Friday, 14 November 2014


Last week Manchester Central was buzzing with HR professionals – some just there to see the exhibition and assess potential providers, others to learn and listen to the speakers at the CIPD Annual Conference (even those not attending the full conference could participate in some excellent free learning, at the “Topic Taster”, “Ideas Exchange” and “HR Technology Zones” sites on the fringe, which were generously sponsored by IBM), but almost everyone there was there to make connections. In many ways, for me, that was the big theme that came through at the event and, in my opinion, is a fundamental role for HR.

In HR practitioners’ daily lives we help: 
  • managers connect with their teams;
  • ensure connections between people’s goals and tasks at work with business plans and strategic objectives;
  • interpret information and make connections between data to provide meaningful MI;
  • individuals connect with their need and desire to learn and grow through L&D;
  • make connections between external factors and internal requirements;
  • connect benchmarking with appropriate remuneration and recognition interventions;
  • encourage people to connect with, join and stay at our organisations through appropriate recruitment and retention activities;
  • spot the connections and correlations between performance and reward;
  • leaders inspire others by connecting with their personal values and aspirations; and
  • make sure that discrimination and bias are overcome though meaningful understanding and appreciation of the connections between individuals across organisations and communities.

Almost everything we do relies on the ability to make significant connections. If a vine fails to reach out and ensure a firm grasp it will never grow tall and strong and bear fruit.

On the second day of #CIPD14 I attended many interesting presentations, the first was “Megatrends: what does the changing economy mean for HR?” which provided some excellent insights by Mark Beatson, the Chief Economist at the CIPD. Mark used data from the CIPD’s HR Outlook Survey, which illustrated disconnects between how HR views itself and the way in which it is perceived by business leaders (for example only 33% of business leaders think that senior HR leaders are involved in determining their organisation’s strategy, whereas 66% of the HR leaders believe they are involved in setting the strategy). Why this disconnect – what does HR fail to do to ensure that it is seen to be playing a part in shaping the direction of the business? I suspect that it is partially due to HR having the wrong types of conversations – we are often very internally focused, talking about issues with particular employees or areas or proposing policies and procedures to be applied within the business.

The elephant in the room - HR's inability to join "the dots"
or explain/appreciate the bigger picture
Often HR is not considered good at scanning the wider environment in which an organisation operates. In addition, HR often waits to be asked to contribute an opinion, rather than raising an issue. If you don’t have the understanding, or are reluctant to speak out, you will be deemed unable to make incite full proposals and predictions. People respond to what they see and hear, so it is only by making appropriate connections and voicing assumptions on matters that will impact the business that others will listen to your opinion. To work with our fellow senior leaders, we need to engage our brains and think beyond our immediate setting.

The Orator, Magnus Zeller, 1920 
In his talk Mark Beatson provided some good examples of the type of data that could be used to encourage discussion. For example, although things are picking up in the UK, much of Europe is struggling economically – the Brits talk of a “special relationship” with the USA (indeed 13.2% of UK overseas trade is with America), however American exports need to be seen in comparison to the UK’s trade with other nations, most specifically with those in Europe (according to the Office of National Statistics, the percentage of UK exports to European countries in 2013 was 10% to Germany, 8.5% to the Netherlands, 6.9% to France, 6.1% to Ireland, 4.6% to Belgium/Luxembourg, and 2.9% both Italy and Spain - making a total of 41.9%) – the UK is very reliant on Europe. The knock on effect of the economic woes impacting the UK’s main business partners will have ramifications for the UK economy and the companies that work within it, even those businesses that focus solely on the USA. Employment costs, workforce trends, labour migration, interest rates, fiscal policies, and legislation are all impacted by the bigger picture and HR needs to appreciate that. We need to make the connections

Small pictures used together make a bigger picture

In addition HR is guilty of using its own language, which must sound like gibberish to the people outside the department – they need a dictionary to make sense of:

  • PIPs (“performance improvement plans – to get people back on track when they are not working as well as expected”);
  • PDPs (“personal development plans – the training and personal development suitable for an individual to help them achieve their objectives and potential”);
  • HCM (“Human Capital Management” – often part of “ERP” (enterprise resource planning) – “an approach for managing the employees in a business that sees people as assets whose value can be measured and enhanced”)
  • Performance management (“a basis of HCM, where employees are given clearly defined and consistently communicated performance expectations and held to account” - why not simply say “are people doing what they are employed to do as well as we need them to do it? If not, what can we do to help them produce the required results?”);
  • Reward rationalisation (“ensuring pay and benefits are appropriate, cost effective and remain within budget – often by looking at total cost to company, instead of considering each benefit in isolation”);
  • Employer brand (“what people think of the company as a place to work”);
  • Employee engagement (“the degree to which people want to go the extra mile at work”)
  • Workforce optimisation – (often used as a euphemism for “making people redundant or reducing the number of people with roles in a particular area”); and
  • OD (we ourselves get confused by this one – do we mean design or development?) 

It is often quicker for people in HR to use jargon, but by doing so we alienate ourselves from others and lose the ability to connect with colleagues who are not familiar with the acronyms and terms.

Sometimes the unfamiliar needs translation or interpretation. As you are probably aware, I enjoy contemporary dance and, living in London, I have access to some of the world’s most amazing performances. Recently, I went to Sadler’s Wells to see four pieces inspired by the music of the UK’s leading pianist, composer and conductor, Thomas Adès. It was the first time that an evening had been dedicated to a performance that blended modern ballet and movement with his music. Under the heading of See the Music, Hear the Dance, the production ranged from an intimate duet choreographed to a piano solo, played by the composer, to the epic Polaris, choreographed by the Canadian Crystal Pite, which had a cast of 64 dancers. Adès’ Polaris (the title refers to the North Star) is a great piece of almost otherworldly music

For me, the combination of the music with the dance was immensely powerful. Crowds of dancers moved in unison, like the tentacles of an anemone or tendrils of seaweed stirred by the surf. Lines of people rippled, bobbed and flowed, with the sound as their evocative backdrop. The combination of the music and the movement was better than either in isolation. The piece as a whole was extraordinary and in many ways epitomised the word “connections”.

Crystal Pite's choreography of Polaris by Thomas Adès 

HR needs, like Pite’s choreography, to bring greater meaning and insight to what is already there in our organisations. It is people that make any business succeed or fail. HR is responsible for ensuring that work and the people who work are the best they can be. That can only be achieved through true understanding, the ability to appreciate the bigger picture and by making meaningful connections. Like the twinkling North Star (so evocatively represented in Adès’ music) – HR has to be able to shine and enlighten on many levels – understanding what drives people, appreciating economics, using the findings of neuroscience, being financially astute, mindful of wellbeing, appreciative of diversity, etc… all the factors that can make a difference. However, just understanding is not enough, HR has to communicate and inspire, to ensure that others take the right action. (for me it is the breadth of what is required that makes HR such a challenging but ultimately satisfying area in which to work – there is no chance of getting bored or numbed by monotony). So go out and make the right connections, help others to understand and hence to amend their thinking and behaviour to achieve better outcomes. Make your business shine.

Photographer Lincoln Harrison spent up to 15 hours taking these long exposure pictures of stars

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