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!

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Reflections on the CIPD Annual Conference and The Future of HR

I've just spend an enjoyable and highly informative two days attending the CIPD annual conference in Manchester as one of their guests. The invitation to spend time with the senior team of the CIPD was, in part, a result of my involvement as a judge on the technology and HR awards. So, first of all, I've want to congratulate the team at Intercontinental Hotels for their leadership learning portal and two extremely able guys at Beds and Bars - both of whom read this blog - who have created something new and practical in the field of e-HR and Web 2.0 with very limited resources and good use of iPhones.

My involvement, along with some good academic colleagues, was also to provide academic input and feedback into the CIPD's future initiatives and suggest ways in which the academy and HR professionals can get the best from each other. Again, this was a very welcome and excellent initiative on behalf of the CIPD. So with this last point in mind, I suggest that one of our most important jobs is to act as 'critical friends', though there are additional roles for us in helping contribute to 'thought leadership' (I'm not keen on that term), as advocates of rigour as well as relevance in producing actionable knowledge about HR , and in helping ask the right questions for the CIPDs future research and knowledge agenda. On this last point, for the most part we're typically dealing with 'wicked' problems for which there is no real solution, programme or end point; instead we are only able to resolve inevitable tensions, especially at the strategic level (see earlier post on leadership and negative capabilities) by distributing ownership to those people who have either a better grip on the issues or who have to live with the consequences.

So with the critical friend role in mind, I would like to offer some comments on two very important initiatives launched by the CIPD and one that they actively support. The first was the launch of the HR Profession Roadmap, which is one of the most important exercises in competence mapping and building HR capability ever undertaken - at least as far as I'm aware - (download here). The launch breakfast meeting was poorly attended because of heavy rain in Manchester but deserves greater publicity (which I'm sure it will get) because of its potential impact on shaping thinking and practice in HR and building current and future capabilities of the profession. My advice is that any organisation seeking to build HR capacity, and there can't be many not seeking to do so, would be well advised to take advantage of the thinking, frameworks and evidence produced by this project team. I'm working with a number of organisations on capacity building in HR projects and I know I'll be using these standards to help build strategic leadership capacity among senior HR people. Which is where I want to begin my critical friendship!

In a piece of work we completed recently on developing a model of strategic leadership for HR directors in NHS Scotland, we cautioned senior HR directors on the limitations of 'atomistic lists of competences. To paraphrase Henry Mintzberg, even when joined up in a circle (or triangle or other geometric shape)', competence models do not provide testable models of relationships among the complex range of factors that produce effective strategic leadership in HR. This is an important cautionary note for practitioners because it is really only by devising causal models (or, dare I say it, theories) of effective leadership that you can truly evaluate the impact of competences, knowledge, attitudes, EQ/ IQ etc) on performance. These causal models should show how,why and what people bring to a job, the styles of leadership they choose, the attitudes and behaviours they demonstrate, etc., result in effective performance (itself a contestable issue). In addition, practitioners also need to understand the complex range of so-called moderating factors which influence this line of sight. By moderating factors I mean how market or stakeholder context, business models of how to create value, values and leadership aspirations, HR architectures, and the capacity of the HR team to create and leverage networks for innovation, combine to influence the process of strategic leadership in HR.

Sarah Miles, Organizational Effectiveness and Development Director, and her team at the CIPD have done an excellent job in bringing us so far with the new mapping exercise but were ready to admit they don't have all of the answers. If they are able to build on what they have achieved so far by devising better causal models and setting out the full range of contextual factors organisations need to take into account when implementing them, they will do the profession an even greater favour - a direction we're certainly travelling in.

The second major initiative, discussed by Jackie Orme and Lee Sears at the conference and on a recent CIPD podcast, was the results of the Next Generation HR Study. Again this initiative is extremely important because it aims to build a picture of future strategic leadership in HR based on research into what leading firms in the UK are thinking and doing. You can read about it in People Management in the November 19th edition or download reports/listen to discussions from the above links, but basically the project has highlighted three trajectories along which organisations are moving - creating greater organisational agility for sustainable performance, (re)building a culture of authenticity and trust, and demonstrating a balanced approach to risk management.

Again, I'm really pleased to see this work because it is important for the profession to understand its role in resolving the tensions created by shaping the innovation or 'agility' agenda while focusing on the legitimacy agenda. We've been researching and writing about these agendas and tensions for some time now, and these have been the subject of a number of posts, our book on corporate reputations and HR, a forthcoming one with Ron Burke and Cary Cooper on corporate reputations, some academic papers, and a new chapter on HR's role in contributing to better staff, innovation and financial governance. Our approach has been to discuss them in terms of the wealth creation role of corporate governance (innovation by doing different things and doing things differently) while managing the wealth protection role of governance (developing corporate reputations for being excellent and trustworthy employers, providing effective and ethical leadership and governance, and exercising corporate social responsibility).

In other words, both the CIPD and our agendas seem to converge on issues that strategic HR leaders need to address, which is both comforting for us and, if they ever needed it, a degree of validation for the CIPD Next Generation project. Furthermore, I suspect our agendas are likely to become even more important because HR has not only to find ways of adding strategic value but also contributing longer term reputational value to the nowadays somewhat tarnished business sector and its senior leadership teams (at least in the eyes of many). It also has to find ways of contributing to public value in an under-threat public sector, which is having to deal with decreases in public spending because parts of the financial sector have been unable to manage the tensions between the wealth creation and wealth protection roles of governance.

I'm going to leave the third sets of comments on the engagement agenda and the McLeod report to a separate post. This one is getting far too long!

Saturday, 14 November 2009

Putting People Back into HR Strategy

My apologies for the time I've had off from posting. I'vebeen very busy participating in some events which have provided me with excellent examples of how to 'put people back into strategy', the subject of some recent posts

I've recently written a paper with Paul Gollan and Kerry Grigg on HR strategy, suggesting that a strategy-as-action approach has much to teach us as practitioners and academics about strategic management in general and developing workable HR strategies in particular (see the strategy-in-action website). Over the last couple of weeks I've taken part in two health service-related events which have demonstrated the benefits of a strategy-in-action perspective, although participants didn't use this label as such.

The first was a large event run by the leadership team of Dumfries and Galloway Health Board, facilitated by an ex-postgraduate student of mine, Sharon Millar, and colleagues from the CIPD, Drs John McGurk and Jill Millar. This event was one of a series they have run aimed at developing workable strategies for building dynamic capabilities in the health board as it moves closer towards partnership working. What was impressive about this process was the volume, intensity and numbers of people involved in the leadership and strategy-making process. In other words, the emphasis at this event and the others which preceded it was very much on strategising and human resource development as much as strategic content.

The second was an event I participated in yesterday, run by the Allied Health Professions of Scotland to develop an integrated professional and educational strategy for a group of key workers in the NHS in Scotland. Drawing on a methodology to creating a consensus around the principles and content of such a strategy, it was fascinating to watch how they used inputs from internal and external speakers to develop a progressively more refined series of consensus statements. The process was driven by discussions during previous events where questions about what mattered to staff were posed by about 180 participants at all levels from all Allied Health Professions in all healthboards in Scotland. These questions were then turned over to 'experts' to write research-based papers on the issues raised by participants (of which I was one). During the actual consensus event at Murrayfield Conference Centre in Edinburgh, experts fed back their findings, which were fully discussed by the conference participants and their views were summarised in the form of a progressive series of consensus statements by a panel who acted as facilitators rather than directors of the process. Though the process may not be without its flaws, as a methodology of developing strategy for a group of rather disparate set of professional groupings - around which there was a strong need for consensus - it was a real lesson in how to put people back into strategy and in how to use the strategic journey to develop workable strategies that have much more chance of buy-in.

There are important lessons from these events not only for organisations in healthcare, which are dominated by the need to gain the consent of influential professions to survive, but also for the private sector. For example, I'm currently being asked to think about how a large multinational organisation gain insight into values that stakeholders can understand, agree on and draw on to shape their future direction and current actions. I think there are lessons from these two projects that help address this question.

Saturday, 10 October 2009

Explaining Dissatisfaction with Senior Leaders

I'm faced with a little problem on a major research project we are conducting, and that is how to understand why staff in a public sector environment find their senior leadership teams to be disconnected, more interested in politics and government targets and not particularly focused on clients. It's also the subject of a 'provocative' commentary I'm writing about on the need for a leadership 2.0 for Skills for Health in the UK.

As you can imagine, senior leadership teams see the problem quite differently from so called followers. They see themselves as caught up in having to resolve, often conflicting demands from a variety of stakeholders, including the increasing need to meet public value objectives, and having to make tough decisions about resource allocation, which inevitably clash with the single-minded aims of powerful professional groups such as physicians and other clinical grades.

I’ve tackled this issue before in an earlier blog on a report Keith Grint and I did on the 'wicked problems' of leadership in the public sector for the Scottish Government. In that report, the issue of distributed leadership (DL) as an important new(ish) theory was raised as a possible panacea, and such is the head of steam behind it in organizations such as the NHS and other public sector bodies in the UK and elsewhere, it needs to be treated seriously, whatever it might mean. Peter Gronn, an ex-colleague at Glasgow University, has written extensively about this issue, and he often provides the starting point for a stimulating conversation. And he certainly did that at an excellent symposium at the British Academy of Management in September on this issue, which attempted to get under the skin of DL through four insightful presentations that have caused me to re-visit my recent thinking on the subject.

Jackie Ford from Bradford University pointed out that DL has come to the rescue of our unrealistic implicit theories of hero managers in the public sector, point out from her research what most public sector senior managers often feel, i.e. frustration and inordinate levels of stress because they have so little autonomy as a result of agendas being set for the over which they have no control. Leaders, as it were, become arenas for competing narratives and expectations, which they often seek to deflect by laying off responsibility to the centre, or, increasingly look to the language and promises of distributed leadership to others throughout the organization to help them resolve.

This was pretty much the message of Jon Gosling and Richard Bolden from Exeter following their recent research into leadership in Higher education. They found that distributed leadership existed in the sense that certain responsibilities and decision-making authority were delegated but only within bounds, and that power remained at the top, often linked to control over key resources. They argued that there were four dominant discourses of leadership and DL – as an alternative to management and administration (re-labelling), as a bridge between previous collegial styles and new theories of executive behaviour, as a reality (or appearance of reality) towards encouraging responsible followership, and as a rhetorical device to draw attention to some problems and solutions but mask others.

Annie Pye, also from Exeter saw ownership as an important missing link, reflecting Barbara Kellerman’s call for responsible followership as a way of thinking about distributed leadership, often operationalised in simple ways such as going the extra mile to help others or offer suggestions on how to improve things. However, in the private sector at least, this was less likely to be the case (unless you worked for a John Lewis organization that shared responsibility, ownership and rewards among all staff) because of the increasing gap between upper and lower eschalons.

The session was opened by a good colleague of mine, Paul Iles, from Leeds Metrapolitan University. His contribution was to set out some useful two-by-two matrices for comparing and contrasting the various features of leadership. Two of the most useful were to see leadership in terms of being a planned or emergent phenomenon and essentially an individual or collective phenmenon, with celebrity leadership and tradition leader development typically planned and individualistic while DL was typically emergent and collective. One of the best examples of this perspective of DL is work by David Buchanan and colleagues on the UK healthcare system, demonstrating that, under certain circumstances, 'no-one in charge' can lead to highly positive outcomes critical areas such as cancer care. However, another matrix has provided me with a perspective to criticise much of this work - that is to see leadership and the assumptions underpinning it either in rational-objectivist- unitary terms or in political/ pluralist terms. The first assumes that organizations among other things are essentially characterised by common cause and common spirit, amenable to rational solutions such as leadership and sophisticated HR. The second is more traditional in industrial relations teaching, seeing organizations made up of legitimate but competing interests, which frequently come into conflict, and are usually only resolved through compromise and negotiation to allow everyone gets something of their aims.

I've recently used this last perspective to provoke an arguably more realisitic discussion on the potential of leadership in healthcare to incorporate doctors into management, a popular solution in the UK NHS but one fraught with difficulty. This is because many hold a pluralist perspective and seek to remain a 'loyal' but necessary opposition to ensure that patient care is not submerged in the welter of politically-inspired changes and financially-driven targets. More of this in a later post. The main point, however, is that much of leadership's popularity is rooted in optimistic but innappropriate assumptions about organizations. Criticisms of this arguably misplaced faith in unitarism used to be the recieved wisdom thirty years ago in a more pluralist Britain before Thatcher, when opposition to power was sees in a more positive light, and when social engineering through culture management, HR and the 'cult of the customer' to discipline employees was less prevalent. Are we about to return to these pluralist assumptions with calls for a new leadership 2.0? I don't think so, but the zeitgeist is changing. The 'romance with leaders' is definitely on the wain - even in football, the subject of a forthcoming post.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Evaluating the Impact of HR by Evaluating the Signals they Send

There has been an enormous amount of academic and consulting research on the impact of so-called high performance work systems (HPWS) on organizational performance, which has generated great interest in complementary ‘bundles’ of usually high commitment HR practices, including comprehensive recruitment and selection procedures, incentive compensation, performance management, extensive employee involvement, training and career development . Much of this work has linked the mere existence of such practices, particularly when integrated with an organizations business strategy of business model, to positive organizational outcomes. This work has been used by by academics and maybe should be used by practitioners to evidence the credibility and impact of the HR function through the substantial benefits resulting from high commitment HR.

However, as anyone who has been the recipient of the mismatch between the ‘people are our most important asset’ and the actual implementation of such practices will tell you, it is not the existence of such practices that are important but the consistency and vigour with which they are implemented, whether or not employees actually expect and value what they deliver and whether their experience of these bundles of practices is a coherent, beneficial and fair one. This was the subject of a symposium we took part in at the British Academy of Management’s HR in Healthcare track, the papers in which were all characterised by a simple but powerful idea, initially put forward by Greg Bamber from Monash. He drew on thinking from a chapter in a forthcoming handbook from Sage on human resource management which suggested that what is important about high performance work systems is not their existence but the signals they send to employees and whether these signals are interpreted by staff as strong - intense and consistent - or weak. This is based on so-called signalling theory: strategies, policies and practices are really signals and it is employee perceptions and behaviours resulting from these signals that really predicts organizational outcomes.

Our paper on the employer branding in the Scottish healthcare system could certainly be interpreted in this light. Like much of the other research in healthcare, re-interpreted into the language of signalling theory, we found that staff in healthcare often exhibit low levels of identification and/or engagement with their employers, despite the existence of well intentioned HPWS. This is due, in part at least, to the weak and mixed messages they receive from senior leadership teams, which sometimes see themselves as the 'meat in the sandwich' between at least two forces. The first are government initiatives and targets (often developed to satisfy the needs for politicians and the media to tell and sell simple stories to the general public and the media that shapes their interests). The second is the professional power of certain clinical groups to block their reforms. These mixed and weak messages were core themes of Greg’s paper on the key role of ward managers in fostering high performance and, indeed, as pointed out by Stephen Procter, the chair of the symposium, one of the themes of our own paper.

Perhaps the most demonstration of the impact of signals and HPWS was made by Jody Hoffer Gittell from the US, who has written extensively in the field of relational coordination for academics and practitioners (see her website for a full explanation of her ideas). Jody's paper was, for me at least, one of the most impressive of the conference because of its rigour and relevance to practitioners. She and her colleagues put together a very well constructed study that demonstrated a strong and positive relationship between staff reports of their experiences of HPWS in healthcare and positive organizational outcomes, which included, among other measures, variations in patient experiences and actual results of a particular kind of surgical operation in different hospitals. The line of sight was not a direct one but mediated by staff perceptions and experience of other team members' levels of collaboration and relational coordination. Her findings suggested that a small increase in the experience and reporting of relational coordination among healthcare teams led to proportionately very large increase in patient outcomes. The importance of relational coordination, one key measure of social capital, however, was less apparent among physicians, who tended to be less impressed by the idea or were reported to be less involved by others in relational coordination. This could be put down to structural problems, ie. they operated across a number of hospitals and were less integrated into hospital-based teams. Or perhaps maybe because of their lack of professional training in such issues? One of the implications of the study is that by having physicians more integrated into the care teams in hospitals, so sending signals about the importance of relational coordination, such a change would pay off markedly in key patient outcomes.

These ideas have important practical consequences for HR and assessing the impact of HR. Not only should we concerned with the design of HR strategies and architectures but also the signals they send, how they are interpreted and what intervening factors influence the messages received. Our argument is that there are two key ones, which don’t require a great deal of rocket science to understand. The first lies in the skill, will and, importantly, the opportunity (removing blockages and introducing enabling structures) of line managers to implement HPWS. The second is for senior leaders to signal and follow through on the messages of HPWS and, increasingly, on higher values in more ethical, innovative and caring forms of leadership 2.0 (see earlier post on management 2.0).

Friday, 11 September 2009

Employee Impact on Corporate Reputations and Web 2.0

I spent a very pleasant day on Wednesday with the HR team of Standard Life, one of Europe's major insurance and asset management companies as part of their 'Big Conversation' on the future of HR in the organization. It's great to see companies like this engaging in a serious way with outsiders who can bring something to their conversation to help them reflect on what they do and, hopefully, do things differently. The aim of the day was to help them enhance their own reputations and that of the company, and this was certainly what my co-presenter, Bill McEwen from the Gallup Organization, did.

One of the benefits that good consultants can bring to the table is often large data sets, which Bill certainly had at his fingertips. His theme was the relationship between employee brand advocacy and a range of customer satisfaction/ enagagement scores, which he demonstrated through close correlations. It was also interesting to see his data on the low levels of brand advocacy among government and financial services employees. However, perhaps the most powerful messages he put across were contained in two little stories. One was of the multiplicative effects of employee advocacy and engagement, e.g. great hotel buildings with disengaged employees equal zero customer satisfaction, according to Ritz Carlton's CEO. The other was the story of Dave Carroll, which appeared in Forbes magazine. To quote Bill:

'Dave Carroll was sitting in a window seat on a United plane at O'Hare airport in Chicago when he looked out and saw baggage handlers hurling guitar cases (Dave and his colleagues' guitars) through the air. He pointed it out to flight attendants; they responded with indifference. When he arrived in Nebraska, he found that his instrument had been smashed. After months of complaining to the airline and getting no response, he wrote and performed a song, "United Breaks Guitars," and posted it on YouTube. It was viewed more than 3 million times in its first 10 days'.

Bill's point was that it was the United flight attendant indifference and the indifference of the follow up staff that has caused probably United a great deal in terms of loss of reputation - a great deal more than the investment in effort to promote better customer service among flight attendants and/ or the $3-400 it would have cost United to replace the broken guitars and prevented the posting.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Talent Management, Football Teams and Metaphors

Following up on the last blog on investment in human capital and social capital, and the example of football teams, I was taken with a little article in this week's edition of the Economist (August 22nd, 2009, p. 32) on the economics of Real Madrid's strategy for re-gaining their competitive position in world football by recruiting a new clutch of gallaticos - a metaphor for what many companies have done in the past and, apparently, one that finds support in the Harvard Business School study by Jose Luis Nueno of the soccer industry in emerging markets such as the USA, Japan and China.

For those people less engaged by football (soccer) than I am, Real Madrid have spent many millions this summer in re-applying a strategy first tried nearly ten years ago by their then president, Florentino Perez. He has has just been re-employed to help the club regain their former pre-eminent status in Spanish and world soccer from their arch-rivals Barcelona, who, interestingly, have followed much more of a 'grow your own', social capital approach to world domination of soccer.

The Real Madrid strategy is not just based on the ability of the new gallaticos to turn their considerable individual talents into results but to generate merchandising revenue in the way David Beckham did during the first wave of this strategy. It is also based on the ability of Perez to convince banks in Spain to supply sufficient credit to a club operating in one of the worst hit countries in Europe in terms of GDP growth and decline. Finally, much lower levels of income tax on players coming to Spain than in other European countries helps explain that the real costs to Real Madrid in paying wages is lower.

The point of the article is to contrast 'cheque book power' with Barcelona's largely 'home grown' strategy as a route to success. Metaphors, however, such as make or buy strategies are partial - they hide as much as they reveal. What the article fails to mention in Barcelona's strategy of building social capital not only through its attempts to create 'bonds' among the team by its development strategy but by its building of 'bridges' in the community it serves and the wider world through its ethical approach to promotion. So, like all, rather lazy, single factor theories of strategic success, of which sports team metaphors are among the most popular, are likely to be found wanting. Perhaps the secret lies in complementarity among different forms of capital investment. It certainly lies in developing better mid-range theories of success in industries like soccer; otherwise we will end up repeating this make or buy argument in football, which has a long history going back a century or so but has generated little light in what makes for sustainable success.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Which Counts More for Performance: Human or Social Capital?

We've been doing quite a bit of work recently (one of my PhD students, Stacey Bushfield and I) on the drivers of innovation in public sector organizations. These drivers are often described in tripartite terms - human capital (broadly individual competences), social capital (bridging and bonding capital, and trust) and organizational capital (the non-human capital left in the organization when people walk out of the door at night). And this is the basis of the model we are testing in the NHS in Scotland, which, like many industries, invests enormous sums of money on talent management.

So, it is with interest I read about the recent investments in football stars in the English Premier League and the attempts by one of Barclays subsidiaries to pay almost obscene amounts of money to recruit staff from US competitors. It seems that some organizations and industries' strategic recipes are based heavily on human capital and hiring in stars. And, where they go, others seem to follow.

However, this strategy for banks and football teams and the unreflective imitation by others seems to fly in the face of good research as Jeff Pfeffer has recently reminded us in citing a series of articles by Boris Groysberg from Harvard on the problems of hiring stars. He did so in his book with Robert Sutton on Dangerous Nonsense, but here's a recent summary of his arguments if you haven't read it. Worth reading and reflecting on because they demonstrate the importance of social capital and its interaction with human capital, which most most of us know about but some forget in committing the fundamental attributional error - attributing too much cause to individuals and not enough to the context. So why don't firms and football teams get it?

I recently watched my local football team in the Scottish Premier League draw with and beat two English Premier league clubs (actually one was recently demoted, which tells you something). My club cost less than £500,000 to assemble in total, which was less than the cost of the cheapest player on the demoted side and about a hundreth of the cost of assembling both Premier League sides. Cheap shot or a cheap lesson here for talent management?

Thursday, 13 August 2009

Living the Brand at Abercrombie & Fitch

On what has turned out to be a very long journey back from Chicago to Scotland, I found myself killing time in a New Jersey mall after an unplanned ovenight stop at Newark Airport. I chanced to go into Abercrombie and Fitch's store, by far the most popular in the whole mall as far as I could tell. For those less familiar with fashion retailing, A&F is a top casual luxury American brand popular with young college students, so I'm not really sure what I was doing in there. Just a few hours later, I was amused and interested to read in the airport lounge at Newark a BBC news a story about A&F in London, which has just been found wanting in its application of its employer brand. A young, highly qualified woman, Riam Dean, had been 'forced to work in the stockroom after wearing a cardigan to cover her prosthetic arm'. The industrial tribunal which heard her case 'is satisfied the reason for the claimant's dismissal was her breach of the 'look policy' in wearing a cardigan. Throughout the hearing A & F's London flagship store management claimed they had an inclusive diverity policy.

A couple of points emerge from this case. The first is just how important decisions taken by a local management team can impact on a brand. This item was number three in the national UK news, and may result, like the charges levelled against the Gap and Nike a number of years ago, in costing this company very dearly in terms of reputational capital. The second, slightly more subtle point, is that it illustrates the problems local managers have in interpreting the different strategic logics discussed in previous posts. I can well imagine an agonised discussion/debate taking place either in the head of the manager who took the decision to put the girl in the stockroom, or maybe between a group of managers/ supervisors in the store over the logic of distinctiveness (most fashion brands feel the need to have their staff 'live the brand' in terms of their appearance) and the logic of legitimacy.

At 3.00 am this morning my colleagues who were also stuck in the airport with me (Continental Airlines certainly did not live up to its brand claim for satisfied customers) were debating the merits of sustainable management and corporate social responsibility. Our sleepy conclusions were that new standards of legitimacy will probably win in the end in spite of the edicts of Milton Friedmann on the unitary role of business, forcing firms to become more ethical in their approach to doing business. Not easy to square, but firms like A & F had better eat some humble pie to recover their reputation in the UK at least for being a 'cool brand'.

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

New Perspectives on Engagement

Another wonderfully illuminating session from the AOM conference, which most consultants and HR managers interested in engagement would have found very beneficial. To my mind this session represented all that is good in academic research and made up for what I've not found in any of the consulting work on the topic. It dispelled commonly held myths about the 'engagement industry', helped define what engagement was, provided robust and logical models of the how and why of engagement, and provided some great evidence from extremely tight studies of 'how to get engagement and keep people engaged'.

Here's a precis of their blurb (I've only changed the tense, changed a few pieces of academic jargon and added in a few parenthetical comments).

'Because of claims from both research and practice that engaged employees result in competitive advantages for today’s organizations, researchers have focused a great deal of their attention on identifying drivers of engagement that could suggest levers for managerial control. The symposium presented four papers that expanded our understanding of key antecedents which help employees become and remain engaged in the workplace. The first paper, by Sabine Sonnentag et al., from Germany was a longitudinal examination of how job demands combine with off-the-job psychological detachment to predict employee engagement. Results suggested that periods of psychological detachment (mentally “switching off”) during non-work hours reduced or eliminated the negative relationship between job demands and engagement.

The second paper, by Eean Crawford et al., from the University of Florida was a meta-analysis (a survey of surveys) that clarified ambiguities concerning the relationship of job demands with engagement in the job demands-resources model (this is definitely one that practitioners should get to grips with). Meta-analytic estimates revealed that job resources (autonomy, control etc) had consistently positive relationships with engagement, while job demands appraised as hindrances have negative relationships with engagement and, job demands appraised as challenges have positive relationships with engagement.

The third paper, was by Jill Waymire Paine from Columbia (was an absolute gem). It examined multi-level data from five organizations predicting employee engagement in organizational change initiatives. Arguments for change and followers’ regulatory focus (whether they were risk taking optimists, or risk averse pessimists) were most predictive of employee engagement in change initiatives. This paper had really important implications of how leaders management change and keep people engaged while doing so, rather than inducing resistance or cynicism.

The fourth paper, by Ronald Bledow et al., from the University of Geissen, examined daily fluctuations!!! in employee engagement and found that positive workplace events interact with social and personal resources to predict daily levels of employee engagement'. Again, this work brings into question the stability over time of a concept such as engagement.

Link these papers to the one by Balain and Sparrow reviewed in an earlier blog and you begin to get a far better understanding of what engagement is than anything that I've come across so far. I'm certainly going to use them in my research and consulting, and others may want to do the same.

More on Talent Management from the Academy

I'm doing a new chapter with a practitioner colleague of mine for a book on Global Talent Management edited by Hugh Scullion and Dave Collings, so it was with great interest I attended probably the best session for me so far. This was chaired by Paul Sparrow and summarised by Chris Brewster, with some top class presentations in between, all of which will feature in a special issue of the Journal of World Business later this year.

I'm not going to try to summarise the papers as some can be found on various websites, including the opening literature review by Randall Schuler from Rutgers and Ibraiz Tarique. Of the four papers presented two were of most interest for me. The first was by Hugh Scullion, Paul Sparrow and Elaine Farndale on the the role of Corporate HR departments in global talent management. They argued that what they did and how effective they were depended to a great extent on the degree of corporate control or decentralisation of the organization, or in our terms, how the organization addressed the integration-responsiveness logics, which maps onto my earlier posts on this topic on Negative Capabilities. In trying to develop a framework for helping academics and practitioners think more systematically about global talent management, I think they have come up with something of real interest which is both empirically based and shows important connections among the four roles that corporate HR departments play or should play. These four roles are:

1. Champions of Process - systems monitors, or in our terms guardians of corporate integration
2. Guardians of Culture - in our terms, ensuring integration and legitimacy through spreading the message of corporate values
3. Managers of Internal Receptivity - preparing the organization and its business units to facilitate and accept mobility among leaders, and
4. Managers of Networks of Leaders and Corporate Intelligence

They argued employer branding was the binding tie between 1 and 2, with which I readily agree. We've discussed this in earlier posts as employer branding following a logic of similarity and legitimacy through help build and disseminate shared values. However, there are a couple of problems with the framework, one of which was picked up by Paul Evans, who pointed out the corporate HQ perspective they had on global talent management, a view evidenced by the frequent mention that decentralised multinationals experienced the greatest problems in implementing global talent management. This, of course, depends on where you are standing, because the interests of business units are sometimes in conflict with the interests of the corporation as a whole. And, as Paul Evans rightly mentioned, Web 2.0 technology is facilitating a much greater bottom up approach to talent management, which is not in the gift of corporate HQ to control. I would also add that our discussion of employer branding needing to reflect authenticity and privileging the local (see earlier post) also implies a perspective that global talent management is not something that corporate HR departments should necessarily control in the way they often do - in other words, decentralisation of some decisions on talent is not always a problem, rather the reverse.

So, Paul, Hugh and Elaine, if you read this blog(I know we discussed that following the questions you may have to rethink your model a little) you may want to take into account some of these points in revisting your model. But even if you didn't it is certainly a help for HR practitioners in multinationals in giving them a useful framework to think about their jobs in relation to talent management.

A second paper from some Finnish and Swedish colleagues presented by Kristina Makela which was also very interesting examined the question of who made it into the talent pool and why. Apart from the obvious reasons connected with performance appraisal, which was a rear view mirror, 'on-line' search', they found three explanations, which were more forward looking, 'off-line' reasons - cultural and institutional distance (the less that this was between corporate HQ and individuals, the more likely they were selected), 'homophilly' (the more like the existing talent pool, the more likely to be chosen) and network centrality (were they key nodes in the organizational networks). Some worrying findings here!

Saturday, 8 August 2009

Picking up on Negative Capabilities and Talent Management

I know as academics we're not supposed to look for confirmatory evidence to support our views, but it's rather difficult not to feel pleased when some ideas you have just written about seem to be supported by what is going on in the big bad world of talent management.

I've just attended another session at the Academy of Management on 'Developing Top Executive Talent; How Employers Do it' featuring three presentations by the heads of HR/ Talent management of three American multinationals - GE, Boeing and Sara Lee. Common themes of these presentations were:
  1. The linking of executive development to key strategic capabilities and the distinctiveness logic, which was also expressed in the exclusive approach to talent management focusing on the top 20% of performers
  2. But the need to connect and assess executive development to the expression of core, corporate values. Indeed corporateness and corporate values were core themes in all three presentations but never fully explained as to why. GEs performance-values matrix seemed to sum up the way these organizations attempt to reconcile these two dimensions, with leaders measured not only on how the perform but also on the extent to which they express core values. Indeed, they seemed to be pretty ruthless about 'removing' (their word) high performers who didn't live up to the values ('would you want these people in GE' was the question?), whereas they were willing to give second chances to low performers who expressed the core values.

When questioned on this, all three suggested that the strategies weren't forever and that they frequently amended the values to reflect changing environments. In other words, strategic direction was more learning than planning, though the planning word did feature in their presentations - implying even these giants of the corporate world 'muddled through', to some extent at least.

Two further noticeable features were:

1. the desire and reality of all three to focus on developing rather than hiring talent, especially in the engineering divisions of GE and in Boeing. Leadership development in the core businesses was based on taking talented engineers and subjecting them to intensive and extensive development opportunities - in other words seeing leadership and management as an extension of 'craft' and not as something which was separate from and above the core business of engineering and manufacturing quality products, and

2. that sustainability, the core theme of the AOM conference, was not even mentioned in the three presentations. Is this a case of the Academy leading practice, or failing to be in touch with the reality of business?

Finally, the Boeing case highlighted a potential problem in the development-oriented approach to talent management. Everything they seemed to do was aimed at creating strong internal cultures and strategic capabilities based on promotion and development from within. Yet much of the research suggests that innovation often requires the injection of fresh blood and ideas from outside. The Boeing VP for talent management didn't seem to recognise the irony of this philosophy with her need to visit GE at Crotonville and Harvard to develop herself to develop others!

Blogging for Management Academics and Practitioners

I participated in an excellent professional development workshop at the Academy of Management's Annual Conference yesterday on 'Blogging for Management Scholars' run by CV Harquail of Authentic Organizations and colleagues. This day long workshop focused on the reasons to blog, how to read blogs, how to participate and, for beginners and experienced users alike, how construct a blog using Wordpress, probably the best platform for this social medium. Though it was aimed at academics, I would say that it applied equally well to reflective management practitioners and consultants who are interested in blogging.
A blog has been created - InsightstoAction- which contains all of the information to get started and a really useful list of academic blogs created by management and organizational scholars, some of whom I met yesterday for the first time. There were some particularly useful sessions, tips and illuminating discussions on not only 'how to' blog but, just as important, why to blog and how to engage with your intended audience. I learned that my blog posts were among the longest, which is rarely a recipe for any form of communications, let alone one that is noted for brevity. In part these long blogs are written for my benefit, so there was a lesson for me in being a little more focused on who I'm writing for. So no more 2500 word posts.
One session that helped me think more reflectively about my own blog was a free writing exercise intended to help author construct the 'About Me' page, one of the most important features on all blogs since it helps convince readers that you are worth listening to and engaging with. This exercise was based on writing to a series of prompts and ran along the following lines:

  1. If your blog were a room, what kind of room would it be? A lecture room, seminar room, kitchen, etc' - describe the room, the furniture, the layout, decor etc.
  2. In that room, what do you want to talk about or discuss and why do you want to talk about it?
  3. What role do you see yourself mainly playing in that room? Director/ expert, conceiver of new ideas, translator of ideas, coach, collaborator? Which words describe your role? And which are most appropriate for what you are trying to do with your blog?
So many thanks to CV Harquail, Jordi Comas and colleagues for an excellent session and I can thoroughly recommend InsightsToActions to anyone interested in management blogs and blogging

Saturday, 1 August 2009

New Futures for Employer Branding

I'm doing a number of presentations on employer branding at academic and practitioner conferences over the next month or so, beginning with a symposium with colleagues on 'Current Controversies in Recruitment and Selection' at the Academy of Management (AOM) in Chicago this coming Friday. At that session I'm going to outline what employer branding is about, how the recession has changed the focus of HR and people management, and thus the need for employer branding, and how employer branding can contribute to a bigger agenda of strategic and business model change (incidentally, I'm also going to participate in a session at the AOM run by C.V Harquail, the creator of Authentic Organizations on blogging for management academics, which I'm really looking forward to).

Three inputs into that session are relevant. The first is our consulting work with some excellent colleagues at Holcim, Getinge and the NHS in Scotland, from whom I've learned so much. This has reinforced my conviction that you never really understand business and management phenomena until you have been involved in changing them, which is one of the compelling reasons for academics becoming involved in clinical work and action research. The second and third are the most recent CIPD statement on Employer Branding: Maintaining momentum in a recession' which Rebecca Clake wrote and to which I contributed to during some roundtable discussions with senior practitioners, and a paper I've just finished with Paul Gollan and Kerry Grigg from Australia, entitled 'A Future for Employer Branding? Dealing with Negative Capabilities in Strategic Human Resource Management', which my colleagues are going to present at a conference in Sydney later this month. Not surprisingly, some of the messages in these two publications coincide'. The CIPD paper makes a case for employer branding becoming a business imperative. At one of the advisory group sessions from which the CIPD report was produced I argued for the need to link employer branding to big ticket items such as leadership and innovation, which has been taken up in the report and is one the themes in our new paper on the future of employer branding in tying it to strategic and business model change.

In this paper, we have tried to deal with the problems that complex organizations, especially but not only, multinationals face in dealing with the integration-responsiveness problem, part of which turns on how to deal with how to be global and local at the same time. In doing so, we've set out a new framework for thinking about what strategic human resource management might mean, highlighting two contradictory logics that drive strategy making in organizations in opposite directions. The first is to be distinctive, which takes them down the route of identifying business unit level strategic capabilities that make organizations truly unique, and the A positions and players that are critical to these strategic capabilities. In turn, this leads these organizations away from one-size fits all HR strategies and best practice and global employer brands towards more of a focus on exclusive talent management policies and segmentation of the workforce and specific employer value propositions/ branding messages for these groups, especially the A players (see earlier blog on linking employer branding to strategic HRM)

The other logic drives organizations to be legitimate in the eyes of others and society at large. This logic sees strategic decisions as influenced by a need or drive to be similar to others. Sometimes decisions are driven by the need for legitimacy, sometimes they are driven by an historically shaped 'industry recipe' for success that managers use as a model against which to judge their decision-making in uncertain conditions. The result is that there are strong pressures to imitate others’ strategies and values, supported by intensive networking among managers (and HR specialists), recruitment of business leaders from a relatively small cadre or talent pool that lead to bandwagon effects, coercive comparisons in the form of benchmarking best practice against other firms, and national legal standards or codes of conduct in accounting, governance and CSR drive companies to achieve legitimacy by becoming similar. This logic ensures that firms develop a strong corporate value system, often for investor s’ consumption, and to control potentially rogue subsidiaries that might damage hard won corporate reputations and brand equity through opportunistic but ultimately self-defeating behaviour for the corporation as a whole.

The SHRM implications of this drive towards corporateness are of firms becoming similar in their branding, thus seeking to become employers of choice with a global employer brand and ‘best practice’ high performance HR architectures (high performance work systems +the Ulrich model). The audience for many of these best practice messages are largely external – to sell a message to investors, governments, customers and potential employees that they are engaging with a well run, legitimate company that is as least as good as others. It also helps existing employees identify and engage even more with the organization because identity and engagement are formed by what these employees think significant outsiders feel about their organization - their so-called construed image.

The obvious point to make on the legitimacy logic is to ask the question that Michael Porter might ask: where is the differentiation in doing things the same as everyone else?

Three further sets of tensions of negative capabilities result from these contradictory logics:

1. The tension between corporate and local identities. Global companies seek to exercise control over identities because of the need to have business units and their workforce ‘on message’ with the corporate logic, global cost leadership and corporate stakeholder management. However, philosophers and management scholars have argued identity is essentially a local phenomenon and has to resonate or be authentic with employees and other local stakeholders because both are a product of local cultures. So localisation of identity requires organizations to be in tune with local employees and other stakeholders and to encourage constant expressions of employee voice and speaking truth to power, an argument recently receiving UK government backing from the MacLeod Report on engagement.

2. The tensions between exclusive and inclusive HR strategies. The exclusive approach to talent management that focuses on the few at the expense of the many has its critics for ethical, economic and rational reasons. Especially in European economies, including Britain, that have a heritage of integration among firms and employees and different values from the USA as a recent Economist poll on Anglos-Saxon attitudes has so vividly illustrated, the liberal market philosophy on which this exclusive talent management approach is based is a difficult pill to swallow for many organizations, managers and employees outside of the US.

Even within the USA, however, there is strong evidence that the exclusive version of talent management hasn’t worked well and, given the unpredictability of economic environments, can’t work well. Groysberg and his colleagues have produced a number of series of articles showing the negative side of the ‘star’ system which the exclusive version of talent management has helped fuel. And, has Anthony Hesketh has argued, the metaphor or a talent pipeline with the implication that talent management can be planned might be more realistically replaced by a metaphor of the talent sieve, with leaks appearing at many junctures because of the failure of organizations to manage careers through the pipeline and because of declining levels of loyalty among talented employees who have got the message delivered by acquisitive organizations that job change is the fastest route to salary increases.

3. Tensions between human and social capital and innovation. Arising from the previous discussion, HR initiatives and other management techniques and functions are increasingly being judged against how they impact the innovation agenda in these organizations. Research has shown that the 'collective IQ' of an organization, the latter of which is the basis for innovation, depends at least as much and probably more on social capital investment than individual human capital investment, which is what talent management and employer branding have traditionally focused on. So as well as investing time and effort in recruiting talented individuals, the role of human capital investment, organizations also need to focus on social capital by strengthening internal bonds among employees and by creating strong organizational identities (addressing the ‘who are we’ question as well as the ‘who am I’ question).

Implications of the Future of Employer Branding. So what are the implications for the futures of employer branding and how can it be used to resolve these dilemmas of SHRM and identity management? We suggest there are three changes in direction needed: a focus on authenticity, privileging the local, and a focus on social capital.

Focus on authenticity. It needs to rid itself of its image of being something that is designed by HR, marketing or corporate communications departments for others, especially among buisness unit managers and employees of large corporates, towards being locally responsive and authentic. Authenticity has become an important concept in recent management literature in fields such as leadership and marketing and needs to be at the heart of employer branding for it to help resolve the dual logics of SHRM.

In our Sydney paper, we have written about an HR strategy-as-practice approach that attempts to reconcile the tensions between the two logics of distinctiveness and similarity/ legitimacy. This requires that we understand who all parties to the strategy-making process are (a much wider group of people in organizations than senior managers and officially designated strategists), how they act and what resources they draw on they participate in helping create and implement strategies and, by extension, business models. Thus effective employer branding should begin by learning about the authentic voice of different groups of employees and managers at all levels and locations inside and outside of the organization. On this point, we have made the case in our CIPD report for new, free-form, open access Web 2.0 tools such as blogging, on-line discussion forums and social networking to enable authentic employee voice. We regard these new tools as more effective, or at least complementary, media for enabling employee voice than traditional organizational surveys.

Privileging the Local. Our argument for greater authenticity in employer branding compels us to focus on the local and on the logic of difference. This is not only because identity is an essentially local phenomenon, but, as we have noted, so are strategic capabilities, transformative business models and the HR architecture that supports them. In practical terms, this means privileging the local at the expense of the global in terms of creating authentically meaningful employer branding and employee value propositions. The outcomes may look no different from those that might result from a traditional top down exercise infused by the logic of similarity, especially since the process may be loosely framed in terms of broad aspirations of values or a corporate identity that organizations would like to be known for. However, an HR strategy-as-practice approach suggests the outcome is less important than the means by which it is arrived at.

As we have argued elsewhere, however, ‘the weight of evidence…suggests that the top-down, corporate global message continues to be the dominant one, which often represents considerable previous investment in ideas and programs, and, hence, an inbuilt reluctance to change course or experiment’. And, as we have noted in this paper, top down employer branding reflects the compelling logic of similarity, the benefits of integration and strong institutional and rational pressures to remain top down, including the desire to build global customer facing brands, pressures to meet international governance standards, investor demands, global performance standards and HR business processes. As the similarity logic requires, it is not only local responsiveness and authenticity which needs to be taken into account; there also needs to be a balance between the needs for and benefits of integration . A key element of HR architectures is employee engagement, which rests on defining the kinds of beliefs, values, attitudes and actions that employees are expected to hold and display, both at local and corporate level. This is part of the corporate function of employer branding, to ensure that it moves lockstep with business model and strategic change, not in parallel to it.

So, in privileging the local we are not arguing for a neglect of corporate or global values and branding, but rather that they should be ‘equivocal’ to allow employees at local level considerable latitude in creating local expressions of these values, authentic identities and meaningful strategies for themselves, and in doing so benefit the corporation as a whole.

A focus on social capital. Finally, we stake a claim for employer branding’s potential contribution to building bonds, bridges and trust, the key elements of social capital, and not just focusing on the creation of human capital. Social capital as a complementary asset and enabler of human capital and as a precursor of intellectual capital and innovation has become amongst the ‘biggest games in town’. And innovative business model change and product-market innovation needs a clear explanatory framework of how HR integrates with such changes, which provides an essential justification for employer branding role in learning about and communicating a strategic discourse that binds individual, team and organizational identities – the glue that holds organizations together - during periods of change.

Since social capital is also dependent on building bridges among employees and business partners, employer branding can help innovation, business model and strategic change by extending its traditional focus from those employed on a ‘contract of service’, the traditional employment contract, to those ‘contracted for services’, often pejoratively described as the contingent workforce. Employer branding can also contribute directly to the innovation agenda by encouraging authentic voice in organizations as I've argued above.

To conclude this rather long blog, if you find any of these arguments appealing or contentious, please - all comments on our views are welcome. Andif readers of this blog are keen on seeing the full paper, please contact myself, Paul or Kerry.

Monday, 20 July 2009

HR, Learning and Performance

Not sure how I've managed to miss this, but there's an excellent report in the Harvard Business School's Working Knowledge Series by Amy Edmondson, someone whose work is always worth listening to and I've often cited her publications in the past. In this Q and A session, she decribes her research journey into organizational learning and learning organizations over a fifteen year period following an earlier career as an OD practitioner. One of the key messages she has taken from it is the tension between the need for organizations to learn in order to survive in the long run and the short term problems learning creates for performance because such learning frequently involves making errors and, more importantly, acknowledging in public the errors you have made. This tension is a difficult one for managers to handle in most arenas so the tendency is to go for the short term performance gains at the expense of learning because of the typical basis on which their performance is managed and rewarded. Nowhere is this more evident than in the frequently reported and experienced clashes between short term target achievement in the NHS and long term organizational success. Edmonson's work is particularly appropriate in this context because her early research was set in a clinical context.

Edmonson describes the challenge for managers as two-fold:

'One is to become team leaders who promote open discussion, trial and error and the pursuit of new possibilities in the groups they directly influence. The other is to work hard to build organizations to produce extraordinary teamwork and learning behaviours'.
These challenges are part of the message of the papers and reports I've been discussing on engagement in the last few blogs. It is also a message we are delivering in a new paper we're (myself, Paul Gollan and Kerry Grigg) writing on how employer branding can and should contribute to the innovation agenda. Talent management, employer branding and engagement have traditionally been aimed at building human capital in organizations, focusing on the beliefs, values, attitudes, competences and behaviours of individuals. However, as much of the research on innovation has shown, it is the creation of social capital (building bridges, bonds and trust in teams and organizations) that is the necessary condition for organizational learning and innovation. Edmondson's work over the last decade and a half begins to show how this can be achieved.

Saturday, 18 July 2009

Even Newer (but Mildly Disappointing) Perspectives on Engagement

Having just reviewed an excellent academic paper on engagement in the previous blog, I was interested to see what would be the outcome of the UK government sponsored McLeod Review of employee engagement. This review is the outcome of almost a year long study by two Government appointed practitioners who have taken evidence from a range of senior executives, some academics and leaders of professional organizations with an interest in the topic. The outcome is a 150 page report on what engagement means, why it matters, barriers to an engaged workforce, how engagement might be made to work and a series of recommendations for making it work in all sectors of the economy.

While there is much to commend this report, and I'm sure it will get lots of press coverage, I have to say I'm mildly disappointed with the outcome. For the novice manager (and chief executive who still 'doesn't get it' -I can't believe it), it will serve as a useful introduction to the topic and provide some pointers on how to get it, but for the experienced HR professional it tells us little that is new. Nor, paradoxically, is it likely to have much impact on practice. By going for breadth (i.e.trying to engage as many mainly practitioner views on the subject as possible together with lots of randomly selected case illustrations), it lacks the kind of depth needed to really move the issue forward (i.e the insights that a good critical analysis and theoretically sound treatment that the topic deserves, e.g. the Balain and Sparrow white paper). It also exhibits a number of the failings the previous blog identified as characteristic of the engagement 'industry' - conceptually unclear, lacking in hard, predictive evidence, no clear logic of the antecedents and consequences of engagement, etc.

So, though this report certainly deserves to be read, did we really need a year long study of this kind to tell us what most managers have known for a long time (listen to the video introduction by David McLeod)? Maybe I expected too much for our money?

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

New Perspectives on Engagement

Last week I had a very productive time doing some work with a large multinational company based in Zurich which is doing some really interesting work on employer branding and HR strategy – hello Saskia, Paulo and team. Like all organizations operating in a multinational context, they are struggling with the integration-responsiveness problem discussed in the last blog, which, in part, turns on the need to have employees identify and ‘engage’ with the organization globally and locally. Engagement has become one of the hot topics among HR practitioners, driven mostly by the management consulting industry’s desire to re-invent, re-package and re-fresh tired old ideas that have been around for many years in the academic community such as satisfaction, commitment, organizational citizenship and identity, and psychological contracting, and link them statistically to appealing notions such as share price increases, financial performance and a range of other outcomes.
In a chapter of a book we wrote on corporate reputations and HR in 2006, we criticised this arguably naive and perhaps even cynical attempt by consulting firms to re-invent the wheel and to do so in a with a lack of rigour that hardly justified the huge amounts of money being spent on this new ‘industry’. We examined a number of such approaches and found little or no agreement on what the meant by engagement, a significant problem in its own right; nor was the evidence particularly compelling since it was based on a lack of identifiable and sound logic connecting the precursors of engagement to engagement itself and onwards to the outcomes claimed for it. Our argument in the form of a question in that chapter was: why not use some of the more rigorous work on psychological contracting, citizenship etc., that has been around for a number of years and build in some of the newer ideas of the engagement industry to improve their utility? In part, we were basing our arguments on a book produced by Paul Sparrow and Cary Cooper in 2003, so it is with great interest we read a new working paper by Paul and one of his colleagues, Shashi Balain to be found on the website of Lancaster University’s Centre for Performance-led HR.
In this paper they begin with a section on why engagement is becoming so important to practitioners, arguing that it has served three functions: as an internal marketing process to sell complex change to the workforce; as a means of linking employee motivations and committed behaviour to process improvement; and as a predictor of service and organizational performance, usually in the form of a variation on the well known ‘service-profit’ chain. Like our own chapter, they proceed to evaluate the consultancy attempts to develop ‘theories’ of engagement, claiming that the research designs used do not allow them to infer that their own versions of engagement cause performance improvements, that there is little construct validity in what they choose to define and measure as engagement, and that they all use different items to measure what they describe as engagement. Though some promising work in proving useful statistical relationships has been produced by some of the consulting firms, it lacks strong logical basis and argument as why their versions of engagement should be linked to individual and organizational outcomes, and is thus unlikely to be helpful to HR practitioner seeking to manage the process.
Balain and Sparrow suggest an extremely useful way forward to make the concept more useful. They argue that HR directors in specific companies need to reverse engineer the type of performance that an organization is trying to create, in much the same way as the book previously reviewed by Becker et al does. What is it that we are asking employees to engage with at an individual level and organizational level? In answering these questions they produce a model of antecedents of engagements (job characteristics, perceived organizational support, leadership, reward and recognitions, procedural fairness and trust), which leads to strong performance bonds (individual and organizational identification, internalisation of company values, psychological ownership, etc), leading to conditions of engagement (i.e. job engagement and organizational engagement) , which result in important individual and group level outcomes (e.g. motivation, discretionary effort, commitment, improved group and organizational morale, organizational citizenship, etc). One of the key points of this model is that it makes use of well-known and validated scales. Another is that it is necessarily more complicated than most of the overly-simplified consulting models.
A further, extremely important point they make is that there is no single organizational performance recipe. The potential contribution that employee engagement makes in different organizations is likely to differ, so why should engagement have the same performance impact across different service models? To reinforce this point, they identify four different service models from the marketing literature - personal v non personal service, encounter v relationships, collaborative v single service relationship and B2B and B2C interactions – all of which are likely to make different demands on what and who employees need to be engaged with . Their claim is that HR directors have a ‘fantastic opportunity’ to really get under the skin of engagement in their own organizations by developing more complex understandings and models of engagement that apply to their specific circumstances. Two key questions they need to address is: what are they asking their employees to engage with, and what beliefs, attitudes, intentions and behaviours do we require of them to engage. To make the construct more useful to practitioners, HRDs need to identify the performance belief – ‘a shared belief of a team that it has the required ability, resources, goal clarity and leadership attributes to achieve the desired performance outcomes’ (p 38). The performance belief is the cause, while being engaged to perform is the effect. Answering these questions allows HRDs to manage engagement more effectively, but this requires them to measure different things from the standard attitude or engagement survey, which Balain and Sparrow begin to describe. Here they need to do a little more work. Overall, however, the general arguments in the paper are excellent and take us a lot further in understanding engagement than anything else I’ve read so far. There is still a need to do some tight editing and crisping up of the arguments to make them more accessible to most practitioners, but this paper is certainly the best place to begin for serious work in this burgeoning field.

In visiting this excellent site you will find other papers of interest and also a survey on HR in tough times that Paul would like you to help him out with.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Linking Employer Branding to Strategic HRM and Customer-based Reputation

I'm working on a couple of projects just now, which require me to focus on some of the problems involved in employer branding in multinational environments. I've also just finished an enjoyable exercise acting as a judge on Personnel Today's employer branding awards, which has caused me to reflect on the criteria for assessing and measuring the impact of employer brands. With both of these projects in mind, there are a couple of good sources of material that may be worth looking at if you are working in this field as a reflective practitioner ( I've got a few people in mind when writing this blog) or academic. One source I've written myself with Susan Hetrick ( I'm saying this is good but I'm not really the best judge of that); another is in the recent edition of the British Journal of Management. These works are written mainly for academics in the field but are accessible and useful for those who want to get beyond the usual homilies or lack ofevidence-based practice that characterised much of the employer branding literature.

Our piece is entitled 'Employer branding and corporate reputations in an international context' (pages 293-320) and can be found in the new 'bible' edited by Paul Sparrow on 'Handbook of International Human Management: Integrating People, Processes and Context' published by John Wiley and Sons, Chichester, UK, 2009. This chapter sets out a model of employer branding in an international context and illustrates some of the problems of negative capabilities associated with 'thinking global and acting local' using a case from the financial services sector. In the case we argue the need for authenticity in employer branding to favour the local rather than the current fashion for global. More of this in later blogs, because this issue gets to the heart of strategic HRM and employer branding in international contexts, the subject of a forthcoming paper by myself, Paul Gollan and Kerry Grigg.

The second extremely useful source is an excellent if somewhat parsimonious attempt to provide a theory of customer-based reputations (C-bR), written to explain the basis on which customers attribute positive reputations to companies and what such reputations lead to in terms of important outcomes. The paper by Walsh, Mitchell, Jackson and Beatty in the British Journal of Management current edition and the core argument is that customer satisfaction and customer trust in the organizations drive positive (and negative) customer-based reputation attributions. In turn, C-bR causes customers to be more loyal (CL) and to produce high levels of customer advocacy through word-of-mouth (WM). The authors show highly significant links among these variables, especially among C-bR and its consequences for CL and WM.

I'm sure I can learn from this parsimony in two ways, largely because my own attempts to explain the causes and consequences of employer branding are so complicated and cannot easily be tested. The first way is to ask the question: what are the workforce and HR antecedents or drivers of customer satisfaction and customer trust? This is likely to lead us into a refinement of the logic of the 'three compellings' from the Sears service-profit chain, a favourite example of many who wish to demonstrate links between satisfied employees, satisfied customers and profits. So, you might expect that employee satisfaction, employee commitment and employee engagement might by related in some way, together with the authenticity of the employer brand, to drive trust in organizations and their leaders (see CV Harquail's application of authenticity to personal branding for an idea of where I'm going).

The other use of this model is to translate the variables into employer branding language. So, you might expect that high levels of employee satisfaction, commitment and engagement, and high levels of trust on the part of employees in the organization and its leaders may drive Employee-based reputation (Eb-R). In turn high Eb-R is likely to result in key outcomes such as employee loyalty/ intention to remain and to word-of-mouth advocacy of the organization, the latter of which is so important to our current project for the NHS.

Although this line of reasoning has been pursued by Gary Davies and Rosa Chun from Manchester Business School in a number of recent articles, the ideas from the Walsh et al paper do suggest how their work could be developed.

When I've worked through some of these ideas a little more, I'll put these up for consideration in a further blog.

Dealing with 'Negative Capabilities' in Strategic HR: Social Capital and Corporate Branding versus Human Capital and Segmentation

The notion of negative capabilities, often attributed to the poet John Keats, refers to the ability to work with issues that can't be resolved and the need to keep an open mind. W. Scott Fitzgerald, a famous American writer, dubbed this a sign of intelligence - being able to hold two or more inconsistent ideas in your head simultaneously and still work with them. Such an intelligence is one that HR practitioners need to develop in spades, especially when dealing with the paradoxes and tensions manifested in the 'think global, act local' mantra of many organizations - and not just multinational ones. Unfortunately, most organizations treat this as a problem to be solved rather than resolved by drawing on packaged solutions, which usually create further and potentially worse problems down the line.

Two such examples of these HR paradoxes are the corporate (global) employer brand versus segmented employer brand issue and the decision-making over whether to put your money behind social capital (teams and organizations) versus human capital (talent and stars), which has been at the heart of the talent management controversy for the last decade or so. For the purposes of this blog I've conflated them because they naturally link together. As I mentioned in the last post, I've been working with a group of excellent HR managers from a Swedish-based multinational, all of whom come from different countries and different business units within the one corporate entity. Our job has been to raise our game, individually and collectively, by learning to think more strategically and more corporately, which turns out to be another negative capability. To that end I've been helping them learn and in doing so learning myself about what strategic HR might mean in their context. So I drew on a number of new books and research from the US that offer excellent insights into this question. These books offer sound, evidence-based practical advice of the kind that most consulting manuals don't. However, they still need to be treated with a certain caution in complex situations because of the potential problems created by an unreflective application of heavy doses of human capital and segmentation. The one that seems to summarise this more than any other is the new blockbuster by Brian Becker, Mark Huselid and Richard Beatty on the Differentiated Workforce, which encapsulates a number of messages from solid, research-based work by these authors themselves and others. The others are Boudreau and Ramstad's 'Beyond HR: The New Science of Human Capital', Cascio and Boudreau's book on Investing in People: the Financial Impact of Human Resource Initiatives(reviewed in the last blog), and the work on HR architectures by my good friend, now returned to Rutgers to work with Mark Huselid, David Lepak.

Being US in origin, these books are strong on prescriptions, especially the new Becker et al book. One such prescription is that HR begins with understanding the strategy and environment - the strategy map - of the organization, and not its people, which is where most HR specialists are likely to begin - a 'trained incapacity' often used to beat HR over the head with. Incidentally, this is a view that the high priest of strategy, Michael Porter, would endorse but not so resource-based strategy theorists who argue for a more inside-out approach to these issues. A second prescription is the need for sound logics and the need measure. All of these works are especially strong in making a case for causal measurement rather than best practice, benchmarking and scorecards. This, they argue is single most important activity that HR can do to prove its credibility with senior managers - being able to identify and predict the strategic outcomes of HR initiatives. A third and probably the tie that binds these books and research more than any other is the need for greater segmentation of the workforce, which is to use the power law (80/20 rule) to focus on those 'A roles and players', 'pivotal positions', or 'core' segments of workforce that add most value, exhibit most performance variation (the range of performance variation between the best and worst performers in very high), and which are relatively unique. The Differentiated Workforce is particularly strong on these messages, the logic (though not the intent) of which leads us further and further away from any notion of global, including corporate strategies, corporate employer brands and global value propositions, global employer of choice approaches etc. Indeed, the authors repeat their 2005 message in the 'Workforce Scorecard' that adopting employer of choice approaches are a recipe for mediocracy - an argument and rail against 'best practice' that I mostly agree with. In essence the logic, and in one case the title of these works, is to attribute strategic performance and capabilities to human capital in the form of individual roles, people, pivotal points etc, and workforce segmentation.

However, in working though these ideas with the HR group in Sweden, we constantly came up against problems with this logic, one of which is that human capital and segmentation divide organizations. The line pursued by Boris Groysberg from Harvard with increasing sophistication over the last five years on why the focus on stars can be bad for business is testament to this excess focus on human capital. A second problem is that human capital and segmentation is rooted in a US centric view of equity that does not always translate into the more equality-conscious continental European mindset. A third, related problem is the over-attribution of performance to human capital rather than social capital, which can be defined in terms of the bonds between people, the internal and external networks or bridges they build, and the extent of trust needed in organizations, especially networked organizations, to survive and prosper. As excellent research in the field of innovation by Subramaniam and Youndt has shown, it it social capital more than human capital that accounts for transformative innovation; at the very least these have to be seen as complementarity forms of capital assets.

Some of these features of social capital were beautifully illustrated during a factory tour we had in the plant where the group and I were working. The fact that manufacturing was been conducted at all in this very Swedish plant was bucking the trend towards off-shoring to Eastern Europe or Asia, although it was high-end batch production rather than mass production. One of the reasons why the design, development and manufacturing of a family of products was so successful (and successful it is) seemed to be down to the focus on design, development and manufacturing based on social capital (i.e. involving customers, designers, shop floor workers in the interative design and development process, flexible manufacturing based on autonomous work groups, extensive job rotation and group training so that everyone could do everyone else's job, investment in work life balance and flexitime to engage the workforce, etc etc). In other words, it was the system and social capital that seemed to be important rather than any notion of A players, pivotal positions, valuable and unique segments.

All of which brings me back to the broader issues raised in the title of this blog. The logic of these books, excellent though they are, is of human capital and segmentation. And it is a compelling logic. However, it doesn't sit easily with the equally compelling logics of investment in social capital and the need for a reflective and reflexive corporateness (corporate strategy, branding, identity, value system) that considers and is influenced by what goes on at local levels. One way of working with these negative capabilities is to treat them as complementary, not competing, assets. What that might mean in practice is to do what most organizations don't do, which is to begin with and even privilege the local rather than the global to ensure ideas - brands, strategies, values, etc., ring true among employees and managers at business unit levels - in other words to privilege authenticity. Arguably from the perspective of organizations, whether or not we have high levels of human capital is not really so important to organizations; what is important, especially for innovative organizations. is how human capital and identity feeds forward into group learning and team-building and then into organizational learning and organizational identification. In other words, by building on what is locally authentic and on evidence of good local practice (maybe even created by A players who aren't 'assholes'? - see the book by Robert Sutton) we learn to develop social capital, organizational IQ, corporate strategies, and authentic corporate and employer brands.

Sunday, 31 May 2009

Evaluating Investments in HR

For many HR practitioners being able to provide a logical business case and proper evaluation that links HR investment to key financial outcomes would represent a huge step forward for their credibility. Yet, it is a fact that we typically spend large sums of money implementing leadership development programmes, talent management, employer branding etc, and almost nothing on assessing their strategic impact. In part, this is because we believe that it is impossible to measure intangibles - what's meaningful isn't measurable and what's measurable isn't usually meaningful. So we justify our actions on the basis of acts of faith or attempt to persuade senior managers with arguments along the best practice, 'everyone is doing it', so 'we don't want to be left behind' lines (often following attendance at some networking event). Unreflective copying and jumping on the bandwagon, alongside legal requirements (themselves often based on 'best practice'), are the main drivers and justification for spending vast sums of money on 'soft' initiatives. This is why institutional theorists argue most organizations and their HR architectures end up looking the same, and, as the more perceptive strategists point out, where is the competitive advantage (or even best practice) in that?

So it is with some relief (not total) that I've picked up two recent American books. One, the Differentitated Workforce' by Becker, Huselid and Beatty, I will leave for a later post because it is more mainstream and I'm currently testing some of their ideas with a group of great HR managers from Getinge as we speak. The other is Wayne Cascio and John Boudreau's 'Investing in People: Financial Impact of Human Resource Initiatives'. This book is probably the best I've read in the field, in part because it deals with measures in a sophisticated way, in part because it not so much a book about measures but about understanding the logics that link strategic decisions to human capital initiatives and their outcomes. John Boudreau is a 'name' on the HR circuit following his book in 2007 on 'Beyond HR', while Wayne Cascio I know from my time working at the University of Colorado where he teaches and researches. Wayne wrote one of the first books on measuring HR and this works represents the culmination of a long career in introducing rationalism into the HR profession.

For me, the highlights of their book are three-fold. The first is the LAMP framework, which states that you can only use HR metrics as a force for strategic change if you have the right logic (that link your measures to competitive advantage, pivotal points through causal modelling, etc), the right measures (timely, reliable and available data) the right analytics (good questions and analysis of data) and the right processes (good knowledge management in the organization and a culture that supports learning, not just assessment, from measurement).

The second is the use of yield curves to examine the types of jobs (and people) where firms should invest their money for the greatest return. Boudreau tackled this in his earlier book and the book by Becker et al also make great play of this very important point that it is the range of performance variation in jobs (the difference between best performance and poor performance) that helps determine this yield. The most quoted example is Disney: where do you put your money for greatest return ie satisfied customers, Mickey Mouse or the street sweepers who are key customer relations people? The answer is for a small extra investment in selecting and developing street sweepers you get an enormous yield in satisfied customers because their performance varies so much; investing more in the characters playing Mickey Mouse etc is unlikely to yield such returns because the performance variation in these characters has been effectively drilled out so that one Mickey Mouse is no different to another. You can apply this analogy in healthcare, education and many other jobs - well worth thinking about.

The third key element is the focus on causal modelling and logic. This is fast becoming de rigeur among sophisticated HR functions and forms part of a project we are conducting for the Scottish Governement and ESRC. The core argument is that organizations need to develop the right logic linking their HR practices to business unit or strategic peformance. Sounds logical but it is not what most organizations do, judging by the use made of engagement models and engagement data in the firms I observe. So if you are involved in assessing employee engagement, just reading the chapter on the logics of engagement (derived from sound evidence-based academic research) will be worth your time and money alone.

Two words of warning. This is not an easy read for the more mathematically challenged, but don't be put off because the arguments are the most important element in the book (and you can always employ a statistician). Second, it begins to sound a little like best practice by railing against best practice, just like the Becker et al book I'll discuss next. I'm always worried by the idea there is only one way or the highway approaches to HR, which this is close to becoming. There are some important assumptions and simplifications in this book that just don't stand close scrutiny. For all that, this is one of the HR books of the year for me, and I will use it extensively in teaching and consulting.