Synthesisers and Provocateurs

Last summer, I spent a morning with Peter Cheese, Perry Timms and Kate Griffiths-Lambeth, chewing the fat about the future of work, organisations and the HR profession. Kate posted her reflections on our discussion a couple of days later. One of the subjects we talked about was the challenge facing HR professionals over the next few years. (See yesterday’s post.)

At the LSE HR conference earlier this year, Peter Cheese said that the HR professionals of the future would need to be synthesisers and provocateurs. Synthesisers take in information from a variety of sources, interpret it and put it into context. Provocateurs use that information to challenge and start debates.

This doesn’t just apply to HR professionals. These are abilities that all executives need. The more senior you are, the more you need to look up from your desk at what is happening in the wider world.

I’m surprised by how insular managers can sometimes be. It’s odd when you meet people who are clearly intelligent but whose grasp of wider social, economic and political issues is poor. Sometimes, even an awareness of the wider sector in which they are operating is pretty rudimentary. Of course, some of this is a function of working in large organisations. It can take you all your time to work out what is going on in other parts of the company, let alone lift your eyes and look at the rest of the world.

But no organization exists in isolation and there is stuff out there that managers really ought to know. Economics, demographics, social change and politics will all, sooner or later, have an impact on your company. In some cases, the change will be incremental, in others, almost immediate. For example, if you are a public sector boss making an announcement about budget cuts and redundancies, it really helps if you know some of the wider fiscal background, especially if there is some smart alec in the audience who starts asking you about it.

Synthesising means pulling information together from a variety of sources. The trouble is, historically, HR has been one of the least data focused professions. Yes, people talk a lot about analytics but not many people really do it. I worked on HRIS implementations over a decade ago and I’m still surprised by how much organisations still can’t do.

Even where HR functions have access to good data and reporting systems, their use of that data tends still to be very parochial. Publishing a series of reports on headcount, absence and the distribution of performance ratings is a good start but things only begin to get interesting when you cross-reference what’s in the HR system with what’s in other people’s systems.

Compare the absence levels and sales revenue by business unit and you’ll probably find a relationship. Check whether those departments which rate people highly at appraisal time are really those with the strongest performance. I’d be willing to bet that they won’t be. See if there is a relationship between investment in management development and expensive project over-runs. You’ll probably find a strong negative correlation.

These are all real examples I have come across but there are some more fascinating big data case studies here. This one on the impact of supervisors on productivity is bought-provoking. Ever wondered how you could persuade your organization to invest in first line supervisor development? With information like that, your argument is as good as won.

After last year’s CIPD conference, I wrote this piece about being business focused. I was slightly surprised by some of the reactions I got. I wasn’t suggesting that HR executives should become like accountants. What would be the point? The organization already has accountants and they will always be better at doing the money stuff than HR people. No, what I meant was being able to use your own data and expertise to help to understand the business and its commercial context. Sitting down with the people in finance or marketing and saying, “This is what’s on our systems, what’s on yours?” That’s when the whole Big Data thing starts giving you some insights.

And you really need to be a good synthesiser before you can be a good provocateur. If you challenge, you are likely to be challenged back. As a friend of mine, an HR director for an international firm, observed:

Psychotic SVPs will always attack any competing power base and HR is easy to attack.

You know how it goes. HR director puts in a mild challenge only to be met with an ad hominem or tu quoque, as in “Well you lot can’t even get the payroll right.”

Too many HR executives retreat in the face of such withering fire. However, whether or not HR got the payroll right last month is irrelevant to why a division of the company is losing money hand over fist due to late project delivery. If you can point to your data that shows his (and it usually is a he) business unit riven with absence, grievances and failed performance management processes, and with no proper investment in management development for years, your psychotic SVP can rant all he likes about the crapness of HR. The data tell the story.

OK, this example is an extreme one. Most of the time, the arguments will be less clear. But anyone challenging their peers on a management team needs to have good data behind them. Well, ok, not everyone. There are some people who can go in and make a confident pitch with nothing to back up their arguments. Most of us can’t though. Many people, and this is an affliction which seems to plague HR people more than most, struggle to be convincing even when they are right. Confidence to challenge and bat away the counter-challenges comes with practice but it really helps to have good data behind you too. Synthesise first, then provoke!

To change an organisation you need to challenge. Informed challenge helps to shift the way people talk, think and, eventually, act. As Peter said, if HR professionals, or anyone else for that matter, want to change the way their organisations work, they will need to become synthnesisers and provocateurs.

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8 Responses to Synthesisers and Provocateurs

  1. This is timely for me. I had a conversation with an ops director yesterday about HR data, he said ‘well you don’t need data do you – you just need the information to pay them’. I took a breath and tried to talk about the power of data, that by keeping good records and information we could work to identify training needs, areas for improved communication, highlight trends and issues but also use the data to inform how we are structured, managed and organised; use this against performance/customer data to back up what people feel or have heard anecdotally and then use to develop action.

    His response – well yes, but thats not how we do things.

    I haven’t given up; I have the budget and agreement for the systems and resources I need but can see that showing the benefit of data is going to take some time. Quite looking forward to it to be honest!

  2. Pingback: Synthesisers and Provocatuers - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  3. Mil says:

    Reblogged this on and commented:
    Rick, as always, clarifying a future in HR which should happen …

  4. GrumpyLecturer says:

    Rick I know it must feel like the ‘kiss of death’ for me to comment on anyone who is capable of producing a blog so I apologise beforehand. The quote from Peter Cheese:

    …that the HR professionals of the future would need to be synthesisers and provocateurs. Synthesizers take in information from a variety of sources, interpret it and put it into context. Provocateurs use that information to challenge and start debates.

    Synthesizer is defined as ‘somebody who combines ideas, influences, or objects into a new whole’. This ‘whole’ you go on to state is hampered somewhat by those ‘whose grasp of wider social, economic and political issues is poor’.

    A major downfall of HR is that it is and always has been insular in that it origins concentrated on the workplace treating this in isolation from the wider community in which that workplace was situated. The workplace is a ‘black box’ into which pour raw materials or service requests ‘inputs’ and from which pour manufactured goods or services ‘outputs’. These inputs and outputs have never been the direct province of HR attention. HR has concentrated on the ‘processes of the black box’. How to improve, change or manufacture employee loyalty, commitment, and team working through the use of the theories contained within the academic discipline of Organizational Behaviour. (See for my comments on this subject: A plug I know)

    From the start HR ignored the wider context of the workplaces in which they worked their magic. In defence of HR this was a welcome change from its preceding system of managing the employment relationship which harped on about the social injustice of working conditions and the detrimental results low pay, long hours and lack of pension schemes had on the lives of working people. Recently this wider social context of work has been placed back on the agenda but not by the proponents of HR who are still immersed in perfecting the processes of their ‘black boxes’. This failure to comprehend the wider social repercussions of work has more to do with the academic teaching of HR however, this is a debate for another day but the plug above may help my stance.

    A further downfall for the argument of ‘synthesizer’ is how it can possibly act on a ‘wide variety of sources’. There is a key word missing from this phrase ‘reliable’ the phrase should read ‘a wide variety of reliable sources’. Why insert ‘reliable’ because HR finds itself, whether it likes it or not or agrees with it or not, the ‘meat in the sandwich’ between the employer and their employees. On the one hand HR has been accepted, not always strategically, into the lexicon of the employer. The employer can see the benefits that a HR philosophy can bring to their businesses especially in their relationship with their employees. On the other hand HR’s relationship with employees is hard to state as one of outright acceptance and trust. Employees it can be argued are motivated more by fear of losing their jobs for none compliance to HR’s insistence on being the ‘right person’. They must not show signs of being none team workers or a reluctance in accepting greater autonomy and responsibility. It is very rare to see independent academic research of any great depth on what employees think of the present employee relationship.

    For HR to act as a ‘synthesizer’ in such an atmosphere is fraught with danger to all sides.

    One final comment I will make is that before HR proponents and practitioners can become ‘synthesisers and provocateurs’ they must agree on what it is that HR represents. HR appears to be all things to all people it needs at the very least a ‘mission statement’ on which all proponents and practitioners can agree upon before any debate on whether they should become ‘synthesisers and provocateurs’. This mission statement must look at the wider social context within their ‘black boxes’ sit. One cannot expect employees to wear ‘behaviour’ like an overcoat in which analogy the overcoat is taken off in work and joy and happiness reigns towards customers and employers. The overcoat of anger and worry is put back on when they leave to live a life of poverty and stress as the long hours and low pay is the reality of their behaviour.

  5. GrumpyLecturer says:

    See Rick I told you I was the ‘kiss of death’ to any blog 🙂

  6. Pingback: Synthesisers and Provocateurs - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  7. Pingback: #CIPD13 – Where’s The Inspiration? | T Recs

  8. Pingback: Interesting elsewhere - 14 November 2013 « Public Strategist Public Strategist

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