Thursday, 12 February 2009

Recession-proofing Employer Branding

What future for employer branding seems to be all the rage just now in the current recessionary context. The CIPD are developing a conference on this topic in May, which I've been invited to speak at (thanks Anita and Rebecca and hello from down under). As luck would have it, I was doing a presentation yesterday with two colleagues in Sydney - Paul Gollan and Kerry Grigg - for a mixed audience of practitioners and academics, where we outlined some thoughts on this issue plus a future for employer branding that we're currently working on. I'm not the best judge, but I think it went down reasonably well, so the drift of the presentation may be worth sharing with some of the readers of this blog.

The core of my argument and of a new paper we're writing is that employer branding is recession-proof in the sense that it was never only or mainly about talent wars/ talent shortages caused by bouyant economies, though recruiting talented people was and will remain an important driver. Part of the presentation yesterday was that the four drivers of employer branding and its impact on corporate reputations are still relevant in todays recessionary economic circumstances - the need for talent in knowledge economies and knowledge intensive organizations, the long terms demographic problems faced by most economies, the long term decline in employee identification with employers and decreasing levels of trust, and the rise of idiosyncratic careers built around individuals rather than organizations. What has probably changed over the past decade is that employee expectations of good employers have been slowly ratcheted up by organizations engaging in practices such as employer branding/employer of choice schemes from which they will find it difficult to disentangle. Yes, organizations may not be recruiting so much, particularly in financial services, construction, retailing and manufacturing, but the impact of how they cut costs by laying people off and how they continue to create positive internal images for existing employees (particularly those currently being blamed for the mess we're in) will continue to have a major impact on their corporate reputations.

By corporate reputations, I'm referring to some really big ticket issues - corporate branding, corporate governance and corporate social responsibility - which require deft handling to manage the inevitable tensions between the needs of organizations to be simultaneously different through corporate branding and legitimate ( or the same) through the exercise of good governance and social responsibility. In many respects, these are, or should be, the key drivers of strategy and the endgame of good people management. Having just finished reading Robert Peston's excellent book on 'Who Runs Britain', which is an insightful guide to the complex financial engineering 'rocket science and crude incentivization that has been at the heart of the current problems, I'm more convinced than ever of the need for HR and employer branding to address these issues.

However, there is another agenda that places techniques like employer branding centre stage and that is the innovation agenda. We've been writing quite a bit about this recently, but to cut a long story short, good evidence suggests that innovation relies less on investment in human capital (talented individuals) and more on social capital (creating bonding and bridges or social networks) and organizational capital (what's left when people walk out the door at night, e.g. structures, systems, processes and technology etc). If advocates of employer branding and the HR function wants to make an impact, addressing the innovation agenda (wealth creation) in knowledge economies by ensuring that such innovation is socially responsible and well governed (ie. risk managed) is the place to be. Our argument is that employer branding has much to offer in this direction - by helping create the necessary diversity of talent, social capital and social networks needed for innovation. But such branding will only do so if it is authentic and is rid of much of the brandwashing and marketing/communications spin with which it has become associated. And this is where Web 2.0 comes in - these tools have enormous potential for surfacing authentic and challenging employee voices in organizations as well as facilitating collaboration and networking beyond conventional organizations boundaries, both of which are drivers of organizational learning and innovation.

Not everyone agreed with these arguments, so it may be worth a discussion either on this blog or at the events such as the ones that the CIPD and ourselves are running with the IES.


Anonymous said...

Hi Graeme,

Some interesting viewpoints and you're absolutely right, this is a subject that's all the rage in commercial circles at the moment - I'm running 2 fully subscribed 'Managing an employer brand in an economic downturn' sessions in conjunction with the Daily Telegraph at the end of this month.
Just a quick question on one specific point you've made - I totally subscribe to the concept of social capital but less convinced by that of organizational capital. The beauty of both human and social capital is that they are unique to the organisation and help deliver differentiation amongst all stakeholder groups but organizational capital itself isn't - it can be imitated and copied. Are you saying that by having effective organizational capital, you are freeing up resource to focus on innovation?

Graeme's HR Blog said...

Hi Simon

What I think I'm saying is that technology in the form of web 2.0 can be used to enhance social and human capital, not by freeing up but by doing things is is difficult to do face to face (like connecting with you). Agreed that human and social capital are unique to organizations, but so is how technology is used (not the technology itself).