December 2011


The future is a tricky thing. An opening sentiment I’m sure many economists, policy makers and politicians would agree with right now, but also a logical truism. Books about the future and what it will bring always set themselves to invite ridicule a few years down the line, and have an inevitable lack of concrete foundations: what the future holders, even for professional futurologists such as Bob Johansen, can only ultimately be subjective guesswork. Whether we are looking at the future of work (as Richard Donkin did in another book reviewed here), of leadership, of organisations, or of society, it’s worth remembering a lesson from talent management: past performance is not a reliable guide. Yet, as Marshall McLuhan once observed, “We drive into the future using only our rearview mirror.”

As a former President and Board member of the Institute For The Future, Bob Johansen should be as qualified a guide to what lies ahead as we are likely to find, drawing on four decades of experience of future casting for some of the world’s largest organisations. By its very nature, the future has always been uncertain; recently, the level of uncertainty seems to be increasing and leaders can no more be immune for anxiously wonder what it will mean for them than anyone else. Books such as Leaders Make The Future are, perhaps, only to be expected: that Johansen is one of a small number of authors essaying serious attempts to address this audience is to be welcomed.

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Across the web, blogs are adding a stockpile of the traditional end of year postings, many of them reflecting on the year that is drawing (at least on the office calendar) to a close. Many will also doubtless remember to mention – some authentically, some out of a sense of duty – that we are in the ‘season of goodwill’.

As the end of year reviews descend upon us, the BBC is not alone in wondering if the tumults of 2011 will mark its place in history alongside such iconic years as 1956, 1968 or 1989. The future is no more ours to see than anyone else’s, but there’s a practical and sensible rejoinder to the Beeb’s musings.

Whether these now legendary years really were significant turning points or not, life did go on afterwards – even if no-one is currently proposing documentaries about 1957, 1969 or 1990. 1957, for example, gave us the birth of the European Common Market, the launch of Sputnik I, the introduction of the S&P 500 stock market, the resignation of Anthony Eden, and the re-opening of the Suez Canal. And two Scousers called Lennon and McCartney apparently met on a bus.

1969 was even flatter: men walked on the moon, 2 computers exchanged messages over ARPAnet (later to evolve into the Internet), France withdrew from NATO, the UK abolished the death penalty, the first American troops withdrew from Saigon, the US Supreme Court ordered immediate desegregation, and Harvard University scientists announced the isolation of a single gene. Nothing to see here, move along now …

2012 will undoubtedly bring each of us new challenges to face, new situations to understand, adapt to and operate within, but if we are looking for the remarkable we should focus not on the year but on the people about to enter it.

There are two enduring elements of Christmas Day in the UK: the Queen’s Speech and a special edition of Doctor Who. Age, long service and wisdom aside – none of which we should flippantly discount, even in light entertainment – these two seemingly wholly different beings share in a common message: their belief in the ability of people to achieve remarkable things and inspire others to do likewise. As The Doctor said in one recent episode:

There’s no such thing as an ordinary human.”

Watching it, I was transported from my sofa to a business meeting some years ago where a team of external consultants from different suppliers and disciplines had been gathered to help the company in question wrestle order and direction from the jaws of apparent chaos. The company’s MD was admirably candid in his assessment of the current situation, while remaining delighted – if surprised – at the quality of the work that the team produced. To which an occupational psychologist replied (with the compassionate perception of Her Majesty or The Doctor):

But they’re people. And people do the most remarkable things, given half a chance!”

Indeed they do; the human race has been doing remarkable things for centuries, whether or not the year in question has been a historic landmark. As the working year draws to an end, you may not have an audience of over 10 million for any closing words you may feel moved to offer, but we’d suggest building on the seasonal tradition of goodwill.

Take a few moments to acknowledge the efforts of those around you, congratulate them on the remarkable things – good or small – that they have achieved and that they have helped others to achieve. And may we all welcome 2012 as an opportunity to be remarkable and encourage others to be remarkable too.

Through the years 
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow
Hang a shining star upon the highest bough
And have yourself
A merry little Christmas now.

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They might have been being facetious, but I recently absent-mindedly eaves-dropped a conversation comparing HR with alchemy. The snatches of the conversation that I overheard were along the lines of turning base metal into gold, rather than exploring some of the other goals of a now archaic discipline – formulating the elixir of life (an aim now pursued more by cosmetics companies and surgeons and by life coaches) or creating the ultimate panacea. As a metaphor for talent management, I guess ‘turning lead into gold’ works rather better than elixirs, and panaceas can stand in for engagement strategies and BUPA membership. But it was an interesting reminder that the urge to discover the legendary magic formula that makes everything all right lives on, regardless of the fate of the disciplines that spawned the different approaches we’ve abandoned over the centuries.

I also couldn’t help but think – possibly as a measure of the prevailing lack of other stimulation at the time – that it was interesting that the other strand of alchemy had somehow dropped out of the equation. To quote everyone’s favourite wise friend (Wikipedia): “In general alchemists believe in a natural and symbolic unity of humanity with the cosmos.” This spiritual and philosophical strand was an integral element of alchemy, but one that fell by the wayside as the scientific discipline of chemistry evolved and displaced its metaphorical parent.

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It’s one of those perennial HR blog/article/networking event/moaning-over-the-canapés topics, isn’t it? How will HR ever get a seat at the top table where it deserves to be? I can almost hear at least two groups of readers sighing, for at least two different reasons. Some of them at the use of the word ‘deserves’, perhaps? Part of me – possibly the ‘bah humbug’ streak I can feel gathering strength with every glimpse of tinsel and waft of carols – can’t help but think that those at the top table may have come to the conclusion that HR is already being discussed in its most relevant forum: the HR Department. (And to be fair, even my more charitable streaks feel they may have at least part of a point.)

While any HR practitioners who haven’t already clicked away have no doubt started to bristle, indulge me briefly while I note some of the other objections that have been raised. Writing at the Management Information Exchange site, Luc Galoppin essays an opinion that will do nothing to unruffled HR feathers, arguing – among many other points, all worth reading – that HR is a force for continuity, not change:

HR Doesn’t Drive Organizational Change. Let’s face it: By their very nature, the fundamental HR processes are aimed at safeguarding stability. But when you ask HR managers about the core competencies of their departments, they will tell you that the management of organizational change is at the forefront. They are wrong.”

Some commentators have been even less civil on the topic.

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Maybe it’s because the news is so heavily dominated by economic issues and the possible fates of European countries – waking up to the Today programme is becoming more and more like having someone murmur a Financial Times leader column at you through your pillow – but the ‘countries are just like companies’ analogy seems to be going viral. There was an example recently at Inc – Understanding the Euro Crisis: Imagine Italy Was Your Business – that was very wittily written, and actually quite a good way of explaining the interconnectedness of the European economic situation to anyone that’s been living under a rock since 2008.

Explaining things in ways that the unfamiliar can readily grasp is a proven pedagogic technique that I’m not decrying. But oversimplifying things so people think they’ve grasped something they’ve completed misunderstood is a different kettle of fish. It can be done comic effect, such as Alan Coren’s commentary on the density of the Belgian population –

For the same reason, the sprout was developed by Brussels agronomists, this being the largest cabbage a housewife could possibly carry through the teeming streets.”

but an awareness of the dangers of being taken seriously is a handy thing in any comedian.

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Depending on your current age, your recollections of your Head Teacher’s final end of year speech may be crystal clear or a little hazy. Their ability to deliver anything meaningful will, of course, have played a part in your ability to remember the details, but I wonder what we’d each say if we had the opportunity. I left school in 1978: as my headmaster was a man who achieved a certain notoriety for his ability to speak for up to an hour while saying almost nothing, I have no memory of his presumably rousing words of hope and inspiration.

Were I to be 18 again now, and paying more attention, what might I hope to hear? A sprinkling of verbal hope might be just the thing to help the pill go down, given the latest news headlines. Take your pick from: current youth (un)employment figures; surveys showing that my generation might be the first since either WWII or 1900 (take your pick of survey: customer choice now extends as far as grounds for pessimism); a Saga survey showing a third of over 50s are financially supporting their own adult children, or the indebtedness I might accrue if I opt to better myself with a degree. Knowing that my school had previously produced not just ambassadors to Qatar and Paraguay, but a Lib Dem MP and Keira Knightley might have lifted my spirits, although the most successful (Knightley) dropped out. Her fame and wealth had come as an alternative to education, rather than as a consequence.

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The Sonnenberg Convention Center

Following on from the undoubted success of our Breakfast Briefing at BAFTA in October, ASK were hugely proud to invite delegates from a broad selection of global organisations to join us for breakfast in an equally inspiring location:  the Sonnenberg Convention Center within the FIFA Headquarters in Zurich, Switzerland.

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