If you need something slightly less brain-numbing to watch about the future of British Business, you can take a break from The Apprentice (I’d like to, but I’m expected to review it) and watch Evan Davis’ Made in Britain. In Mr Davis’ typical manner, it’s a sometimes awkward hybrid of several hundred years of economic theory condensed into a few minutes on one hand, and his idiosyncratic puppy-with-a-shaven-head presentation style, but it has its moments.
Some of them came as Davis strolled and lolloped through the corridors of GSK and ARM, respectively pharmaceutical and processor design behemoths of an economy he was keen for us to see as not constructed entirely of call centres and misery. (The series has a strong ‘all hope is not lost’ motif, although the motif did take a kick or two in China.) The companies’ respective spokespeople echoed the words of people such as Charles Handy and Steve Johnson, particulary in the multi-disciplinary nature of the teams striving at the bleeding edge of innovation (and at the innovative edge of medications to deal with all that bleeding).
At GSK, innovation came through micro-biologists, economics, production engineers (take note, Lord Sugar) and social scientists, each contributing insights from their own disciplines. At ARM, they have acknowledged that hugely intelligent chip designers make dreadful factory managers, so they simply don’t manufacture: much of their income comes from license fees from manufacturers. While consumers’ lives turn into an updated version of ‘chips with everything’, ARM collect a royalty on every little ‘bag of chips’ that we purchase.
GSK didn’t demonstrate ARM’s sense of play – no robots solving Rubik’s Cubes using a iPhone camera – but both HQs spoke of experimentation: a vital activity where a new winner must be found before the patent runs out on the previous star development. (The cost of pharmaceutical development, it seems, is largely down to the strike rate not of the workers but of the products.)
But as Davis pointed out in the final section – a trailer for next week’s episode that will look at Service Industries (our major source of employment) – product innovation and IP alone does not make an economy or a future. We’re not all bright enough, and ARM will never need half a million employees in the UK. The rest of us will need gainful, productive employment in other sectors if we are to remain competitive in our globalised world.
Which left me wondering about other forms of innovation. If, as many recent studies argue, performance comes through people, and people and their effective deployment (and retention) are the key to innovation, is it right that the innovative focus is on developing products and managing IP and brands?
Surely HR – the business function concerned with the management of those people who are individually and collectively the key to it all – should also be an arena for innovation, calling in not just accountants and economists but social scientists, psychologists, and educationalists. There’s a “What is HR for?” question that resonates beyond CIPD’s Next Generation HR initiatives, or the Great Place to Work Model.
About a month ago, the Guardian ran a feature article: “HR: your friend or foe”. Its author, Mark King, found himself accused of sexism despite claiming not to even think along gender lines (and not actually mentioning them), but the real handbagging broke out in the reader comments, which are an illuminating if dark and depressing read. The quantity of anti-HR feeling – including the criticism of HR practice by those in the profession, it should be added – was striking, and the general verdict was pretty clearly ‘foe’. But what emerged having read through all the comments was the very limited component that saw people – the things that keep the organisation going, so it can pay not just its senior ranks but also the salaries of its HR department – in terms of anything other than a problem. One commentor (‘manchestergirl’) comments that:
I couldn’t imagine that an article about Audit, Finance or Compliance, all key to driving an organisations success would be written in the same way…and in every element of work there are people who are good or bad (and a large part of HR’s role is to improve performance) but this is not usually front page news?”
But, I felt, missed a point. Audit, Finance and Compliance are viewed by most as concerned with processes, money and legality: HR is concerned with human beings – and if it isn’t, the name on the tin needs changing. (And the contents of the tin might need input from Audit and Compliance too.)
There’s also the lingering message that there are sides to be taken: ‘friend or foe?’ is a question you can only pose if there’s already an ‘us and them’. It’s a message illustrated by another comment that, like so many, read as undeniably defensive:
They think I’m cold, I think I’m fair and honest, and the company thinks that I’m not doing my job as I’m there to advise management, not staff.”
It’s not so much that the general verdict was that HR are snakes – both in the sense of something nasty in the long grass and in the sense of something you don’t want to encounter in the corporate game of snakes and ladders; it’s more that there seemed to be an almost total lack of ladders. If engagement and talent management are the priorities of the season (as most recent surveys suggest), it’s not easy to see why many people would feel engaged or live in hope of being developed. All of which seems terribly bleak.
Part of the problem might be the historical development of HR, drawing together admin functions (eg payroll), ‘the old welfare/personnel route’, strategic business development, talent, L&D.
Two comments from Ruth Cornish – quoted in the article itself, then commenting (including revealing her true identity having commented anonymously) – suggested ways forward:
We need the right people in our still developing profession with the right skills and the right attitude. There are some that came via the old welfare/personnel route or who have no business understanding that make me want to weep. I’ve moved a fair view of those onto other things in my time I can tell you.”
I also notice that my company is increasingly being retained by individuals that want independent HR support. From everything from career advice and coaching and recruitment to appraisal help and support if its getting tough. But don’t want to join a TU which seems the only alternative.”
Her first quote suggests HR need redefining – and probably renaming. It’s ludicrous to suggest it’s not a business function, although it’s not necessarily logical to say that means it must be a ‘foe’ to the workforce. Human beings sometimes need advice, coaching, support or help – as her second quote makes clear – and a ‘Human Resources’ department that doesn’t acknowledge that must surely have a flawed understanding of the very resources it is supposed to working with.
Ultimately, however, tackling the ‘problem’ of HR won’t happen until doing so matters to senior management, so HR’s bemoaning of its lack of ear at present doesn’t bode well. Given the impact of HR practice on many people’s daily working experience, you’d hope that an article such as the Guardian’s might have triggered some social media interest. But as someone pointed out the following morning, #daleks were trending on Twitter. I tried a range of hash tags, but HR apparently concerned us far less. Maybe we’re more interested in daleks as we know where we stand with them: exterminate first, review the policy manual afterwards.
But faced with the choice of daleks (I don’t want tea and sympathy from HR anyway, and I could never pucker up to a sink plunger) or Evan Davis (tiggerish optimism but a hint of recognition that Human Resources are a human issue as well as a business one), I’ll think I’ll go with the reassuring cuddle from the business journalist.