January 2011


Having a pop at ‘business speak’ is – as we’ve said at least once before – a fish-in-a-barrel job. With big fish, small barrels and automatic weapons. An online acquaintance pointed out a recent example from The Watford Observer, quoting Mayor Dorothy Thornhill on the topic of local authority budget setting:

Once this budget is put to bed, we need an away day to do a bit of blue sky thinking and see where the red lines are.”

We’re not snide people: we congratulate Mayor Thornhill on her repeated electoral success as a directly elected Mayor. But we can’t help but be slightly alarmed that a former assistant head teacher could come out with a sentence like that. We’re prepared to give the Mayor the benefit of the doubt, but doing so would imply that either the reporter (Michael Pickard) or an unknown communications professional in the Council’s employment produced that deathless sentence. (We hope not, given that both are paid to string sentences together.) Whoever was responsible, they seem to have forgotten one of the first considerations of any communication: the audience, who are likely to read that sentence and be a) cross, b) baffled or c) overcome with giggles.

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In an industry that is depressingly attached to protocol and procedure, it’s nice when you hear about someone who opts for a more human, more instinctive approach to HR. But it’s even nicer when you hear that it actually worked.

The individual in question isn’t an HR professional. In fact, he happens to be the current CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt. In an interview with the Harvard Business Review in 2001, Schmidt described how, having just taken the reins of the floundering software company, Novell, he wanted to seek out the company’s brightest minds. You can just imagine the HR department gleefully rubbing their hands as they delve into the archives for last year’s annual reviews and employee feedback reports:

“Oh yes, of course. What you need is a new internal talent resourcing strategy. We’ll get right on it…”

Schmidt opted for a more direct approach:

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To paraphrase Pete Townsend and The Who, I am now getting old (50 – those of you who think this is youthful are free to comment) and haven’t taken the precaution of dying yet. One of the joys of ageing is having a revised sense of proportion on where shame lies: well, that’s my story and I’m not budging. But talk about Generations X, Y and Z abounds. (For my fellow old fogies, I checked Wikipedia before the gout finally prevented fine mouse control: the next batch will be referred to as Generation Alpha.) But are these generations – or just generalisations? Demographic bracketing is all the rage – an influence both of marketing and of computerisation (where database structures find defined lists of values easier to crunch) – but how far does it help us? Does discussing HR issues in terms of the ‘generations’ in the organisational mix clarify, or over-simplify?

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A symptom of world wide connectivity is that we are now subject to rapid economic, political or social change like never before. Word moves faster than ever, as does public response and, as a result, the response from the market. For all the focus on the logic of market mechanisms and forces, we should remember a lesser used cliché: market sentiment. For this reason, a company’s success can’t be measured purely in terms of its market dominance. If an organisation’s seniority is to remain sustainable, it needs to be counter balanced with the ability to adapt as needed. Inflexibility, stubbornness and a reticence to move with the times can be fatal. For this reason, we increasingly require our business leaders to be individuals that are highly adept at identifying changing trends and acting accordingly.

In an old but entirely relevant article, Marketing Myopia, Theodore Levitt (Harvard Business Review, 1960) illustrates how blinkered executives can often doom their companies to failure by tying themselves too loyally to a single product or service:

It is hard for people who today confidently hail the twin messiahs of electronics and chemicals to see how things could possible go wrong with these galloping industries. They probably also cannot see how a reasonably sensible businessman could have been as myopic as the famous Boston billionaire who 50 years ago sentenced his heirs to poverty by stipulating that his entire estate be forever invested in electric streetcar securities. His posthumous declaration, “There will always be a demand for efficient urban transportation,” is no consolation to his heirs who sustain life by pumping gasoline at automobile filling stations.”

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Rule Number One is to pay attention. Rule Number Two might be: Attention is a limited resource, so pay attention to where you pay attention.”
Howard Rheingold

If I were the sensationalist type, life would have handed me a perfect opportunity this morning, and you’d be reading an article called Balls to the Treasury. If this isn’t just a case of delayed reaction on the search engine’s behalf, it’s almost encouraging: the easy attention-grabbing option has, for once, been resisted. Maybe there is hope – in a way that I’ve been pondering since listening to Lord Puttnam’s keynote speech at the Workworld Media Awards earlier this week.

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When I graduated in 2010, I assumed – in retrospect, naively – that my grades, extra curricular activities and the fact that I had worked through university would qualify me for full time graduate employment. How wrong I was…

You see, if you want to secure a graduate position, having a degree is only half of the battle. In fact, according to a recent study, maybe even less so. The findings state:

Many recruiters commented that irrespective of the academic results that a graduate had achieved, it would be very hard for an applicant to demonstrate the skills and competencies that they were looking for if they’d not had any prior work experience.”

Martin Birchall, MD of High Fliers, the recruitment firm that conducted the research, said that:

Today’s report includes the stark warning that in this highly competitive graduate job market, new graduates who’ve not had any work experience during their time at university have little or no chance of landing a well-paid job with a leading employer, irrespective of the university they’ve attended or the academic results they achieve.”

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As people who like to think that the glass is at least half-full, we were always optimistic that we would meet our target on responses to Learning Transfer 2010 – the UK’s first nationwide survey of current practice in learning transfer and application. Having aimed at getting 500 responses by the end of 2010, our faith in human nature – and, more importantly, in the HR and L&D communities – was boosted when we made the final tally and realised that over 550 of you had taken the time to answer our online questionnaire.

Firstly, a big thank you to all of you that did so. We were conscious that, to ask enough questions to explore the topic meaningfully and with the depth it deserves, the questionnaire would take at least a few minutes of your time. We also consciously chose not to incentivise its completion beyond the knowledge that those that did would be helping to shed light on a crucially important topic in L&D and its impact on organisational performance. If professionally developing others is an expression faith in humanity, then that faith is contagious and we applaud it!

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