- We’re talking about gender pay – After a week of headlines about the BBC, this might not feel like a positive but the fact we are even having the conversation is. It is very easy to single out the BBC, but I wouldn’t mind betting that the details of their commercial rivals wouldn’t look any better – and potentially could look worse. And that’s before we turn our attention to other entertainment sectors – like sport. We have the introduction of gender pay reporting this year, which will also undoubtedly make headlines of the wrong sort. And whilst no-one can reasonably defend the differences – at least they’re starting to be highlighted, discussed and rectified.
- There’s a shift in routes into employment – As someone who has been banging on about this topic for the past six or seven years, I genuinely believe we are seeing a shift in the perception of routes into the labour market. The increasing cost of university education (of variable quality) combined with an improvement in the breadth and range of apprenticeships and more creative thinking by employers is starting to provide more routes and opportunities for young people.
- The immigration debate is getting more realistic – OK, I know this one is a little bit sensitive, but the rhetoric on immigration has changed substantially over the past months and there is an increasing understanding that immigration is necessary for the successful functioning of the British economy. Not just in terms of the “professional” classes, but across all labour groups. The end result of Brexit on the labour market isn’t known yet, but if you listen to the messages coming out from both sides of the political debate, there is an increasing consensus.
- The robots aren’t taking over the world – Well not yet, at least. I remember watching Tomorrow’s World in the 1970’s and 80’s and being fascinated by the fact that in my thirties I’d be travelling in some sort of hovercraft, whilst my robot workforce cared for my every need. Truth is, I’m in my forties, driving a Skoda and still having to do the washing up. There is no doubt that technology is advancing and in a good way, we just need to channel out the noise made by conference organisers and “gurus” who want to sensationalise the natural progression of technology in the workplace for their own economic ends.
- We’re having a better conversation about work – As I wrote last week, I believe the Taylor Review is a thoughtful contribution to the debate about working practices in the UK. We need to get beyond the “ban zero hours contracts” rhetoric and start to understand how we provide a balance between protection and flexibility. We need to start understanding how our “demand” as consumers impacts on the labour model that employers are increasingly needing to explore. If we want good and services around the clock at the tap of a screen, that requires us to think about our workforce planning. It cannot be without good protection and support, but the answer will only come out of discussion and thought – not from trying to roll back time.
Hands up if you’ve never looked at a photo from your past and thought, “what was I doing wearing that?”, or looked in the dark recesses of your wardrobe and seen the unworn, unloved item that at the time of purchasing, you were convinced would make you look swathe, sophisticated and downright sexy.
My guess is there’s not many hands in the air (not least because that sort of thing gets you thrown off the train or bus).
The point is that we are all susceptible to following along with a trend, a fashion or fad that we later realise wasn’t perhaps in our best interest. We do this in work and in business all the time – it is no different to any other aspect of life.
The corporate corridors are littered with the failed and reversed decisions made by leaders at all levels, because they read, heard or were advised that “everyone else is doing x”. It happens in HR, it happens across business and it is entirely and completely natural.
But that doesn’t make it right.
Its not hard to understand why we make these decisions, we’re often proposed something that feels simple, easy to implement, is recommended by “experts”, has some sort of resonance with a broader meta-trend within the world and will lead to tangible, measurable improvement.
We’ve seen this with mass outsourcing, TQM, holacracy, management by consensus, management by objective, the Ulrich model. I could go on.
None of these practices are in themselves bad, what is questionable is the wholesale implementation of these across the corporate spectrum without consideration of the best way of implementing change for the specific organisational context.
And that’s where the self confident leader comes in. In the same way that the phrase goes, “no-one ever got fired for hiring Deloitte/McKinsey/IBM” (delete as appropriate to your age and era), there is often reassurance in moving with the homogenous mass. That is part of our psychological makeup.
The role of the leader is to have the confidence, the willingness and the space to be able to call out when this isn’t in the best interests of their organisation, function or team. It is to push the thinking, the creation of ideas and the solutions beyond the realms of accepted wisdom, to test whether it is really the right way forward.
No-one ever said being a leader is easy, in fact the better you want to be, the harder it can feel. Standing up and not doing the things that others are, can be harder than following. But sometimes the most fertile soil is found in the least worked ground.
Sometimes I can’t help thinking that we’re having the wrong debate.
It’s not sometimes, it’s most of the time.
We’re having the wrong debate, because most of the participants are looking at the world through a single lens:
A middle class, professional, privileged lens.
We have an obsession with the elements of work that matter most to us, but least to the majority of people. It’s the same reason that HR has such a bad reputation, because we fiddle with the inconsequential without addressing the fundamental.
The future of performance management? The social organisation? Reconstructing the working week?
None of these mean anything to someone holding down four jobs in order to keep food on the table. And I could go on…
Headline grabbing announcements about allowing people to take as much holiday as they like. Unless they work in the support functions….or in service roles….or customer facing….
What about the living wage and the impact on regional employment, zero hours contracts and employment instability, the deskilling of jobs through technology? And I’m not talking about from a legal perspective, but a moral, ethical and cultural approach. How we tackle these issues in real time, in real organisations.
If we believe in good work, we believe in good work for everyone. We believe in creating safe and productive workplaces where everyone can contribute to the best of their ability, where everyone is treated with respect and dignity. Where everyone can grow and develop, should they want.
I’m not arguing that we shouldn’t be creative, far from it. I’m arguing that we should be using our creativity, our knowledge and experience to deal with the issues that challenge the many, not the few. I’m arguing that we should be targeting work and interventions that matter to everyone.
The credibility of HR is only enhanced when it makes people’s lives better and damaged when it seems to make the existence of a select group better, whilst ignoring most.
Our challenge is to ask ourselves whether we’re trying to benefit all….or whether our practice is grounded in making it better for some, which almost inevitably, will include ourselves.
Because that, would be selling ourselves short.
1) Adaptability – HR has been built on creating fixed structure and immobility. That’s where we used to add value, but no more. The frustration that we hear in a lot of organisations is that the world is demanding more flexibility and yet the profession is slow to catch up. We need to be more adaptable, able to turn our hands to anything and make decisions based on the immediate circumstances that face us, to help our businesses move forward.
2) Tech Savvy – I can’t repeat this too many times; if you don’t understand technology then you’re going to find yourself obsolete pretty damn quickly. It isn’t a case of being an expert, although having some coding experience in your team is never going to hurt. Our experience as human beings is increasingly influenced by technology, so if you want to be in HR you need to understand that experience.
3) Commerciality – Before I lose you….I’m not talking about the stupid linear relationship that most people draw when they talk about HR and commercial reality. I’m talking about the big global issues that you need to understand to help your organisation navigate the next ten or twenty years. Demographics, pension legislation, immigration and emigration, skills and education. Changes in FX rates, inflation and interest rates. You’re on top of them right?
4) Creativity – If we are going to adaptable, tech savvy and commercial then we sure as hell need to be creative too. We too often look down our noses at creativity and view pragmatism as the holy grail of HR. Remind me the last time you went to a party and talked to your friends or family about this amazing piece of pragmatism. Then ask yourself the same question about creativity. It matters.
5) Connectivity – Our ability to see inter connections, relationships, to look inside and out and see how things relate, to understand the impact of one element of practice on another is critical. Our ability to think systematically and understand that neither our organisations nor our practice can operate in isolation. We need to be the organisational glue, not the institutional porridge.