Can you make the case?

There are two truths that I’ve learnt through blogging:

– If you write enough words the statistical odds are, that at some point, you will land on something that makes sense.

– If you reread that particular “thing” enough times, you’ll wish you wrote it slightly differently.

On this occasion, the specific phrase is one that I wrote in January 2013,

“We need to accept that you don’t get influence through control, you get influence through other people’s positive experience of you. Get influence through people wanting you involved not by telling them you have to be.”

Fast forward two and a half years and I’m sitting with some fellow HR Directors listening to the Conservative “political beast”, Kenneth Clarke MP, speaking about the challenges of winning the debate on continued involvement in the European Union. Critiquing the state of current politics, one particular statement he made really stood out (and I probably paraphrase a little),

“We used to look at the opinion polls and think, ‘how do we win the debate and convince people our arguments are right’, but now we look at the polls and say, ‘let’s do what they want’.”

In some ways, I think this is an argument that the HR profession needs to heed and particularly when we think about how we use data and analytics as a force for good work and organisational performance and success.

There’s a lot of pressure within organisations for HR to do what the “voters” want, and this has undoubtedly been one of the biggest weaknesses of the drive for HR to be more, “commercial”. Being truly commercial is more about leading the debate than it is following opinion, it’s about having a strategic direction and understanding the steps that need to be taken to achieve it, it’s about cohesive “policy making” and having a view.

One of the things that we overlook in our discussions on data and analytics is the, “so what?”. We can have all the data in the world, but what if it indicates something that is against the prevailing mood of the organisation or the leadership team? What then? Do we have the influencing skills to really carry the debate forward?

The fact is that data is only half the argument, how we use it, how we create the experience of the profession that positions us as experts of everything relating to the employment experience and how we develop the platform of knowledge and insight is as important as the data itself.

Sometimes, as in politics, we’re going to need to be brave and take forward an argument, a belief, a perspective that won’t be immediately welcome or in line with the prevailing opinion. At that point, we’ll test our ability to use insight and data to win the debate and convince people our arguments are right.

That’s when we’ll truly test our mettle and our organisational worth.

The fallacy of commerciality

I’ve written before about my unease with the term “commercial HR” and I was expressing this at an event last week, when I was asked a question along the following lines,

“That’s fine for you to say, but when we’re going for jobs, when we are at interview, all we hear is ‘commercial this, commercial that’ and that’s the reality of the profession. So what should we do?”

And of course this is a completely fair and reasonable question. It IS ok being in my position and making bold statements about the ins and the outs of HR.

But more so, it got me thinking about why we talk about “commerciality” and how we can effectively challenge it as a meaningless concept within the profession.

It strikes me that when leaders and managers talk about commercial HR they normally mean one of three things,

1)  I want you to understand the numbers and the financial performance of the organisation. (OK, so I get this, I really do. We need to understand the key performance measures of our organisation, whether they are financial or otherwise. We need to understand how our organisation is measuring it’s performance. But is this what people really want? Because it’s dead easy to achieve and I’m not sure in itself it adds any value whatsoever).

I think the reality is, that it boils down to one of two other other positions,

2)  I want you to stop saying no to “the business” and start doing what we need. Stop being so focussed on people and start being more focussed on profit. That under performer over there? Why do we have to spend three months managing their performance, just get rid of them. Why are you think of health and wellbeing problems? The problem we have is that those lazy bastards are taken a lunch break when they could easily work through it. I need HR to step up and sort these things out.

3)  I want you to stop doing stupid HR initiatives that no-one understands, to think more about the business and to land the initiatives that you do effectively. I want you to disrupt employees as little as you can, to help them to perform better and to drive the organisation, but without creating an infrastructure that is so complicated that only Alan Turing could work it out. I want you to be effective in dealing with issues that arise and to deliver the basics quickly and efficiently.

If it is 2, then this is not the sort of organisation that you want to work in, unless you think you are big and strong enough to change the organisational culture, that the CEO and the HRD are aligned in wanting to improve things. You might learn something in the short-term, but unless the powers that be are willing to change, you won’t be happy and you’ll become a worse practitioner from it.

If it is 3, then this is the biggest lesson that you’ll learn in your career. If you can focus on meeting these challenges, if you can become the sort of HR practitioner that is seen to add value through well designed and organisationally focussed interventions that are implemented to perfection.

The use of “commercial” in describing the HR that we want is lazy and lacking in precision. So my advice to anyone asked about this in interview, or a recruiter taking a brief is to ask the following questions in order:

–  What do you mean by commercial?
–  What would you expect to see me (them) do differently?
–  How would the business be better by me (them) acting that way?
–  How would you measure success?

And if they can’t answer this comfortably, you’ve got to ask yourself who has the credibility issue, who is lacking in commerciality and whether you’d want to work in that company in the first place.

Refocussing HR…..on employees

I’m constantly reminded about the need for HR to “refocus”. I get it. I hear it at conferences, in journals, on social media. We need to refocus. That’s great. Normally the schtick is based one of two things,

We need to be externally focussed.

We need to be commercially focussed.

Both are true and yet both are incomplete assessments of the state of HR.  The missing piece for me, the area that we should not speak, the real truth is,

We need to be more employee focussed.

If you speak to anyone in a consumer facing marketing function, they will wax lyrical about the need to focus on that consumer, to understand their behaviour, to open the channels of communication with them, to have a dialogue and to serve (yes, I said serve) them better.

But when we come to the world of people management, it appears we feel that employees are somewhat of an inconvenience that get in the way of good HR practice. If only it wasn’t for these pesky folk, we’d be doing great things.

Yes we need to be commercially minded and we need to understand the context in which our organisations operate. Yes we need to be confident with the financial aspects of our business and the economic conditions. But we also need to remember that our primary purpose as a function is to understand our employees’ needs better than anyone else. And to serve those needs.

I have a simple test, a simple analytic that I’ve built up over a few years when assessing what we’re doing and whether it is worthwhile. Ask yourself three questions,

Does it make life better for employees?

Does it make things simpler for managers?

Does it add tangible value to the business?

And if you can’t say yes to one of these three questions, then you should simply stop doing it. 

Here is my challenge to you, give it a go, ask yourself those questions. You’ll be surprised what you find.