may be me, or it may be a reflection on the economic climate….but where the hell is everyone?

The CIPD boasts 135,000 members on its website.  I’d be amazed if 1% of them were here.  Which means that either people can’t afford to attend, people don’t want to attend or everyone has been abducted by aliens sent by SHRM in a form of extraordinary rendition to the US.  Whatever is true it feels like a poor showing.

Looking at the programme of contents, it isn’t as if the subject matter isn’t relevant.  My experience to date is that the quality is pretty wide-ranging (to say the least).  That said, given that I’m yet to speak myself I’m probably setting myself up for a right royal fall. But that is to be expected at any conference….there are very few that can deliver a consistently high calibre of sessions year in year out.

So what is it that are keeping the numbers away?  Even the exhibition stands, once like a slightly tacky freebie version of Sodom and Gomorrah are quiet.  When I asked people how attendance was going, the normal response was, “We’ve seen a few people”.  But then they are hardly going to say that they’ve been sat on their backsides all day with little or nothing to do.  Is it the quality of the freebies? There are only a certain number of Quality Street and rubbish pens that one person can consume in their lifetime.

All in all, I reckon a couple of things are at play.  The number of people attending just the exhibition must be down, as companies reign in their discretionary spend, leading to the impression of lower footfall. And that leaves the people who are willing to pay out to attend the conference proper. With a three-day ticket costing over £1000 people will think twice about the value an event like this can give them compared to other uses for limited funds.

A recession is hard for everyone, and the recession that we seem to be in is doubly hard. I’m not sure that the CIPD are necessarily doing anything wrong with their approach, but as people choose not to go there is always a fear that they want come back again in future years.  Is this the end of the conference as we know it? Some will argue that the unconference format is the way forward, but I’m really not that convinced.  The financial model of large conferences, however, relies on numbers and numbers seem to be dwindling.

Maybe tomorrow will prove me wrong, maybe this is the new norm and my absence over the past few years is fogging my memory. But looking at current rates, I’d say that we can only have a few more years to go in this format before it becomes unviable.  I don’t think that is good for the profession of for the Institute.

Something is going to have to change……