My mind is still whirling around after the CIPD conference. It wasn’t just the speakers and case studies that got me thinking, it was also the conversations I had with people afterwards. There is probably enough material there for a dozen blog posts.
But on the way home, I began to reflect. There was some fascinating and innovative stuff being talked about but how much of it was really new? My good friend Sukh Pabial was taking the wazz out of me earlier this week for recounting anecdotes from the last century but two decades in the corporate world does give you some perspective. I do wonder whether people management and HR have really changed that much.
Sure, the technology is different. If you took some twenty-somethings back to the late 80s office where I started work they would be shocked, not only by the amount of paper and clunky systems but by the noise. Phones don’t ring in offices any more or, if they do, the people charged with answering them do so through headsets. Email killed phone conversations in the way that social media platforms may eventually kill email.
So, yes, the technology has changed and that was evident at this year’s conference. There were whole sessions on using social media for business and the social impact that is likely to have on organisations and customers. You wouldn’t have seen that twenty years ago. Or even five, for that matter.
But, that aside, much would have sounded familiar to a time-travelling HR exec from two decades ago. Some of the language is different. We talk more about things like OD and Talent Management now and no-one mentions ‘Personnel’ any more. However, if you look at what is bundled up under OD and Talent Management, it is all stuff that people have been talking about, and occasionally doing, for years.
Even the Gary Hamel’s keynote speech, which went down a storm, did not contain anything especially new. Ideas like getting rid of innovation-stifling bureaucracy, giving workers more autonomy, pushing power out to the frontline, breaking down hierarchies and encouraging collaboration were all around twenty years ago. When I was doing my CIPD qualification, Rosabeth Moss-Kanter had just published the widely acclaimed When Giants Learn To Dance. A lot of this stuff was in there.
So has anything changed at all in the way people are managed? Actually, yes. The difference between now and twenty years ago is that a lot more people are doing some of this stuff rather than just talking about it. At CIPD meetings in the early 90s the tone was ‘wouldn’t it be good if…’. Now, people are coming along with real examples of what they have done. The theory hasn’t changed much, it just has different buzz-words but the practice is catching up. Even some of the hierarchy busting stuff is catching on. Teams electing their team leaders. Directors getting out of their boardrooms and involving staff in business decisions. Firms abolishing their HR functions because they don’t need them any more. People are doing this stuff rather than just listening to presentations about it. Granted, it’s still only a few organisations but it’s a start.
Managing people falls into that ‘simple but not easy’ category. Though corporations, academics and, especially, consultants like to present the theory with complex models and multi-coloured flow-charts, much of the content boils down to the same few things. The difficult part is putting it into practice.
Managing people is a bit like tying a bow-tie. The theory is simple and elegant when looked at on a page but the execution is fiendishly difficult. That’s why my finished bow-ties always look skew-whiff and nothing like the perfect examples in those how-to-tie-a-bow-tie guides.
In the frustration, it’s tempting to go back to what you know. Abandon the bow-tie for the more common, and easier, ordinary tie. Forget trying to democratise the organisation and go back to good old command and control hierarchy. At least everyone knows where they stand. And, given that organisations are full of people trying to protect their power bases, a lot more people will be comfortable with it.
It’s hardly surprising, then, that organisations have taken so long to try out some of the things that business gurus have been saying for years. These ideas are difficult to implement and there are powerful forces pushing against them. The reality of organisational change is a Rick-style squiffy bow-tie that only vaguely resembles the James Bond one on the PowerPoint presentation.
But as I’ve got older, my bow-tying has improved with practice. Organisations will improve too as more of them persevere and resist the temptation to go back to the tried and tested. In the end, they will have to do things differently because the world around them is changing in ways we have only just begun to understand. New challenges (and there will be many) require new types of organisation. What worked in the past won’t necessarily work in the future. If the invitation says you need a bow-tie, there is no point in going back to your traditional necktie just because you know how to tie it. When you get to the door, they won’t let you in.