Friday, 24 April 2009

Leadership 2.0 and the CIPD HRD conference.

Two blogs in one day (and a third on the way).

Because of my interest in leadership development and forthcoming seminar with the ESRC and Scottish Government on the topic, I attended two sessions at the CIPD conference, both of which were good in some ways but worrying in others. To begin with the positive, they were both beautifully presented and contained lots of interesting material based on evidence and experience - no problems here. The first was on the global competences needed for tomorrow’s leaders and the second was on positive psychology and its applications (not necessarily leadership but could be). Both issues are highly topical, especially positive psychology in current circumstances of recession.

My worries, however, stem from passing of yesterday’s ideas as the future, and outlining ideas that are strong on face value and commonsense but weak on theory and in spelling out the limited assumtions on which they are based. As John Maynard Keynes pointed out, all practice and commonsense are based on theories-in-use; all are also rooted in fundamental but partial assumptions about how the world works and how it should be. These assumptions need to be made explicit when placed in the public domain for them to be truly useful because a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing.

I'm not being an academic purist here, just re-stating the precept that there is nothing so practical as good theory. For example, the attempt to glean a set of global leadership competencies has a long history and has been done many times before. For example the GLOBE programme has spent a lot of time researching these ideas, so why do we need another attempt that may no reference to this work nor states how it will improve on this excellent work? Perhaps more importantly, why are we still looking to leadership comptences rooted in the past? For, as we have pointed out before on this blog, it is those same leaders and leadership competencies that have shaped the current crisis of governance and performance associated with the recession and major corporate failures. I've just finished reading Paul Krugman's excellent account of how yesterdays leaders, many recently hailed as messiahs in their day, have been responsible for our current problems ( see 'The Return of Depression Economic and the Crisis of 2008'). So do we want to repeat the mistakes of the past, or should we be engaging in reflective learning of the lessons of the past to design a leadership 2.0?

Secondly, I couldn’t understand why I was sceptical of positive psychology until one of the seminar leaders gave the game away by stating that most of the evidence was based on the powerless (not her term but mine). As the presenters were taking about the attributes of positive psychology, I couldn’t help thinking that they fitted perfectly well with Fred Goodwin and his can do approach to leadership. So one person’s positive psychology and confidence to act may be another’s narcissism and lack of wisdom in not knowing their limitations or those of their ideas. The point I guess I am making is that arguments such as those made by positive psychology are context-bound; they may not apply and may even be positively dangerous in the hands of the powerful, especially if they don’t embrace the kind of self doubt that is necessary for the exercise of wisdom.

The presenters responded by claiming my understanding of positive psychology is limited; that it is not to be equated with positive thinking. May so! I may be guilty of creating staw men (or women), but they also might want to reflect on the merits of 'one size fits all' theory that applies equally to self-styled masters of the universe and the kinds of people for whom the assumptions underlying positive psychology might hold.

To return to the positive, I think that what we need more of at these events are evidence-based insights into leadership combined with rigorous examinations of the future. The latter could be done using scenario forecasting sessions as the basis for reflection along the lines of the Hamel and Birkinshaw exercise in previous posts. Readers may want to suggest other ways of delving into the future without repeating the mistakes of the past.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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