I’m not an expert in microscopy, but green shoots are obviously one of those things that become visible even at the tiniest size to those are looking closely enough. When it comes to recessions, you would expect the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales’ detecting apparatus to be finely calibrated. And indeed, the ICAEW has predicted the UK economy will grow by 0.5% in the third quarter, and reported that business confidence rose from -28.2 in March to +4.8 at the end of June, the biggest rise for two years. Place your bunting orders now.

The recession has undoubtedly left its clawmarks in the body of the British economy – and the typical British workplace too. Organisations have responded as one might reasonably expect: as the ICAEW notes, 26% of survey respondents in the Manufacturing, Construction and Transport sectors have stocks of raw materials and components below normal levels. But steel, bricks and diesel aren’t the only raw materials of the British economy. We also noted the following:

The monitor revealed that businesses have looked to cut costs where they can, including a reduction in the number of employees (-2.9%). Although this is the biggest ever drop, firms do not expect to make further redundancies in the next year. Staff development (-1.5%) and capital investment (-1.4%) have also been cut …”

For those whose role was cut short by the downturn, I think this translates as “there may be a price on your head, but you’re still not wanted – dead or alive”. (Cheer up, we’re not anticipating powercuts until 2017, apparently.) Certainly, the message from HR seems to be rather mixed. While we’ve already maintained that a recession provides an ideal opportunity to review exactly where the payroll is going – see our earlier post Don’t next year’s fat cats need the calories now? we hope that talent is being seen as an asset instead of (or at least as well as) a liability. Looking at one response to the ICAEW’s latest figures in HRZone, we weren’t entirely sure what to conclude. On the one hand:

… but don’t lose talented staff because you have failed to value them in tough times. Work isn’t about the money. In the new climate, organisations must start being honest with their workforce, take responsibility for ensuring that they are managed fairly and consistently, and that all employees understand the importance of their job, and how it interacts with other jobs and departments in the organisation.”

But on the other hand:

You don’t want customer loyalty to be yet another casualty of the recession. Hiring might not be on the cards, but there is a great deal of talent languishing in the dole queue. Think about taking on promising students or interns you can train now and possibly hire later. Or you can tap into the millions of unemployed, many of whom are looking to be retrained in new industries.”

Again, there’s a possibility something might be lost in the translation, but this seems to mean ‘buy ‘em cheap, stack ‘em low’. And you’re left wondering how loyal you might remain to a business that followed the advice. Now that the tills are looking like getting busier, how will I feel when I find myself dealing with the inexperienced trainee on the short-term contract? Nice to know HR are keeping an eagle eye on costs, but we hope the other eye remains on talent management and human capital.

Which brings us to another set of figures – a survey being conducted by the Using Expertise project on the Importance of Expertise in Organisations. The on-going results of the survey – which is still running – can be seen online. It’s been conducted mostly among the Knowledge Management community rather than the HR sphere, and you might expect KM practitioners to view and value talent and expertise highly. But that doesn’t mean they don’t raise concerns.

The majority of respondents (51.4%) report that their organisation has no risk mitigation strategy to protect against loss of experience/expertise, and a further 30.6% report only a partial strategy. Only 6.3% thought such a strategy was unequivocally in place. Likewise, 41.3% report only a partial programme to transfer and grow new experience and expertise: 32.1% report no programme at all. Let’s hope the talent in those dole queues arrives fully-grown and can embed itself with impressive alactrity: a total of 68.9% report that failures to access or manage expertise have resulted in minor or major operational failures for their organisation.

While we’re being hopeful about the state of currently unemployed talent, let’s extend our optimism to the loyalty of our customers. After all, although 52% were reportedly aware of any forms of expertise or experience in their organisations that are critical but accessed very infrequently (let’s keep our fingers crossed they are needed only very infrequently), the expertise that is still in place is gladly shared when it’s called upon. On a scale of 0 (not willing at all) to 5 (extremely proactive and helpful) when answering the question “In general, how willing are your experts/experienced staff to share upon request?”, 88.3% answered 3, 4 or 5.

An even higher figure (91.9%) answered in the same range for the question “How critical is expertise/experience to your organisation’s survival?”, with 58.6% giving the highest available score. So while we have our fingers crossed, our hopes high and our best feet forward, let’s acknowledge that expertise – like happiness – can always be spread a little. If only we had a survey that told us exactly how thinly we could get away with spreading it …

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