Report Introduction: HR in a disordered world

Penny TamkinIn this year’s edition of IES Perspectives on HR, we preview some of the themes that will crop up later in 2015, either in our events calendar of Briefings and Workshops, or which we will explore further in our signature events such as our Conference, Provocation and Retreat. These themes acknowledge some of the difficulties for the HR function of the ‘topsy turvy’, turbulent world in which we operate. Several of our contributors have looked at change itself and how the function steers itself through change or how it helps others do so. These articles fully acknowledge the difficulty of trying to second guess what change is needed, how it might be responded to or how HR can help and assist organisations in adapting to change. What we do know, and highlight, is that change is even more complex than we might traditionally acknowledge and we need new skills to help us cope with it.

In Organisational change: finding your way as you journey into the unknown, we explore how each change now overlays other preceding or concurrent changes to form a dynamic pattern of mutual interference. More traditional conceptions of change management can be left behind by this constant overlay of impacts so how are organisations and the people in them, able to adapt and thrive? Instead we need to apply the kind of processing skills that are sensitive to weak signals of change and invite others to help create pictures of change and its impact.

In ‘Organisation design in a VUCA world’, we continue these themes and highlight the importance of organisations having one foot in the past through exploiting current capabilities whilst also stepping into the future by designing organisations able to explore opportunities. This difficult balancing act is supported by engagement and yet engagement is always threatened by change. More established ways of managing change are replaced by evolving fluid approaches, enabled by what is shared across organisations, to promote collaboration, to simplify what is being faced wherever possible, and to mobilise the workforce.

Such shifts are hard to adapt to. It is of course, not strictly speaking, organisations that experience and adapt to change or which need to be supported through it but rather the individuals that make up the organisation. In Leveraging coaching for organisational changewe place the emphasis on how we can help individuals adapt to, support, and lead change better. The evidence is that using coaching to accelerate skills development, help understand change better and work with teams to adapt to change, can help organisations unstick themselves and offset the all too common inertia that means too much change is attempted and too little achieved.

A companion of change is innovation. We explore the importance of the individual further in Innovation: turning good ideas into reality, exploring the challenges of engaging employees in innovation, all too often limited by individuals having too little time to enable ideas to come to life or feeling as if they are not ‘allowed’ to have ideas that make a difference. The term innovation can be off-putting too; all too often people feel that only those in senior or specialist roles get to be creative. Some tried and tested ways of encouraging people to play, of giving them permission to innovate and in creating the structured support of colleagues to do so, can make a huge difference.

The remainder of our contributions challenge the HR function to do things differently, or to think about itself differently. Two articles focus on HR activities: one on an HR staple – competencies; the other on one of the newer kids on the block – talent management. Both suggest that the way in which we take an idea and adopt it can limit its effectiveness. The review of competencies, Beyond competence: shifting perspectives of capability, argues that our tendency in the UK to atomise (whilst Germany for example favours an holistic interpretation) leaves knowledge isolated, fixed in conception and unable to be summonsed to help with new situations. The effects include dispiriting appraisals, narrow recruitments, rote learning, and the downplaying of theoretical knowledge to the broader detriment of agility (back to change management again) and the ability to deal with novel and complex situations.

A similar message emerges from our reflections on The role of the line in talent management. HR needs to consider how talent management lands with those who are tasked with bringing it to life – how line managers are key players and how they can feel unsupported, isolated and unskilled in fulfilling their role. Considering how the line can be enabled to succeed should be the focus of HR intervention.

This theme of line manager relationships also runs through a contemplation of HR business partners: yes please or no thanks?. Business partners are one of the Ulrich model’s most endemic manifestations, seen as integral to the running of business units and providing strategic advice and support to maximise performance. However, all too often various pressures on business partners result in a failure to be sufficiently strategic, the tendency to be drawn into low added value activities and becoming too associated with the business unit in which they sit and less willing to toe the HR line. The popularity of the role can also make it harder to find people of the right calibre. These are partly problems of role definition but also of line interface; devolution to the line has proved harder than anticipated. As a result, there is a real tension between strategic contribution and operational support which organisations have not yet resolved.

And finally, we consider Ethical dilemmas in HR practice and raise the question of where was HR when the all-too-many recent organisational moral scandals were developing? This raises an interesting issue of the role of HR in ethics, is it HR’s role to ensure ethical behaviour or is it the role of every employee? Should HR be the early warning system? What about when the bad behaviour is invisible? Have we become too strategic – too business focused and too little of a challenger of senior management? When it comes to ethics, we all have different perspectives and HR tends to focus on its home territory – ethical issues such as: inconsistency of treatment; favouritism; confidentiality; discrimination; safety; harassment, etc. These are all laudable and important but there are other ethical dilemmas that HR is either blind to or which it chooses to avoid. These are, however, all too visible to other stakeholders: employees; consumers; customers; citizens, for example. We raise the importance of CPD in ethics and the opportunity to debate ethical issues, including these really difficult ones.

Our collection of thought pieces and essays seeks to introduce you to some of our thinking about the world of HR and people management. In a world of change, people management practice is often chasing events, thrown onto the back foot of change and trying to respond to its impact and to diminish its negative effects. All of these papers are united by their desire to place the HR function and its people ahead of events, better able to work with change, support those who experience it, and reflect on their own contribution in the process.

Penny Tamkin
Associate Director

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