All change suffers from the same blind spot - are we unable or unwilling to deal with it?

You are never clear what the employees impacted by a change , really think and feel about that particular change. If you don't know that, you cannot know if you are doing all the right things to ensure that this particular change will work and sustain.

I went to a great HR Transformation Network event the other day and was impressed by the calibre of the people and content of the discussions. Everyone I spoke to agreed that people wear 'masks' a work, that what a person says or does (or answers on a questionnaire) is not the same as what they really think or feel. They all agreed that the various surveys we employ are not designed to get behind these masks and therefore we have a blind spot.

Even the better businesses among us, who are closer to the hearts and minds of their employees, struggle to be certain what their employees think and feel about each particular change. Even they accept they often have a blind spot.

My challenge to us all, as an HR Transformation Network, is why we are not even talking about this blind spot, let alone trying to find a way to fix it?

Do you know what 'basics' you have to get right to enable HR systems to work?

I just attended a session called the 'Future of HR Systems', where I saw two great presentations from Michael Baker and Tim Ringo (VP SAP - SuccessFactors) on the potential of the new HR systems to transform how we manage people and to transform the value HR adds to businesses. They made a strong case that the recent forecast of the OECD, that we are currrently facing into 50 years of a continual decline in the standard of living across the globe, can only be addressed if we take advantage of the opportunity this new technology offers to manage our people better, so that we increase productivity.

Unfortunately they made an equally strong case, that I know to be true, that this technology will only work if HR gets the 'basics right' first AND in their opinion HR are struggling to transform (sorting out the basics) and that nobody else seems to be able to help HR to make this transformation. The audience seemed to agree that HR did not look likely to transform anytime soon. Indeed it would appear more likely that there won't be an 8th Star Wars movie than HR will transform. If the prosperity of the world depends on it, I feel we as a function should put a bit more effort into understanding what these 'basics' are that we must get right before the new technology can deliver its potential to transform productivity.

How many HR professionals know what these ‘basics’ are that you have to get right before these new HR technologies will work? If you don't you should find out!

Why leaders are not engaged with engagment.

HR has butchered the meaning of engagement and we must now find new language to describe what leaders really want.

I cannot read anymore on 'engagement' without saying something.

Business leaders always have a business direction they want to go in, a purpose, a strategy etc. Although it is probably not the one they have written down.

They are VERY interested in whether their employees are 'willing' to do what is required to achieve that direction. They are much less interested in, or as they would put it they struggle to find the time to focus on, how happy and content their employees are, which unfortunately is how 'HR' has labeled 'engagement', whether they meant to or not. 

If I use the analogy of firemen - imagine you are trapped inside a fire and feel that you need rescuing (pretty much how it felt when I was HRD on the ExCo of Direct Line prior to the IPO) what you want to know is whether or not the firemen are willing to risk their lives to save you. You care much less how 'engaged' they are, as 'HR' has labeled it. 

If you want senior leaders interested in and supporting increased engagement, rip up your 'engagement strategy' and instead focus on the 'real business strategy' and how you can help ensure the employees are willing to deliver it. Leaders are crying out for help and yet they probably see your meeting on engagement as a 'nice to do' distraction from their struggle to deliver the strategy.

You have to connect 'engagement' (or as I now prefer to call it 'willingness') with the true strategy of the leaders. 

Actually there is a silver bullet for HR

If HR were seen as the experts on the RISK ASSESSMENT of the 'people thing', in the context of the strategic ambitions of the business, all the dreams of HR would come true.

So what does this mean. If you are the HRD, look around the table of your peers. They are all experts at risk assessing their area. Experts in knowing whether or not their area will deliver their part of the strategy. The CEO is responsible to the Board to risk assess the whole thing. Then there is Finance and HR. The CFO looks at the 'finance thing' across the whole business and risk assesses the numbers in a strategic context and then intervenes to get the business leaders to fix the issues. This is a conversation the CEO is very interested in. A successful HRD is doing the same thing but on the 'people thing' but often not explicitly. 

However, most HRDs are not doing that. First they don't start with the strategic context, they prefer to start with external best practice or the latest fad. They talk about the war for talent, diversity initiatives or engagement programs. That is not what concerns the CEO and other leaders. They may pretend to feel 'talent is the big issue' in the way HR describes it but its not what they are really worried about. Imagine a CFO coming to the CEO and saying they haven't completed the monthly performance numbers against the budget and forecast. Instead they tell the CEO that 75% of the most successful companies have recently reduced cost by 10% or more so that is their current focus rather than risk assessing the numbers! It is laughable that a CFO would do that but if you are honest this has a chilling resemblence to the actions of most HRDs.

So what is the 'HR equivalent' to the performance numbers the CFO produces. Assuming the CEO and the top team know what a good job looks like, that is, what their 'strategy' actually means in terms of a change in organisational behaviour, there are only four risks they really worry about. Are the employees going to be able to do that, are they going to be willing to do that, will they always focus on what matters most at all times and will all that be at the best cost. They want you to know that this is what they worry about and secondly they want you to risk assess these areas in the context of their strategy. In truth you really should have built the strategy on the back of such a risk assssment. 

Are you able to risk assess those areas of ability, willingness, focus and cost and then be the expert in the material issues that face the strategic ambitions of the business. If you can learn to do this and you believe that people are the heart of the business you will be the leader that will matter most. Your expertise is the one the CEO will listen. That's when the CEO comes into your office before he goes to see the CFO.

Put simply HR have to stop closing gaps from the outside in and start identifying the true strategic gaps and closing them from the inside out. Forget best practice and focus on the business!

'To be or not to be' – that is the question for HR.

On the 400th Anniversary of Shakespeare I couldn't resist this title. The world is changing – customers have more knowledge, power and choices than ever before. Cultures are now challenging the ‘establishment view’ and technology is enabling it all. Companies increasingly understand that they must actually serve these new customers; just getting the ‘wrapper’ right is no longer enough.

To actually serve these customers your employees will need to choose to do the right thing most of the time. That is because you cannot control the delivery of excellent, attentive and responsive service. Companies increasingly know that they have to be able to manage this ‘people thing’ better, they know that their people are not choosing to do the right thing most of the time right now, so they want to change things so that they do.  The demand to manage this ‘people thing’ is therefore becoming a core and strategic concern.

Now us HR people have to sit quiet and listen to the following painful truths:

  1. HR is not the same as the ‘people thing’ that business is now so worried about. Whether or not HR is liked or disliked in a business, they will almost certainly not be seen as experts in how to change the ‘people thing’.  They are not seen as the natural change agents who should lead a change to how customers are served.
  2. HR remains addicted to a failed approach. HR has a bad reputation in terms of the value they add. HR professionals and the consultants that support them have a bad reputation. It is very rare to come across business leaders saying that they like their HR systems or their HR processes.  At best they will like the HR people because we get them out of difficult situations or have the difficult conversations for them. We continue to sell in and implement interventions we know don’t work.  We are clearly ‘insane’ – we are not only doing the same things over and over again and hoping for a different result, deep down we actually know the interventions will fail. As an example, using questionnaires as the core source of information to manage culture and engagement is fundamentally flawed. They will never give a true insight into what employees really think and feel about the things that actually matter to the business and this ‘people thing’. To do that you would have to talk to your employees in an intelligent and conversational way and deep down we all know that.  
  3. HR is at a crossroads – it’s our choice whether we are to be or not to be! If HR do not walk over to the people thing, business will walk past them and get on with it without them! HR will then wither away and die or be redefined as, or be consumed by, an administrative function. This is not a leap into the future, many businesses have already established ‘Culture Directors, Chief Talent Officers, People Transformation Directors etc etc all working alongside traditional HRDs. These are positions that the Business leaders have put in to manage the ‘people thing’. At the same time the CIPD have given awards to many HR Directors for being at the ‘top of their game’, whilst they have worked alongside these new roles, these roles that are actually managing the people thing. 

    Let me be very clear – if HR is ‘to be’ in the future, they must own the people thing. HR MUST redefine itself or die!