Squirrels, HR bling and ‘banalytics’ - my decades in HR

Professor David Clutterbuck Chartered CCIPD is a pioneer in coaching and mentoring, an author and speaker, and practice lead for Coaching and Mentoring International Ltd.

Fast on the heels of becoming a Chartered Companion of CIPD, I received a reminder that I had now been a member continuously for 30 years. What a great opportunity to reminisce, take stock and look to the future.

Many of my earliest CIPD memories were made at the annual conferences, then held in Harrogate. I can remember little of the speeches and presentations, but the partying was something else! All those HR professionals wandering around in the early hours, seeing double and feeling single. And the irreverent competitions in the press room, such as the best alternative interpretation of IPM (the winner was “I’m Permanently Miserable”, adapted after chartership to “Cripes, I’m Permanently Depressed”).

I recall one presentation I made to several hundred people, where to increase audience engagement, we stapled a prize envelope to each of a handful of seats.  Disappointed not to be a lucky winner, a few people dismantled the undercovering of their chairs!

The old, rambling CIPD HQ on Wimbledon Common held many memories, too – not least one request to deliver a new copy of a manuscript because squirrels had eaten the original!

The themes I explored then with CIPD members included “Marketing the HR Function” – a book and a series of courses on how HR could make its presence felt. One of the triggers for this was the recognition that HR was the least loved of all the business functions. (Fortunately, that crown passed quite quickly to IT and then on to purchasing)

It was disheartening to ask a room full of senior HR professionals how many regularly read any of a list of strategy journals and finding that only a handful of raised hands. That too has changed. But the issue remains of how to make HR more relevant and more valued at the top table.

I’ve seen HR take some wrong paths on its way to greater recognition. The term “HR bling” arose from a study I conducted five years ago, with the research question: If HR practice in succession planning and talent management works, how come the wrong people still so often get to the top? The study, which involved hundreds of interviews across the world, concluded that much of HR process was the problem, not the solution, because it was based on linear thinking, when the issues HR and employers faced were increasingly the result of complex adaptive systems. When I first presented these results, I met great opposition. Nowadays, systemic talent management is an accepted perspective, though we have a long way to go in making it work well.

In the past decade, the obsession with linear thinking has been exacerbated by increased attention to numbers and even less attention to people and conversations. We know that executives who spend their days looking at numbers and graphs become less humane and less connected with people – so why should we expect HR to be immune from the same phenomenon? I increasingly refer to HR banalytics’ (on the basis that so much of the data is of marginal value and rapidly out of date).On the other hand, there has been great improvement in HR-initiated conversations between layers of the organisation – for example, through reciprocal mentoring between executives and BAME employees, which is currently undergoing a substantial surge in interest.

What am I looking forward to in the next decade? In the short term, as we return to the new normal of work, HR has the challenging task of helping people cope with survivor syndrome and of helping leaders adapt to the reality that the very nature of leadership is changing for good, becoming more distributed, less hierarchical and more collegial. So many times over these three decades, in the companies I have visited, top management blames HR for the people problems and HR blames the short-sightedness of the leadership. Covid-19 has given us an opportunity to pause and recalibrate to create partnerships for positive organisational change. I am optimistic that in many organisations at least, HR and the leadership will seize this opportunity, enabling the profession to make a big step to fulfilling its value-creating potential.

Do I have any nostalgia for HR 30 years ago? Not really, except for on one count – could it be that HR is less fun than it used to be? I have a remedy for that. I recommend that every HR professional’s education should include the skills of improv – to learn the art of being playfully creative and imaginative. Paradoxically, we may have greater impact on the serious challenges of the profession by being less serious about them and engaging a wider community in resolving them. 


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