Sunday 22 November 2009

CIPD conference summary: Sustainability


Sustainable HR leadership   Sustainability is the last of Jackie’s key themes and follows on directly from the last theme / last post (Morrisons’ point that Everyone’s got talent = sustainable performance).

At the conference, it came up several times.  Rebecca McIntosh and Claire Jelley from the University of Cambridge referred to Adam Werbach’s definition of sustainability as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.

It was also addressed by Siobhan Sheridan and colleagues from Defra, and David Benson from Oxfam.

At Defra, the key actions were:

  • Getting the basics right
  • Using resource flexibly
  • Making policy that works in a consistent way
  • Focussing on customers
  • Engaging staff,


For Oxfam, it centred on the annual talent process, consisting of workforce planning, succession planning and the identification of high potentials.

But the session which probably gave it the highest priority was the one from the CIPD on their Next Generation HR report.  Although I didn’t think that much of this, I do completely support the research’s focus on longer-term business sustainability.  Indeed, I’ve been arguing since the very beginning of the recession that organisations can’t afford to allow themselves to become too focused on the short-term.

And I do like the way the research suggests this focus on sustainable performance means that we need to understand HR leadership differently:

Operational Excellence is a pre-requisite to everything else. For instance, there is no point developing world class insights into talent management if this is not backed up with excellent processes and delivery. In some organisations, as this implies, there has been a focus on the thinking leadership elements of the HR agenda at the expense of delivery. [Yes, and in some organisations, it’s the reverse – ie good delivery but without enough thinking.]

Organisational Insight and Influence is all about the function trading on its position at the heart of the business, and being able to see the organisation clearly as a result. HR functions do not therefore simply serve the business, but run a commentary on its current health and effectiveness, and on its fitness for the future.  [I like this – a good example of HR creating value.]

Some HR functions are also able to play a powerful Organisational Commentary and Guardianship role by looking beyond short term business drivers to the implications of decisions in the medium term. In adopting more balanced positions that take into account the needs of wider stakeholders, they are looking beyond simply the wishes of the current CEO, or the senior team.  [To be this is a necessary part of organisational insight and influence.  HR needs to have a medium to long-term view of the organisation in order to comment independently now.]

In the past, HR tended to overplay its role as the voice of the employee. Now it is possible that many HR functions overplay their role as partners of the current management regime. [I don’t believe we ever did overdo the employee champion role – it’s just that it wasn’t sufficiently balanced with the business management one.  These aren’t alternatives, both are required.  But the addition which is required now and in the future is an additional,equal focus on human capital / organisational capability.]

The CIPD suggest that HR functions can drive the medium term sustainability of the business by taking actions like developing a balanced remuneration strategy; challenging decisions that might undermine the long term integrity of the brand; developing processes that challenge inappropriate behaviour at all levels in the business; and defining future leaders differently.

I think we can do more than this.  The future isn’t just about balancing these competing demands, its about offering a new, more sustainable basis for competitive advantage – one that puts people first, and really does treat people as an organisation’s most important asset.  Yes, it’s human capital management time!




See my previous posts on Transparency and Authenticity.

See my other conference posts.


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    1. Operational Excellence:
      Before all of the 'modern' HR hype took over, this meant get the personnel admin and paperwork right. Learn to write letters properly, ensure grammatically correct English is used, be numerate, eliminate those payroll mistakes, issue the correct employment contracts, return calls, meet deadlines,actually do something about poor attendance, ensure performance appraisals are done,etc. The problem is this is plain dead boring. Much more fun swanning around preaching change management, business strategy and the war for talent instead of getting the personnel admin right.

      Organisational Insight and Influence:
      If HR think they can achieve this one, then they are in for a disappointment. The customer and the taxman are the only things that influence an organisation. HR's influence does not extend beyond the boundaries of their office so they should concentrate on interviewing and eliminating those admin errors.

      Organisational Commentary and Guardianship:
      When did HR highjack short-term business drivers namely the kpi? There is a complete lack of understanding about the destructive nature of performance indicators if incorrectly applied. The way in which the HR fratenity advocate the use of kpis only leads to organisational dysfunction, inter-departmental friction, a collapse of operational efficiency and ultimately deteriorating customer service. If HR start talking kpis, send them back to their office and ask them to sort out the personnel admin processes and mistakes within their own department before spreading their pseudo- management pearls of wisdom like a cancer across the entire organisation. Oh and remind them they are there to do job interviews.

    2. Oh boy, you've had a tough time with HR somewhere! Unfortunately, I have to admit that a lot of what you say is often true. But, please believe, it's not always the case.

      And, of course, we've got a long way to go to improve (that's the point of this blog). For example, I think you make a good point about KPIs. These aren't always suitable, and they're not always applied in the right way.

      Anyway, thanks for your comments. They're much appreciated, and they did make me smile!


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