It’s amusing sometimes how different parts of your life can chime together. CIPD’s Next Generation HR has been calling for HR professionals to address HR much more as a core element of business and to use the language of business. Meanwhile, many corporations are hiring in ‘business professionals’ to head up HR functions, seeking to address ‘the great divide’ from their respective sides of the chasm. As ever, there is much talk of revolutions and new paradigms. Meanwhile, the TV news drones on in the background. Watching a programme about the American half-term elections and the country’s issues of the day recently, I found myself commenting at the telly to my partner’s amusement. The basic gist was that, given the august documents that seemed to surface most regularly were The Bible (Oxford standardised text: 1769), The US Constitution (1787) and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations (1776), it was one thing to talk about returning to the 80s, but that returning to the 1780s was taking things too far. Received wisdom has its moments, but wisdom has chronological context. Sometimes, even the most venerable, august and respected ideas or organisations need to move on.

Verity might be eternal, but she’s no spring chicken. And as Michael Bywater’s Lost Worlds pointed out, the problem with the wisdom of the ancients is that our predecessors knew less than we did. Those three documents date from an era where slavery was widespread, the spinning frame had just been invented, there was still a Holy Roman Emperor, the New York Stock Exchange had just started (under a tree), and New South Wales had just been established by the British. As a penal colony. The old blandishments might need a tweak or two?

Life moves on, and we must move with it: a truism that shouldn’t really need reinforcing, although doing so probably does no harm. In terms of HR and its future, its own professional body – the CIPD – seems particularly keen on getting across the message that the future is coming: “Think HR, think again” is, however, getting mixed responses as a slogan goes. One example is from Charlie Duff, editor at HR Zone, who remains supportive of CIPD’s intentions if dubious about its marketing strategy. Others have been more critical: theHRD, for example, seems to be at a centre of a bit of social media ruckus.

But one of his commentors – Gareth M Jones – at his post did chime with my recent reactions to two events, when he said:

Unfortunately, institute can so often mean institutionalised, which brings with it a whole heap of problems not least of which is the ability/desire to move with the times or tackle thorny issues. And right now we have a rapidly changing market/environment, thorny issues aplenty and an institute that is really struggling to deal with it.”

Any profession ultimately needs a professional body. If HR is to have a credible national voice that can engage with governments of the day and other national bodies, commission or undertake and disseminate important research, and shape qualifications and standards, then CIPD – in some shape or form – needs to exist. (We’ve talked about professional bodies before: HR is not an exceptional case in terms of their roles.) But Gareth Jones words certainly rang true visiting the CIPD Annual Conference in Manchester. While the venue was mightily impressive, footfall and attendance seemed either low – or too small for the cavernous spaces.

CIPD 2010But more over, I was wondering what the conference was attempting to achieve. As a venue for exhibitors (and their stall fees are an important income stream), I wondered if the traffic levels justified the expense – a decision that ASK, as an exhibitor, took two years ago. (HR, like everyone, has to justify the business case for its activity.)

As an exhibition for those in HR looking for providers where the ‘product’ isn’t off the shelf, or a system, the format doesn’t seem to work either: ASK’s services aren’t something we can put in a box and let salesmen discount at a trade show – they’re something that come through listening to and understanding needs.

I’m far from convinced selling by listening is an approach that’s particularly compatible with the open spaces of a conference centre. And, as an organisation that should be well aware of the issues around learning, not am I wholly convinced by arriving at an event where I may have a choice in the speakers and seminars, but not a lot of say in the menu. (While some session are interactive, it’s ‘questions at the end’ rather than questions at the beginning. But with no follow-through, is this an opportunity for learning – or merely for igniting some kind of small possible spark?)

My perception was that many of those exhibited and speaking were also falling foul of the Sharkey Principle: generating problems to which their solution can then be sold. The nature of HR issues in organisations is rarely so neat a fit that the remedy can be simply bought like a corn plaster or a carpet tile. Solutions to my issues – or our clients – need to address my (or their) agenda, not a third-party one.

CIPD needs to exist, and is eager to serve its membership and its profession, but I couldn’t help feel that the Conference wasn’t ‘it’: As Gareth Jones’ comment elsewhere later continued:

There is no doubt that [CIPD] needs to change and as a fully paid up member i too am very frustrated with what i see. But if you want it to change, get off your arses and get involved. Its a membership body and, in my opinion, its current delivery matches the quality of its membership. Controversial i know, but there is some truth in that.”

The HR UnconferenceWhich reminded me of a very different recent event, the HR Unconference. Much more a grassroots affair, there was no exhibition hall, luminary speaker, delegate dining area or red carpet. Actually, there wasn’t a carpet at all. Nor a programme or agenda. The opening wasn’t so much about ‘why we are here’ as ‘why are we here?’ – unearthing the real day-to-day issues of those who’d come along, so that the agenda and the discussion and the sharing of experiences and problems could be shaped around the concerns of those that had come to learn something from the event.

(Some professions do this better than others: talking to an ASK colleague, higher education management used to do this well: anyone could offer to run a session at its annual conference, and most were informal discussions to explore a shared concern rather than some metaphorical variant on ‘How I climbed the Alps armed only with a teaspoon’. Singing from the same songsheet is a laudable aim, but a rousing chorus is “Oh come, let them adore me!” doesn’t always inspire participation.)

The Unconference was seen by some as much as a two-fingered salute to CIPD as an attempt to do something different (and something informed by the levelling and issue-opening influence of social media). I’d see it as a natural complement – a way in which HR people, as professional practitioners, can share and debate issues they are facing and tackling everyday. An arena for the groundwork and for growing each other (and not so dissimilar from the supervisory practice among coaches).

Unconferences are probably unworkable as big glitzy large-scale events, but as local or sector-based events, with social media to support and extend them, are they so different from the Action Learning Sets those in L&D functions within HR proclaim the benefits of? National agendas have a role, a time and a place, but ‘get with the programme’ isn’t always the most helpful message to broadcast.

Especially when we live in a multi-stranded world where, as those in HR who are grasping new future possibilities are finding ways of telling us, we might do better to change channel.

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