Friday, 20 November 2009

Much Shorter Reflections on the CIPD Annual Conference and Engagement

Picking up on the previous blog, a key theme of conference was employee engagement, which ran through a number of sessions I attended. Perhaps the most important was the presentation of the MacLeod Report by no less than David MacLeod himself and Nita Clarke. I've previously expressed a mild form of disappointment with this work during an earlier blog on Saturday 18th July, to which I want to return in the spirit of critical friendship. David McLeod encouraged this during his presentation, so I'll try to oblige.

To focus on the positive, firstly, these two advocates have turned into evangelists for their work and cause, and this can only be to the benefit of the British economy and for HR professionals seeking ways in which they can add strategic value. Secondly, they have also enlisted and marshalled an impressive set of fellow travellers and evidence to support their cause. Thirdly, they have produced a highly readable and informative report, which they outlined with vigour and dedication during their presentation.

However, they still have not yet nailed down the concept for my liking, nor shown how this consultancy-generated idea is an advance on what academics have been talking about for years. Indeed, listening to the presentation, a harsh reading might question - what's new! If you have any sense of history in the field, you could justifiably argue that the same message and mode of enquiry has re-surfaced at least five times in since the 1920s and 1930s, beginning with the reporting of some dubious human relations experiments by the arch-evangelist, gifted self-publicist and, some would claim, charlatan, Elton Mayo (I've written about this in the Managing People book) and most recently popularised by Peters and Waterman in the early 1980s when they began the culture-excellence movement with some sketchy research on so-called excellent companies. As many readers will know, half of these excellent companies experienced a significant fall from grace five years after they did their initial research. You can guess where I'm going with using only 'excellent' case study companies as the basis for providing long term predictions - not very clever, and a trap the McLeod report is in danger of falling into.

That said, just like In Search of Excellence, we should be careful of throwing out the baby with the bathwater, as some academics did and are likely to do with the MacLeod report. Instead, we should be building on its positives and its capturing of the zeitgeist. What David MacLeod needs to do, contrary to his dismissal of fifty-plus definitions as a way of avoiding the problem, is to begin to get some definitional clarity on the concept. For it is only by doing so that we will be able to measure engagement's impact and understand its drivers. Paul Sparrow's group at Lancaster are beginning to do just that; so are we in some forthcoming papers, where we have begun to disentangle the conflation of engagement into four related but distinct sets of ideas about what workers can engage with (and, just as important, measure them with valid and reliable scales with known drivers and outcomes) .

In the corporate reputations book I examined a number of consulting approaches to the concept and found them to be inconsistent in what people were supposed to be engaged with and just plain wrong in confusing correlations with prediction - are engaged workers likely to create high performance organisations, or are high performance organisations likely to create the conditions for engaged workers?. These are not just academic niceties but have important practical implications. Unfortunately, David MacLeod's presentation gave the impression of falling into into both traps.

To conclude, we are now at the stage that engagement is too important a concept for academics to dismiss as yet another consultancy-generated fad. It has a lot going for it and needs to be treated a little more rigourously; otherwise the MacLeod Report will loose a lot of its relevance - just like its predecessors!

9 comments:

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marry said...

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