Friday, 24 April 2009

Web 2.0 and HRD: Reflections on the CIPDs Annual Event in London

Not having been to the CIPDs annual HRD event, I was pleased to get the opportunity to launch our report on Web 2.0 and HRM during a session on Wednesday this week and to do some further stress testing on our arguments in that report (I'm also doing this summary for a great European HR class I taught in Nijmegen yesterday, which I under-serviced in spending too long on other issues - say Hi).

For those of you who’ve not heard these arguments before, they are as follows. Technology in the form of information and communications technologies have an enormous potential to change the way in which HR works and to change the business model of HR by allowing it to make a fundamental contribution to the innovation agenda of organizations, regardless of sector (though innovation is more likely to be important in the knowledge-intensive and creative industries). Previously, our work focused on e-HR and how it could create operational efficiencies; however, we have been flagging for some time how a newish read-write, bottom up Web 2.0 could help HR create strategic value in three, interconnected ways (and, more importantly for some, avoid being left behind).

The first of these is by facilitating the use of Web 2.0/Enterprise 2.0 to allow employees make online connections with others, inside and outside the organization, to collaborate, create knowledge and learning and share it. In doing so it helps enhance the absorptive capacity of organizations for new knowledge, create organizational learning and learning organizations, and enhances the ability of people to connect with one another across time zones and traditional organizational boundaries in networked organizations (the subject of a new excellent report for the CIPD by Mick Marchington and his colleagues at Manchester University).

The second way is by enabling more effective forms of engagement and employee voice. Because Web 2.0 is a democratic architecture for participation, it enables employees of all levels and types, so long as they have access to the web, the chance to engage in decisions that affect them and to exercise the voice in the ways in which they are managed. In short, it has tremendous potential to enhance staff governance by reaching the parts that other techniques (e.g staff surveys) can’t reach in ways that are more meaningful to staff and owned by them. And by enhancing staff governance, you enhance the governance of innovation and risk (the wealth creation and wealth protection functions of organizations), which, in turn, feeds through into corporate governance.

These two features of Web 2.0 are also thought to be necessary to connect to the natural ways of learning, playing and working of so-called Gen Y. So organizations can learn and engage with the new generation of employees using social media which are relevant and natural to this demographic group. However, we prefer to think in terms of the V(irtual)-Gen, because it is not only young people who use these social media (as good research has shown). The V-Gen even embrace people like myself who have to use these media to collaborate across time zones etc, but are best characterised by two pastiches of modern day working, Meet Charlie and Meet Jessica, referred to on this site before.

So, given these arguments, I was really pleased that we had two updated cases from our report that showed how these organizations had moved on since we first visited them and how they illustrated these three arguments beautifully. Ruth Ward, who looks after knowledge management in Allen and Overy, a major UK legal firm, demonstrated how a firm can enhance its knowledge creation, sharing and dissemination through the use of an integrated portal that gave employees access to a range of Web 2.0 social media, including wikis, blogs, feed readers, etc. One of her key points was that if a staid, risk averse occupation like lawyers find these media attractive, then anyone will. I’m sure that this was said tongue in cheek to illustrate the point that it is not only Gen Y that use these media, but the comment led to an important discussion about the blockages to change and how to overcome these.

Graham White, HR Director of Westminster Council, who has worked with us before then gave a beautiful illustration and illustrated presentation on how the Council’s engagement with its employees through online staff discussion forums has been transformed in important ways. Although there were some teething problems in getting staff to use the forums, they have turned out to be one of the principal ways of helping staff to exercise their voice on matters ranging from ‘who stole my milk’ (which generated lots of replies) to the understanding of the need for downsizing. On this latter issue, Graham had tracked through an online survey the extent to which employees understood the reasoning behind certain critical decisions connected with public sector finance, which, according to his data, has increased markedly over the space of the year as a result of the online discussion forums.

Both cases have something in common, however, in that the users of these media were not Gen Y but people of all ages who either needed to or were minded to use online forms of communication. To my mind, these examples spell out some of the dangers in talking in terms of demographic or age related terms. Yes, it may be a technology that younger people as early adopters wish to claim some degree of psychological ownership over , but network effects will eventually mean that the more these technologies are used by people of all ages, the more they will be used and have to be used. So the lesson here is that HR practitioners may want to get ahead of the curve to shape its use and to take advantage of the benefits it will inevitably bring.
The event showed there were lots of practitioners unaware of what is going on – less than six months ago, but still the majority in the audience were not leading the charge (maybe that was why they were there?). More research and effort needed?


Jackie said...

I was led here from Jon Ingham's post at HR Zone and glad to have arrived! I love this post Graeme. I love that it is written by someone in a role like yours because some people need the "gravitas" that an academic professor gives to what seems to be a frivolous and irrelevant topic to them. I am speaking more and more to groups of business people about the importance of engaging in web 2. - whether personally or as a business and will add this post to a link of references.

Jackie Cameron said...

I don't know why blogger is being difficult in not linking to me. To prove that I do use social media my blog is at and I am @ jackiecameron1 at Twitter