Friday 29 February 2008

Visualisation in HR

I use pictures a bit more than I use stories, for example, as part of a diagnosis process, helping employees to express what they think is going on in an organisation., and also in visualising visualising organisational capability.

There's a good account of using imagery in the CIPD's Coaching at Work magazine: 'Picture Perfect', written by Eve Turner.

As Turner explains,

"Imagery, including metaphors, is a normal part of language. Phrases like 'I feel fit as a fiddle' or 'It's raining cats and dogs'" are commonplace."

Turner explains that in psychotherapy:

"Imagery is seen as the language of the unconscious, a key that unlocks the link between our conscious state (our present) and the unconscious / super-conscious. Many writers believe thinking in pictures achieves a closer representation of people's inner reality or unconscious processes than words."

I think this true and has utility in a consulting or HR partnering context as well as in coaching.

The art of story telling / Career Helium

I hope you enjoyed my story of the chicken and the eagle. I don’t use stories very often, despite my focus on people centred language as I never feel very authentic telling them, although I admire people who can. And I know that done well, story telling can definitely have a great impact.

When I do tell stories, they tend to come from my own personal experience, or real business examples (like normal case studies but with a real emotional edge). And if I do make up a story, I try to make sure it at least has a real business context. This may just be about my level of comfort / skill in story telling, but I generally find these ‘businss stories’ are a lot more effective than stories from myths and legends, and I have to say, about different types of birds too!

A great example of what I mean by this is a career management book published last year called Career Helium. This was written by the head of people and organisation development at ABN AMRO, David Thompson (with whom I met earlier this year).

Career Helium is a great book for any HR practitioners who want to improve their own career progression, or to coach or develop managers and employees to manage their careers more effectively. It describes 'a powerful secret that is known to a select few, an approach to work that provides the fuel to float past the others who are naively pinning their hopes on being talent spotted by the boss'. There are definitely some ideas in here which would have helped me in my own career (and my yet still do).

And the book is also a wonderful example of great business story telling – truly engaging the reader in learning by gaining an emotional connection with the content of the book. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants to progress beyond the chicken and eagle type of thing.

The chicken and the eagle*

There was a chicken farmer who was a very keen rock climber. One day, climbing a particularly challenging rock face he came upon a large ledge. On the ledge was a large nest and in the nest, three large eggs. Eagle eggs.

He knew it was distinctly unecological, and undoubtedly illegal, but temptation got the better of him and he discreetly put one of the eagle eggs in his rucksack, checking first to make sure the mother eagle wasn't around. Then he continued his climb, drove back to his ranch, and put the eagle egg in the hen house.

That night the mother hen sat on the huge egg, the proudest chicken you ever saw. And the cock seemed pretty pleased with himself too.

In the fullness of time the egg hatched and the baby eagling emerged. It looked around and saw the mother hen. "Mama!" it squawked.

And so it was that the eagle grew up with its brother and sister chicks. It learned to do all the things that chickens do: clucking and cackling, scratching in the dirt for grits and worms, flapping its wings furiously, and flying a few feet in the air before crashing to earth in a pile of dust and feathers. And believing about all things that it was totally and absolutely a chicken.

One day late in its life, the eagle-who-thought-he-was-a-chicken happened to look up at the sky. High overhead, soaring majestically on the thermal currents, flying effortlessly with scarcely a beat of its powerful golden wings, was an eagle.

"What's that?" said the old eagle in awe to his farmyard neighbour. "It's magnificent. So much power and grace. Poetry in motion."

"That's an eagle", said the chicken. "That' the King of the Birds. It's a bird of the air. But we, we're only chickens, we're birds of the earth."
My point: that if HR thinks it's a support function, and can only contribute strategically by acting on the business agenda (adding value), it's never going to create value through acting on the people management agenda strategically (which is the focus of this blog).
* From The Magic of Metaphor, Nick Owen.

Thursday 28 February 2008

Is talent pink?

Thanks Jo, for your guest post on the CIPD's Talent Management conference.

Readers can read more of Jo Jordan's blogging at:

I do agree with Jo that this was an excellent conference, and I certainly enjoyed chairing it.

And I support nearly all of what presenters discussed.

However, as regular readers will know however, I do feel slightly uncomfortable with the prevailing tendency within HR, which also came through at this conference, to emphasise 'hard HR' at the expenses of the 'soft'.

Yes, talent management is an essential business process, and can have a significant impact on business results (which I guess can be considered hard), but producing these results often requires, in my experience, a soft, humanistic, progressive approach.

I understand where this tendency comes from, and I agree that many HR functions which have still to prove their business credentials. But for an HR Director to boast that they are a business person first and an HR person second just emphasises that they're not creating value from their people in the way that they could.

HR's not just part of a business, it's the function that enables the business 'most important asset'. Leveraging this asset deserves to come first. And doing this effectively requires what is usually referred to as a soft approach.

In one of the presentations at the talent management conference, LogicaCMG referred to the tagline of their employer brand which is 'Hello Yello' (yellow being the colour of their brand imagery).

I wonder given the colour scheme of my own website, and my support for what some might see as a 'pink and fluffy'* approach to people management, (and if it hadn't already been taken by breast cancer awareness,) I should have developed my own tagline as 'Think Pink'?

* - Please note that I do firmly believe that a strategic and people centered approach to the management of people for the accumulation of human capital (my definition of HCM) is very, very different to a traditional, unstrategic and administrative one (an approach that is often referred to as Personnel).

Talent managers reminding us of 3 cardinal rules of management

CIPD conference on talent management in London, Tuesday 26 February, 2008

I volunteered to blog the CIPD conference on talent management in London on Tuesday and I may have bitten off more than I can chew! The conference was well organized and smoothly run. CIPD lined up a full day for us, with NINE case studies on talent management and an opening on the general pattern of talent management by Paul Turner of Aschroft International Business School. Jon Ingham, the owner of this blog, who is kindly donating me some airtime, ably chaired.

Nine case studies on talent management are hard to describe succinctly. Once I tried, I came back to the same point that we drum into students' heads. There are no answers in management, only questions. Ours is not a profession in which we can tick boxes! We start every day armed only with general principles and attend mindfully and acutely to the people around us as the day unfolds.

So! In the spirit of blogging. I have made a list!

1. What HR decisions are being made and how can we support those decisions?

Chris Parkinson, who was presenting the case study from American Express, quoted an approach I hadn't seen before. Boudreau & Ramstad define HR management as


any business decision which HR impacts and

any business decision that impacts on HR.

We are staff, not line. We coach line managers to make more rigorous decisions, but we don't make decisions for them. We can't anyway. When you have organizations with 400 000 employees, such as Tesco, and about 1 HR person per 100, what counts are processes that help people do the right thing.


Speaker after speaker pointed out our proclivity to make things complicated! It's fruitless complaining that people don't use our systems. A good system is so simple that no one notices they are "doing" HR. The acid test of a system is whether life becomes more, rather than less, complicated when we take the system away!


We also want our systems to be associated clearly with success. Can we say in one sentence why the line is making their decision, what they hope to gain, and what would be the difference between a good and a bad outcome? Is the outcome under their control? Are we helping them understand what is, and is not, under their control? Do they make better, quicker and more confident decisions as a result? Including the decision, "no decision", when that is the most appropriate.

Adding value

And in the days of good IT (aren't we lucky), are we using the data on millions of HR decisions made by our peers in the line, to inform decision making at higher levels? Do decisions about individuals inform decisions about business units? Do decisions about business units inform decisions about strategic units? And so on and so on.

Are we extracting data, looking at patterns, and feeding them back into the question-asking process? Tesco's look at who they have available and the jobs employees want to do 3 to 5 years ahead. Cambridge County Council look at unusual patterns and go back down into the divisions to ask: is our job structure working for our people?

2. What business conditions are important to our business?

Know the situation, know the circumstances

Standard Chartered Bank, a leading bank in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, like American Express, is 150 years old. That's very old for a company. They are fortunate their line of business remains relatively unchanged and they are able to integrate change incrementally.

Most of us live in a more turbulent world. G4S, the massive security firm with 525 000 employees worldwide, is 'resisting commoditization'. In other words, they are looking to capture greater value from each transaction. They are slowly changing their business model, and their talent management provides the bedrock for that process: good execution at every level, and the right numbers of people available to conceptualize what needs to be done, when and how.

LogicaCMG, in IT, are making similar changes via greater customer service. The Legal Services Commission is facing contraction, while trying to enhance its pool of employees willing to adopt a career leading the organization. Cambridge County Council is looking ahead to a time when they will manage the delivery of services rather than deliver the services themselves.

Prof Turner used the phrase: look above the parapet. Talent management, like all management, requires clear thinking about our firms, which we do on an ongoing basis along with other managers. First, we are managers, and then we are HR specialists - in that order.

Value leadership

This reminds me of the David Whyte poem: "This is not the age of information, this is not the age of information . . . This is the time of loaves and fishes. People are hungry, and one good word is bread for a thousand." (Loaves and Fishes, in River Flow, p. 358).

How close are we to the pulse of our organizations? How clear are we about what is important?

Try asking yourself each morning as you awake. What is the greatest concern the people in this organization have today?

And in the evening as your retire: how did their concerns change during the day, and what prompted the change?

After a month, will we see the impact of our systems more clearly?

3. Am I getting better at orchestrating?

The third basic point about business is that good systems aren't imitable. They are specific and peculiar, local and historical. We can't copy each other. What is right for you now is not right for me today, tomorrow or yesterday.

So why do we attend conferences then? We can learn from case studies and ask better questions in our firms. We can learn many ways of doing the same thing so we have many ways to chose from. And from that luxurious place, we can pull together a working model that suits our firm in the time and in place we find ourselves. Stevan Rolls gave a good example of using 2.0-like networking within Deloittes to 'roll out' an HR initiative.

The big firms also allow each business unit considerable latitude. Both G4S and Siemens noted that business units who pay attention to talent management, do better. The point is to get each unit to adjust appropriately to their conditions, while we are clear about the overall principles and tools that we have in common.

The speakers did a huge job giving us a whistle stop tour of massive talent management programs. What we gained though is mainly their example as role models.

  • They are close to their business. And they are accepted within their business as knowledgeable managers.
  • They are managers. They manage processes to help other people to act, in this case line managers.
  • And their systems are tools, not ends in themselves. They put in what managers need and find useful, and ruthlessly strip away what is not helpful.

They do as much work focusing people on what is important, as they do pushing paper and running IT systems.


I enjoyed the meeting. It was well run. Though the quantity of data was a little overwhelming, it is reassuring to see the depth and breadth of talent management.

It must have been reassuring to the younger people in the audience, too. I would like to involve them more in mapping out the talent systems in organizations and thinking ahead to how they will influence and lead our organizations as they take command of this new century.

Jon did a straw poll and only 20% of the room felt engaged in business policy. It would be interesting to flag up the smallest, easiest ways that people have found to come close to their business during 2008! Maybe a rapid pitch session. Stand up, speak up, and sit down. How I got close to my business this year!

Thanks so much to all the speakers, to the CIPD, and to Jon for the chance to guest post!

Monday 25 February 2008

So are our CEOs the problem?

So are our CEOs the problem?

Management Issues reports on PricewaterhouseCoopers’ annual CEO survey which found that while nearly 90% of CEOs globally agreed people management was one of their top priorities, this dropped to just over two thirds who believed their time was best spent on the people agenda (and just 34% of CEOs in the UK believe HR is the best function to compete for talent).

The study argues that:

“Executives who want to get on in the business world should spend less time worrying about their people skills and more about getting the right technical, business, change management and international expertise under their belts.

People skills, while a bonus, were not seen as an essential - despite the fact that fewer than half of CEOs globally felt their HR department could manage the people agenda adequately by itself.

But with neither the C-Suite or the HR department providing the sort of leadership people are crying out for, is it any wonder that so many organisations complain they're suffering from a crisis of (dis)engagement?”

Perhaps we need a few more CEOs like James Caan, star of Dragons’Den, who is interviewed in this month’s Human Resources magazine.

Caan* doesn’t believe that other CEOs understand people:

" ‘I don't think enough CEOs really understand the people element. I spend all my time focusing on people and I know that people really love working for me. Too many think about grand, top-level plans without considering how they will be achieved or who will do it.’ "

And he thinks that it is his own HR background, and his approached developed from this background (which he describes as “touchy-feely” - no decision science for him!) “that gives him better insights into people and a competitive advantage, not just over his fellow investors, but also among the wider CEO community, who he criticises for not using enough HR-rooted principles.”:

" ‘I got to know which people made great employees, so when individuals are nervous or emotional wrecks (on Dragons' Den), I'm more interested in finding their will to succeed. I learned that people make business success, not products. Many business leaders are still 80:20 in outlook - focusing 80% on the product, and 20% on the people. I couldn't be like this if I tried; I'm far more 50:50.

I think what people really want is relationships at work. A lot of people are not satisfied with their working lives - it's partly their fault, but partly their employers' fault. I try to create a working environment where people can excel and do what they didn't think was possible.' ”

It's also interesting to note that the PwC survey finds a key attribute desired by CEOs in their workforce is the confidence to challenge. Perhaps HR needs to be more robust in challenging CEOs on the way they are managing their businesses and people?

* I’d also recommend having a look at Caan's comments on private-equity.

HR and the line

I posted last month on Luke Johnson's criticism of HR (also see this post's comments for Ceridian's follow-up criticism). But HR puts the blame for bad performance management on line management.

XpertHR points to two pieces of research that shows line managers are failing to manage poor performers.

Firstly, Watson Wyatt find that employers across Europe are missing out on potential talent because line managers fare far too preoccupied with top performers and fail to engage poorer performing employees

And secondly, IRS' survey of HR practitioners finds that managers are not properly equipped to manage underperformance. Of course, you might say that this is HR's fault too. As XpertHR notes:

"As managers’ communications skills are so vital to success, you might think they would receive ample relevant training, but this is not necessarily so. Less than a third of the employers in the IRS research train managers to deal with difficult conversations and just 35% teach them coaching skills."

This gap is becoming more important. New CIPD research, described in its Impact update (issue 22), finds that:

"Line manager involvement in people management is both broadening and deepening and that, as a result, they increasingly need bespoke support from HR to provide them with the necessary skills, knowledge and attitudes to reward and recognise the contribution of their employees, and to develop and raise their performance.

HR will need to work with senior and front-line managers to ensure that line managers are clear on the role they play in people management, and provide support on how to cope with problems."

This at least suggests the cause of the problem is more complex than Johnson suggests. Perhaps it comes down to a company's leadership, and particularly the CEO?

Sunday 24 February 2008

HR Matters in Malaysia / SE Asia

Readers in Malaysia will hopefully be able to find an extensive interview with me in the new edition of HR Matters.

I'll also be facilitating a workshop on talent management for HR practitioners from Malaysia, Sri Lanka and the region in Singapore on 27th and 28th March (contact Loganwise if you wish to attend, or contact me direct if you'd like to meet while I'm there).

Developing capability: HR's role

If you, like me, see HR as a strategic rather than a support function, there is an analogy for HR here.

Reckitt put their success in innovation down largely to insights into consumer habits. But they don't ask consumers about their needs.

Last week's Sunday Times reported that the company believes:

"Consumers are not very good at imagining what they might want to buy if it were available. They may have a strong view on what works well when they are doing humdrum jobs round the house, but they cannot imagine what might do it better:
'Consumers are not very innovative'.

'Consumers will generally not come up with the next innovation. So we try to have ideas that target consumers in specific areas. Then we screen them. We go through literally thousands of ideas every quarter. Then we ask consumers about the ideas.'

This is done through focus groups, one-to-one interviews and even by installing company employees in people’s homes to see how they go about their household chores. 'We literally say to people, ‘show me how you do the dishes; tell me how you clean the floors’.' "

I think this approach would provide a much more appropriate basis for strategic HR than just getting close to the business - paraphrasing Reckitt's President, business leaders are not generally very good at imagining what they might want from people management.

See also:

Developing capability in innovation / Reckitt Benckiser

There have been a couple of interesting articles in the traditional press recently on Reckitt Benckiser's success in innovation.

Despite its President's gaffe in passing off the company's success in generating innovations from 'simple and obvious ideas' as 'very stupid products' (which Management Today compared to Gerald Ratner's dismissal of his firm's jewellery products), Reckitt does seem to have found a way to make innovation work. In fact more than 80% of ts brand innovations succeed and more than £2bn of the company's £5.3bn revenues for 2007 come from products launched in the past three years. The company's share price has increased by 356% compared with a 13% decline in the FTSE 100 index.

Only a very few companies such as Whirlpool and 3M come anywhere close to this level of success through innovation.

So how does Reckitt do it? According to The Economist, Reckitt's President attributes his firm's success to its 'innovative and entrepreneurial culture'.

More importantly, for me, it's about making innovation an absolute top priority (an organisational capability) and then developing best fit HR and management processes around this focus.

For Reckitt, this includes:

  • Management processes that encourage controversy and avoid bureaucracy

  • Compensation practices that reward high performers (and innovators)

  • Recruitment and management for diversity ('the company's multinational staff come from very different backgrounds which creates "tension in the system").

Creating this sort of platform this doesn't come from measurement as much as it does a deep insight into the people in the organisation and what makes them tick.

An article in Business Week last year, Five Common Mistakes in Innovation, made the point well. Discussing Procter & Gamble's social networking inspired 'Connect and Develop' approach, the article explained:

"'Connect and Develop' is a wonderful strategy for P&G, because of who it is, the categories it plays in, and the structural systems and DNA of the company. Just because something is good for P&G doesn't mean it will be good for the rest of us.

Companies such as 3M are instead returning to what has made them great in the past. It's a generalized form of what organizational-change experts call Appreciative Inquiry: Search inside yourself for moments of greatness, determine which activities spurred these moments of greatness, and then figure out how to do more of that.

Virtually no companies in the Fortune 500 got where they are by accident. Savvy leaders capitalize on their organizations' strengths and capabilities to create sustainable approaches to growth appropriate to their inherent cultures."

CIPD Reward Conference

My last post focused on the need for best fit in performance management.
The need for best fit in reward was also made clear at the CIPD's reward conference recently (echoing a themes from an earlier conference that one size does not fit all). The WorldatWork's blog referenced Duncan Brown's compelling arguments for 'best fit' instead of 'best practice':

"Actually, I heard the notion of 'best fit for the organization' versus 'best practice' more than a few times at the conference, and it's a notion that has stuck with me. Intuitively, it's right on because it just makes simple sense that what might be 'best practice' in one industry or company might be a sub-optimal practice in another industry."

Compensation Force notes this concept is "simply brilliant":

"Because effective rewards are relative and situational; what works 'best' in one organization can be a disaster when force fit to another."

And XpertHR summarises this focus on best fit by emphasising that "reward offerings must be driven by organisational needs and capabilities, rather than by a compulsion to follow trends."

So it's a bit of a worry that the CIPD's 2008 Rewards Survey finds that adopting a formal reward strategy has fallen from top reward priority in 2007 to sixth place this year, leading to a “semi-detached” approach to reward in which there is a “disjoint between what organisations espouse about reward, and what their reward offerings actually achieve".

"Reward specialists therefore need to work on a cohesive and compelling, [best fit] 'vision and mission' for reward in 2008, if reward objectives are to be achieved."

Thursday 21 February 2008

Bad performance management costs £2.29 bn

Following my own post on the need to redesign performance management (music not measurement), TalentQ research suggesting that bad appraisals could be costing Britain's economy in the region of £2.29 billion a year.

Evidence based management campaigner Bob Sutton suggests that “the performance evaluation process is fundamentally flawed fundamentally flawed. That doing it well is like doing blood-letting well -- it is a bad practice that does more harm than good in all or nearly all cases.”

“When people get unfair negative evaluations, it can leave them ‘bitter, crushed, bruised, battered, desolate, despondent, dejected, feeling inferior, some even depressed, unfit for work for weeks after receipt of the rating, unable to comprehend why they are inferior.’ "

He asks: “Do organization just do them because they have always done them, because there is excessive and irrational faith in them, and perhaps because a whole bunch of vendors, consultants, and HR professionals benefit financially (in fact, you could argue that because so many things go wrong with evaluations, that the amount of work they generate is nearly endless).”

The answer has got to be no – they do them because performance management is the central business management process in raising organisational performance. The two main reasons that appraisals are often so poor and that people leave them feeling bitter, crushed, bruised and battered, is that line managers don’t put sufficient emphasis on their people (and that sometimes they don’t have the skills required to support this emphasis), and that performance management processes aren’t designed in a way that’s appropriate for the organization, and the people it employs.

I’ve seen, and been involved in developing, very simple performance management systems (for example, two blank pages of A4), very complex ones (including matrices for calculating performance ratings) and technology based approaches. All of these have worked extremely well in some organizations and failed in others. The key is tailoring them appropriately.

Sutton describes a head of HR who introduced a performance management process “in a way that was consistent with ‘best practices’ suggested by leading HR professionals”. This is the problem. To be effective, HR needs to beyond best practice, and design performance management and other processes in a way that provides best fit.

Tuesday 12 February 2008

Do you have your best meetings in Starbucks?

Interesting programme on Horizon (BBC2) tonight, How to Make Better Decisions.

I thought the guy who writes equations to help people decide whether to chat someone up, or buy a pair of shoes, was a complete quack. Or at least I did, until on came the guy who thinks we make decisions based partly on precognition of the future.

But I was very impressed by the research on priming. Now I know (or at least I have known) a lot of this stuff, and recognise that contextual factors can significantly influence the decisions that people make. But I never thought this could come down to a hot cup of coffee.

Lawrence Williams, a researcher at Yale asked people to hold a drink for them while he took their details. These people then had a short conversation with Lawrence’s colleague, Randy. And they were then asked to decide whether Randy would be a suitable candidate for a project manager role. Whether the drink was hot or cold had a significant influence on people’s perception of Randy, even though they had held the drink several minutes beforehand.

So next time you’re asked out to Starbucks for a meeting, just be aware you might end up making more positive decisions than you’d intended.

Monday 11 February 2008

Competencies for strategic HR capability development

In the last really major HR development programme I ran (7 conducts of 5 day workshops delivered in different venues throughout Europe), I used Michigan's 2002 competency framework which was superseded last year (this came out before I started blogging so I've not referred to it myself, but plenty of other blogs did, for example Taleo).

But I still prefer a version I and a few colleagues (Peter, Geoff and Roberta) developed a few years ago and that in high-level form is shown here.

At the top is Strategic Partnering which refers to the abilities to develop an HCM strategy which supports an organisation's vision and values, and aligns with, and informs, its business strategy. (This is Michigan's Strategy Architect).

This is supported by:

  • Business Know-How: understanding the fundamentals of business and finance - for business in general, and particularly for this business (Business Ally).
  • People Management Leadership: this sounds awful, but refers to the leadership of people management activities. All of the HR stuff we know and love, and its more strategic aspects too (Michigan's Cultural Steward, Talent Manager / Organisation Designer).
  • Personal Credibility: earning permission to influence (Credible Activist).

The reason I prefer this to Michigan's framework is that business know-how, people management leadership and personal credibility all clearly underpin strategic partnering, and out of the three, it is people management that it as the centre, which I believe is appropriate.

This central competency is then underpinned by HR Implementation: the ability to execute (Operational Executor).

I wouldn't advise running a programme in the same way today (very few clients would stomach 5 day workshops, although this did send a clear signal about the importance of this training across the HR team). But I'd still base it on this set of competencies.

Thursday 7 February 2008

A strategic HR capability development programme

One of the UK's other HR bloggers, Scott McArthur, has posted on the changing roles and careers of HR business partners, and has also asked through Linkedin about what others have done to develop HR practitioners in their strategic role.

This got me thinking because although I’ve delivered a couple of short workshops on various areas of HR fairly recently (in company and open programmes, and also as part of an executive MBA programme), it’s been about 2 years since I last delivered an extensive programme for strategc HR managers. So I thought it might be useful (for me at least) to map out what I think an ‘ideal’ generic programme might involve (obviously without any organisational context to support this).

Plus I think that changes in the way that learning is being delivered – responding to changes in the workforce, new technology etc (or perhaps just my own enhanced understanding of effectiveness in L&D – would mean that I’d also advise my clients to deliver any major HR capability development programme in a different way to how I’ve done this before.

More thoughts coming up over the next few days.

Wednesday 6 February 2008

HR Carnival 26

The 26th HR Carnival has been published on Wally Bock's Three Star Leadership blog.

Do take a look - it includes some good posts including one of mine.

Learning Technology: serious games and virtual worlds

My presentation at Learning Technologies only got as far as talking briefly about what

capability is and how it can be measured.
Most of the rest of the conference was more focused on the technologies that can support learning and I was pleasantly surprised to find that what was definitely hype a few years ago is slowly turning into practice, with some great examples of technology enabled learning (with the emphasis on learning rather than technology) being discussed.
Technology helps learning develop the capability required for effective implementation by increasing the effectiveness of learning. Systems like Saba, Plateau and SumTotal increasingly provide useful information on competencies, gaps and learning opportunities, and link these to other aspects of people management and development. Just-in-time learning or performance support helps people learn precisely what they need at a particular point in time to do a new or specialist job, that they would otherwise have likely forgot. And mobile learning helps involve much broader populations in learning in those organisations that have dispersed and out of office workforces.
But technology also helps learning develop the capability required to help the organisation take advantage of new opportunities by enabling people to learn in new ways - particuarly through being able to do things that would not previously have been possible. So for example, by using serious games and virtual worlds, organisations enable their employees to demonstrate behaviour, to experiment and reflect, and to practice new types of behaviour, without risk (whether this be from loss of face or physical danger - as in the screen shot here), enabling their people to make and learn from mistakes.
There are some great opportunities for all organisations here.

Learning Technologies: measurement

At Learning Technologies, I talked about organisational capability having two roles in enabling business results: supporting implementation, and generating new opportunities.

If we’re looking at the top arrow on this slide, implementation, then identifying the capability that will best support the organisation is fairly straight forward and depends on measurement. All you need to do is analyse what capability, and the supporting competencies you need to deliver specific business goals, measure what you have and identify the gap.

Identifying organisational capability is more difficult when you’re looking at the bottom arrow, in order to provide new opportunities. Here measurement is less useful partly because it’s not always clear what you need to measure and therefore you’re likely to end up with lots of data on different competencies which can obscure rather than highlight opportunities. Plus you may note get the cause and effect results you expect (which was what Jay was talking about).

Instead, it can be useful to remember that people are emotional beings, and use an emotional, lateral, intuitive approach like visualisation, metaphor or Appreciative Inquiry to identify what people think is important to the organisation.

Learning Technologies: capability

At Learning Technologies, I talked about organisational capability having two roles in enabling business results.

The first is through supporting implementation. Organisations are increasingly realising that it is often not the quality of their strategy but their employees’ ability to implement this that will make the difference.

In his book, Execution Ram Charan defines this ability to execute as ‘the missing link between aspirations and results’.

But secondly, and even more importantly, the link applies the other way round too.

Organisational Capability isn’t just about implementing business strategy, it’s also about providing the basis for new strategic and opportunities.

This is illustrated in the slide.

The top arrow provides an organisation with the ability to implement business objectives. The bottom arrow develops new capability that enables the organisation to set different or more stretching business goals.

The top arrow is about taking the business plan and saying, OK we need to be more innovative, or have better leaders or whatever, in order to implement this. The bottom arrow is about looking at your people, and saying, we have some really collaborative people, or a great shared mindset, or whatever, and if we developed this, that could really provide us with a great competitive advantage.

The bottom arrow is much more transformational that the one on the top (those readers familiar with the value triangle may recognise this as the created and added value levels of the triangle). So learning will have a lot more impact if it focuses on developing capability that will support new opprtunities and strategies than just implementing the current business strategy.

Monday 4 February 2008

Learning Technologies review

I picked up some useful pointers on using learning technologies and social media when I was presented at this year’s Learning Technologies conference last week. , but my main take aways were from the sessions more focused on learning itself.

Jay Cross was spot as as usual – have a look at Nigel Paine's live blog on this.

I particularly liked Jay’s points on the need to think about organisations from a biological rather than a mechanistic perspective – based upon “Einstein’s and Bohr’s contributions, but also because ‘we can feel it in our guts that (the machine model) isn’t true anymore’ ”.

This means that predefined organisation design can only take us so far – “things are too complicated to be engineered, but nature will find a way” – so we need to trust that everything will work out for itself – without a master pan. This fits with a lot of my consulting experience, but Jay expresses the new world more colourfully.
It also means that the use of measurement is naturally limited - “you can’t predict anything, because you can’t be sure what people are able to do”. This message didn’t seem to get through to everyone – the conference featured some fairly heated discussion about how we should best measure learning, and the rights and wrongs of Kirkpatrick, but little on whether we really need to bother measuring learning that is increasingly informal, and outputs that are increasingly intangible, at all (or certainly in a mechanistic way).

Still, it was a really excellent conference, and I was delighted to be part of it. Well done Don, and all concerned. My next post will cover some of my post-conference thoughts on the role of technology in learning and the development of organisational capability.

Friday 1 February 2008

The role of Capabilities in Talent & Organisation Performance

Another FT article that caught my interest this week was Lucy Kellaway's tirade on Accenture's use of jargon in communicating the launch of its book, the talent powered organisaton, in a Second Life event recently.

Now I won't pretend to know what Accenture's new Talent & Organisation Performance service line means by its 'growth platform agenda' but I suspect that Accenture senior executives (senior partners) are quite clear, and that this means something much more precise than just growing the firm's revenues (although I'm sure that's part of it too).

But the need for organisations to “expand their talent management agenda from a narrow and tactical focus on human resources activities around the employee life cycle, to a broad and strategic focus on highly integrated systems of capabilities fundamental to business strategies and operations” makes perfect sense to me.

It's not the people centred language that I think organisations need to use much more in communicating with their staff, but then Accenture senior executives aren't quite the same as most employee populations.

To me, Accenture's use of the word 'capabilities' is terminology, not jargon, and the role of 'highly integrated systems of capabilities' is in fact, exactly what I was talking about in my presentation at Learning Technologies this week.

Capabilty is a similar concept to core competence, but whereas core competence focuses on business processes, organisational capability deals with management processes. As example, Hamel and Prahalad, the originators of the term core competence, explain that 3M’s core competence is expertise in substrates, coatings and adhesives. An organisational capability perspective might identify 3M’s capability is innovation, and the fact that this is innovation in substrates is a secondary concern.

'Repositioning', 'differentiating', 'integrating' and 'evolving' capabilities are all about influencing organisation, social and human capital (ie HCM - sorry about the additional jargon / terminology, Lucy) by aligning the people the organisation employs and the HR processes it uses around the organsation's capabilities (see this post).

Capabilities are important, because they provide the key to effective implementation of business strategies, and also the basis for identfying new strategies and opportunities (creating value). They're certainly important enough to deserve their own terminology.