Three days later, I’ve finally worked out what was nagging away at me during the CIPD conference last week. There were some great speakers and some fascinating topics up for discussion. It was a very thought-provoking few days and there really was a buzz about the place. But all the while I had this feeling that something was missing. Context.
Yes, there was loads of stuff about leadership, innovation, the need to completely change organisations and building the workforce of tomorrow but the great forces shaping the world were mentioned only in passing.
Generation Y and youth employment were very much on the agenda and yet over the coming decades, young people will be a smaller proportion of the population, and of the workforce, than ever before. In western countries, and over a longer period, worldwide, the population is greying. Yes, young people will come into the workplace and change it with new attitudes but, proportionately their numbers will be fewer than ever before. What will be totally new is the number of people approaching 70 in the workplace.
New, also, to anyone beyond their mid-twenties, is an economy in which growth is near-stagnant for many years. The economy has always bounced back after recessions with 3 percent boom years. It is unlikely that we will see anything like that for much of the next decade and we have to accept that growth will be sluggish for years to come.
There was much talk of change at the conference – HR people like change – but our assumption has long been that this means more shiny new technology and ever-increasing livings standards. Yet McKinsey warns that children in northern Europe can no longer assume they will be better off than their parents. Those in southern Europe will almost certainly be worse off.
It’s by no means certain that technological innovation will continue at the same rate either. Some argue, quite persuasively, that the pace of innovation is slowing down and that the progress of technology has plateaued. Yes, we might all be shopping via our mobile phones in a couple of years and social media will change the way we interact with each other but, as Robert Gordon argues, the impact of this on the economy as a whole could be relatively insignificant:
Invention since 2000 has centered on entertainment and communication devices that are smaller, smarter, and more capable, but do not fundamentally change labor productivity or the standard of living in the way that electric light, motor cars, or indoor plumbing changed it.
Added to this mix, we have stubbornly high public debt and increasing social costs, which will almost certainly force the state to withdraw from the provision of some services. Oh, and rising global inequality too, just to make things that bit more volatile.
There will be change over the next decade or so but all the indications are that it will be a very different sort of change from that which most of us have been used to. This, then, is the context in which business leaders in both the public and private sectors will find themselves. Organisations don’t exist in isolation. They both shape and are shaped by their social context. During the last long depression, new types of organisation emerged as people found ways of dealing with the challenges it brought. For example, trade unions and co-operatives, if not invented in the 1870s, certainly flowered during that period. We will need social and organisational as well as technological innovation if we are to deal effectively with the world to come.
It is not necessary to stray into big P Politics to discuss this stuff. There are political points to be made, of course, but much of what I have discussed here is happening in varying degrees in all western economies and throughout most of the wider world too. Professional organisations can put this on the agenda without being accused of ‘getting political.’
Now I’m not suggesting that HR people, or any other professional group, could come up with the answers to any of this. No-one can. Like most things, our responses will be made up as we go along. I’m often accused of being a pessimist, especially by readers of this blog, but I describe myself as a short-term pessimist and a long-term optimist. It’s perhaps a function of the sort of work I do that I anticipate all sorts of problems but I’m never in any doubt that we will find ways of dealing with them somehow. I’m confident that the human race will adapt to the challenges of greying, debt-laden and stagnating economies and that the way we manage organisations will play a crucial part.
But to do that, we have to start talking about the context – what’s the background to the problems we are trying to solve? That is what I felt was missing from the CIPD conference. There was very little discussion of the big picture – the forces that will shape our organisations whether we like it or not. HR people, and other professions for that matter, need to understand this stuff. It’s fine to talk about innovation, removing hierarchy, leadership and the workforce of tomorrow but what about the world in which we will be doing all this? What’s that going to look like?
The pundits I have quoted here could be wrong about a lot of this but, if they are even half-right, the post-war assumptions most of us have held for our entire working lives are now obsolete. I’d like to have heard the conference talking a bit more about that.