Monday 30 January 2012

What is now business critical on the HR Director’s agenda?


   We’ll be following up on the issues raised in the HR Directors Business Summit unconference, and discussed in the final unpanel, at the organisers’ new community forum, HR InSights.

However, I thought my summary as chair at the beginning of day two covered both days of the unconference quite well.  The three main issues for me were:

  • Performance.  Of the business, and of the HR function too (eg in Ed Lawler’s presentation, and also demonstrated in the HR with Distinction awards).
  • Leadership development.  In business (particularly given the passion expressed in the unpanel about ‘toxicity at the top’) and in other areas, particularly sports (eg in Sir Clive Woodward’s presentation on coaching in rugby and basketball which suggested some interesting opportunities for business coaching too).
  • Planning and analytics.  Eg I liked the way that David Clutterbuck suggested that we need to be analytical in order to remain caring for our people.


I also suggested that ‘social’ should be a key theme for HR, even if we hadn’t mentioned it on day 1, and would come through more strongly during day 2 - which of course it did - particularly given the unconference on the agenda.

And actually it came out in other presentions – eg Penny Ferguson’s keynote on leadership which had nothing obvious to do with being more social.  However, I think this quote is exactly what it’s about:

“We need to get to know the people and get them to open up.  You can’t be a leader unless you know the people you’re leading.”


-   Yes, and of course, they need to know each other as well.


However, in at least one way, social had already come through as a key theme in the agenda.  I noticed this looking at the hosted lunch sign-up lists after checking on the unconference grid board on the way back to my hotel after the awards dinner on day 1.

There were two lunches on performance (performance through coaching, high performance culture) – both full; three lunches on leadership (inclusive leadership, new directions in leadership development, the living leader) – all full; two lunches on planning and analytics (strategic talent planning, learning and analytics) – both full; but also one lunch on social media and the workplace – also full.  Other lunches were much less well booked up eg the one on pensions auto enrolment was completely empty still (this may be more about how people want to spend their lunchtimes than any real indication of interest, but I think it still says something about the importance of social and the other three issues I’ve listed above).


It was interesting, given this, that the three issues people suggested during / straight after the unpanel that they thought were missing were:

  • HR innovation (I accept this omission, though I thought there was much more focus on the need for HR innovation vs just using common sense than there was in at least one previous year).
  • Youth unemployment (this was also a big omission, as it tends to be in most conferences, though we have addressed it in the ConnectingHR unconference).
  • Analytics...


Analytics was Peter Cheese’s suggestion and I can see why Peter thought it was less prominent than perhaps it should have been.  For example, look at Ed Lawler’s slides on the importance (and current ineffectiveness) of HR measurement:



But as I had said in my chairing, I do think analytics had come through as a key theme, and it could have been stressed more if people had been that interested in it.  However, it was interesting that although metrics were suggested as one topic for discussion in the unconference, nobody seemed interesting in discussing it, and we had to fold that particular group (falling, perhaps, for the pensions auto enrolment problem?).

I also thought that this may be another good opportunity to raise my own perspective that yes, measurement is important, but let’s not get too carried away!  The pig doesn’t get any fatter by measuring it – it’s what we do with our measures that counts!

This is another of Lawler’s slides:


It looks bad doesn’t it – 40% of CFOs have no understanding of the return on their company’s HR investments.  And this might indicate that HR really hasn’t got a good handle on HR measures and analytics.

But I don’t think it does.  I think it reflects the fact that most of HR’s outcomes are intangible – they can’t be accurately calculated.  From this perspective, the 40% isn’t a problem but a natural consequence of this type of role.

I’m not saying that HR measures, analytics, or approaches like the HR scorecard (which I think is the most appropriate basis for HR measurement) can’t help, but even then, I think ‘know’ is a bit strong.  We can certainly develop insight into this, but we’ll never be able to ‘know’, in detail, exactly what we’ve managed to achieve. 

Return isn’t the issue.  Let’s just accept this and move on – we’ve got bigger challenges to tackle - toxicity and the top; HR innovation and youth unemployment would be better places to start!


Picture credit: Rafaella Goodby 


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  1. We measure, analyse and report information not because we need to know but because we need to make decisions under uncertainty. The information that comes from measurement (and we can measure anything which has an outcome) transformed by analysis reduces uncertainty and therefore leads to better decisions.

    There are very few things we can know with certainty - even so called 'laws' of Physics are refined over time. The goal therefore shouldn't be to find absolute truth but to reduce uncertainty in a credible manner.

    An informed decision is likely a better decision. I too believe that it is likely to be a more just decision. We need to measure, analyse because we want to strive to make the best decisions for our people and firms.

    The change that we're seeing in HR is increasing pressure on providing numbers and mostly HR doesn't know how to react. Few functions have perfect information.

    (Ed Lawler's slides must rank as some of the least effective communication of data I've seen for some time)

  2. Hi Andrew, I don't disagree with any of this - but then I don't retract any of my points either. Yes, we need to make decisions under uncertainty, and sometimes data helps us understand these better. But a lot of the time, actually we don't need data, we just need a bit of inspiration and a bit more determination to do something. Cheers, Jon.


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