Previous Article Next Article While HR was once considered an easy sell for the next big idea,increasingly they have to stand up to scrutiny. Jane Lewis highlights what’s wrong with stress, flexible workingand work-life balance, competencies, 360 degree appraisals, best practice andintellectual/human capitalThe best thing about big ideas is the genesis moment. Think Archimedes inhis bath, or Jack Welch stumbling across the Six Sigma one day on the beach.Trevor Baylis, British inventor extraordinaire (nutty persona, messy workshop),usually has his watching television. But my favourite at the momentimmortalises that historic moment in 1998 when four members of KPMG’s Amsterdamteam completed their theory on Value-based Knowledge Management. “You know, I do believe we’ve done it,” said René Tissen.”Together we’ve done it.” Outside a soft flurry of snow was turningthe patio a whitish grey. It softened the austerity of the consultancy’s tranquilJapanese-styled garden… They raised their glasses of mineral water in a sobertoast. OK, so it’s easy to scoff. But we all know we would be lost without bigideas. They are the main reason why the global management consulting industryis now worth around £100bn a year and they’ve been responsible for pretty muchevery wave of corporate software that has been enthusiastically embraced (andquietly shelved) over the past 20 years. In recent years, HR has become a favoured target for the ideas merchants.This may be because the profession has finally come of age. But it is just aslikely down to HR’s reputation as the last ‘unreformed’ bastion of the oldcorporate regime. In his very pessimistic report, Britain’s World of Work –Myths and Realities, Robert Taylor shoves in the knife big time. In mostenterprises, he says, it is hard to discern the advance of any “coherenthuman resource management agenda”. This, of course, makes HR a comparatively easy sell. Vendors are well awarethat the majority of people managers are keen as mustard to appear progressivebecause they believe it will boost their wider credibility. Old wine, new bottles Be honest: did you really sign up for that 360-degree management appraisalscheme because you had concrete proof it would improve the fortunes of yourcompany, or was it: a) because everyone else was doing it, b) because it made anice standalone project, or c) because you knew it would look good on the CV? By the time you reach 35 years of age (and have thus experienced most stagesof the economic cycle first-hand), you are rarely surprised by a big idea. AsRobin Davies, managing director of Penna Change Consulting, points out, most‘new’ concepts have been around for years – it is frequently a case of putting‘old wine in new bottles’. His contention, however, is that many of these ideas are intrinsicallyworthwhile. If they fail, it is largely down to poor management rather than theconcept itself. “A sledgehammer can be a crafting tool, or it can just bea sledgehammer,” he says. Others take an altogether more cynical view about the real worth of a lot ofthese theories. But as you weigh up your own position, remember that one thingis certain: you are going to be encountering them, in all their various guises,time and again throughout your career. You may as well get thoroughlyacquainted with some of the pros and cons now. StressThe big idea Not so much a big idea as the recognition of a growing malaise that needs tobe tackled. The causes of stress have been scientifically proved, says CaryCooper, professor of organisational psychology at the University of ManchesterManagement School. Stress is not the catch-all term that some critics claim.”We know precisely what it is and what damage it can do. It’s notairy-fairy, it’s precise. Stress is not pressure – that’s fine in itself.Stress occurs when you exceed your ability to cope with pressure.” Professor Cooper contends that the causes of stress in the workplace havealso been scientifically identified. “We know that lack of control andautonomy, long hours, lack of job satisfaction and bullying can all causestress”. What we can’t yet identify, he adds, is how resilient anindividual may be at coping with pressure. At present we can’t predict theimpact that exposure to a stressful environment will have on a person. “Itdepends on genetic make-up. You could suffer mental failure, I could get heartdisease. “We don’t need to study whether stress exists,” he concludes.”It does. What we do need to study is how to prevent it.” The common reality “Personnel managers may not realise the harm that stress managementideology is doing in the UK,” says Angela Patmore, managing consultant atthe Nerve Centre. “People are being misled by their own perfectly normalmechanisms. They believe they are mentally ill when they are not and believethey are being driven beyond their capacity to cope when they are not. Thereare now more stress management people in the UK than members of the armedforces, yet the stress statistics are skyrocketing. The industry tells us thatstress is caused by overwork, but there are many robust studies showing it isalso caused by underwork and by no work at all, so vague and meaningless is thecontrolling term. “This constant barrage of misinformation has brought Churchill’s‘lion-hearted’ nation to its knees. People can’t stand in the supermarketcheck-out queue now without imagining themselves to be suffering from a form ofshell-shock. It is deeply demoralising and harmful. The traditional method oftraining people to withstand pressure is inurement – graduated exposure todistressing circumstances. Such character-forming pursuits have been a featurein education and training across all ages and cultures. They are the preciseopposite of ‘stress management’ which simply overprotects people and makes thememotionally unstable.” Flexible working and work-life balance The big idea Rigidity has no place in the modern world and the logic of offeringemployees flexible working patterns that better reflect the lives they lead nowis irrefutable. The movement has been fuelled by a host of wider social,demographic, economic and technological changes. There is also strong evidencethat flexible working also benefits organisations, giving them access to awider talent pool and helping control costs. A common trait shared bysuccessful businesses, says Bruce Tulgan, author of Managing Generation X, isthat they “staff the work, not the job”. A flexible workforce is also a powerful economic weapon because it helpssafeguard against inflation. You only need to look at an organisation such as Asda to see the huge effectthat an awareness of work-life balance can have on job satisfaction. “Inall the work we have done, what clearly gives people a sense of empowerment ischoice,” says Robin Davies, managing director of Penna Change Consulting.”The trust element [between an individual and their manager] that comesthrough flexible working is in itself beneficial.” Indeed, the freedom to work flexibly if so desired, is an essential tenet inthe new psychological contract between employers and employees. Surveys show itis one of the most powerful incentives for attracting and retaining staff. The Government now plans to enshrine the concept in law. Its forthcomingEmployment Bill includes a ‘right to ask’ for more flexibility in working forparents of small children. But this is likely to prove a much bigger watershed.To avoid resentment, employers will have to offer such incentives to all staff.The movement towards offering a new work-life balance is unstoppable, mainlybecause it is what everyone wants. The common reality “A disturbingly wide gulf exists between the over-familiar rhetoric andhyperbole [of flexible working] and the realities of the workplace,” saysRobert Taylor in Britain’s World of Work – Myths and Realities, a report basedon research by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). “It ishard to find much evidence for any widespread ‘psychological’ or mutuallyacceptable trade-off between the needs of companies and the demands of theiremployees”. In fact, the research shows that employee satisfaction since1992 – which arguably marked the onset of the flexible working movement – hasdeclined. There is a huge gap in take-up between the offer of flexible workingand its actual practice. Employees are often reluctant to step forward and askfor a better deal for fear of damaging their career prospects. “My hard-nosed view is to ask why any business leader should beinterested in improving work-life balance”, says HR consultant Paul Kearnsof Personnel Works. From a company perspective, flexible working invariablymeans disruption and added admin. “Unless it fits a basic businessobjective, what is the point?” he asks. Managers ought to be looking at the business needs,” he adds. “Ifthey agree to anything it is because they are doing a trade-off. They’d ratherhave a key person half the time, than not at all. We’re all trying to get asmuch as possible out of life, but to expect companies to get involved in ourprivate lives suggests business has a social responsibility, which itdoesn’t.” If you don’t want to work the long hours a particular positiondemands, get a new job. Many employers in France, where the government haslegislated for work-life balance by imposing a 35-hour week, claim the move iscrippling them. In the US, where some 60 per cent of companies claim to offer work-lifeservices, it is becoming plain that the main economic beneficiary is theservice-provider industry. Bent on increasing their ‘share of the customer’,many providers have persuaded companies to offer staff such esoteric servicesas pet care and concierge. Moreover, as the former Work Foundation employmentexpert Richard Reeves suggests in his book Happy Mondays, there is plenty ofevidence that employees enjoy their time at work. Forty-nine per cent of thosesurveyed by the ESRC said they worked long hours because they found their jobinteresting and/or wanted to spend less time at home. CompetenciesThe big idea Too often, promotions and appointments are made on the basis of “gutinstinct or even likeability”, says Umist’s Professor Cooper. “A morescientific approach yields better results.” It stands to reason that ifyou can fit the best person to the right job there will be substantial benefitsfor all concerned. To do that, you need to be able to evaluate the competenciesa particular role demands and find as good a match as possible with what anindividual has to offer. “A competency framework should be at the heart of any HRstrategy,” adds Davies at Penna Change Consulting. There is overwhelmingevidence that so long as it is properly carried out, it considerably boosts anorganisation’s intellectual capital and thus overall performance. Assessingcompetency is also critical to getting the best out of individuals: byidentifying areas of weakness, you can target training and development muchmore effectively. And the process has never been easier – there are now anynumber of efficient tools and methodologies on the market to speed it along. Competency assessments can also have a valuable knock-on effect on companiesbecause it provides the discipline every organisation needs to scrutiniseitself properly. The very process of clarifying roles, and identifying and articulatingkey skills, raises useful questions about where a company is going – andreveals a good deal about whether its aims match up to the reality. The common reality “The jury is still out on competencies,” says Mike Haffenden ofStrategic Dimensions. “If you’re looking to recruit a hairdresser orplumber, a competency framework can work well. But at management level it ismuch more questionable.” Indeed, he suggests that a close scrutiny of manysuccessful boards would show a decided mismatch between official seniormanagement competencies and the real thing. “The point is that you can’tcarve people into different packets.” Neither can you anticipate how theywill behave in certain circumstances. Human beings are just too complex to be neatlycategorised. Paul Kearns agrees. “It’s nonsense, it doesn’t make sense,” hesays. “I know lots of executives missing these competencies who are reallyexcellent managers. The best performers often break all the rules. And thethings that really count – judgement, initiative, drive and intellectualcapacity – are very difficult to measure and impossible to instil throughtraining. Therefore, the development argument doesn’t really work. Above all, Kearns contends that competency assessment is an incrediblywasteful exercise, diverting time and resources that would be better spent onother things. It is all too easy for HR to get bogged down in the academicintricacies of defining competencies and forget the real point of the project.”NatWest, for example, identified over 180 different competencies and hadto compile a dictionary to explain them all. The whole thing became abureaucratic nightmare”. Even the practice’s most ardent defenders, likeDavies at Penna, concede that many projects get lost in ‘Lord of the Rings’ languageand often “run out of steam” because they’re not managed properly. 360-degree appraisal The big idea The 360-degree appraisal is the best method yet of gaining an objective viewof how an individual really operates in a given environment. “Assessingpeople and gaining insight into their strengths and weaknesses requires a richbase of information and multiple points of view,” write the authors of theWar on Talent, Mckinsey consultants Beth Axelrod, Helen Handfield-Jones and EdMichaels. 360-degree appraisal recognises that an individual’s performance hasmajor ramifications on those below them in the management chain as well asthose above. “Eight per cent of our survey respondents said working for alow performer prevented them from learning, kept them from making contributionsto the organisation and made them want to leave.” “The great benefit of 360-degree appraisal is that it makes managementhonest,” adds Davies at Penna Change Consulting. Why settle for 90-degreefeedback, or even 270- degree feedback, when you can get the whole pictureinstead? “HR has been very lucky for many years in getting away withoutdata”. Now that it is available, use it. The common reality “360-degree feedback is just one of many practices that companies coulddo without,” says Haffenden at Strategic Dimensions. “It’s the sortof thing HR people just get on and do without thinking about why they doit.” The real question is what is it supposed to achieve? “If I havejust fired 15 people, it will come as no surprise that most don’t rate me toohighly.” And what do you do with the data? “Knowing something iseasy, changing it is much more difficult. And there’s no guarantee that theinput or information is valid.” Haffenden also contends that the process of implementing a 360-degreefeedback scheme is fraught with difficulty and often divisive from the start.Do you, for instance, insist that the process be open and transparent? Thedownside of that is that staff may be afraid to express their real opinions andthe end result is benign banalities. But a closed, anonymous system ofappraisal can have a devastating effect on morale and teamwork, particularly inthe type of company that encourages staff to compete and threatens poorperformers with the boot. This was seen in all its grizzly glory at Enron,where managers frequently abused the quarterly appraisal system to shaft rivalsand build their own power bases. The upshot was an organisation driven bypolitical intrigue. Best practice The big idea A key part of HR’s remit is to orientate people towards quality. Bestpractice is one of the best ways to achieve this because it provides anobjective yardstick or benchmark. Moreover, in certain industries – especiallythose where a customer’s personal safety or financial security are at risk –adherence to best practice is crucial to confidence. An agreed best practicepolicy also has an important role to play in any joint project or contract,because it focuses the minds of both parties and helps head off subsequentdisputes. It is also a useful glue that helps cement together the many internaldepartments of an organisation. “Best practice is not a fad that comes and goes, it’s a logicalthing,” says Penna’s Robin Davies. “It simply asks: what does goodlook like?’ ” Any company analysing its position in the market always asksthree basic questions: i) how are we doing currently? ii) what should we bedoing? iii) what is ultimately possible? The best way of gaining insight intothe last two questions is to study how other broadly similar companies havesucceeded. Why reinvent the wheel, when you can benefit from their experience? The common realty Despite all the talk of sharing, most organisations are keen to keep theirreally effective best practices strictly under wraps for competitive reasons.”Once a company establishes a new best practice, rivals tend to copy itquickly making it difficult to sustain operational advantages,” writesMichael Porter in the Harvard Business Review. All too often, seeking out bestpractice in other companies is an unstructured exercise in ‘industrial tourism’which achieves very little beyond providing an away-day jolly. But the chief problem with best practice is the resoundingly familiar one ofthe difficulties inherent in attempting to apply a rigid formula to a set ofhighly diverse circumstances. “There’s no such thing as best practice:only different practice or, at a push, good practice, says Haffenden. “Theidea that one size fits all just doesn’t work. What works well in oneorganisation may prove disastrous in another”. Internal best practice policies within firms can also have unintendedconsequences that do as much harm as good. If enforced too stringently, theycan, ironically, lead to greater complacency. Why strive to improve somethingif its best practice has already been set in stone? Intellectual / human capital The big idea When asked to sum up why he was so successful, General Electric’s former CEOJack Welch claimed: “My main job was developing talent. I was a gardenerproviding water and other nourishment.” All the research seems to confirmhis view that nurturing an organisation’s intellectual and human capital is aprerequisite to commercial success. According to the US-based Aberdeen Group:”Effectively managed ‘people assets’ have the potential to increaseshareholder value among larger companies by as much as 30 per cent.” Given the importance of people to a company’s long-term success, it isastonishing that it took companies so long to acknowledge – and attempt tomeasure – the value of this asset in a formal way. The intellectual/humancapital movement, which began gaining ground in the early 1990s, attempts toredress that situation by putting people and their skills on the balance sheet.In many ways, it has proven the most important breakthrough for the HRprofession yet. “Putting a measurement around what we do is a veryhonourable pursuit,” says Robin Davies. The common reality Identifying and measuring intellectual and human capital may well be the‘Holy Grail’ of HR, but that doesn’t stop it from being as elusive an exerciseas ever. And although some management tools – Watson Wyatt’s Human CapitalIndex, for instance – purport to be able to capture this intangible asset andtranslate it onto the balance sheet, most observers remain sceptical.”No-one’s quite cracked the code on this one,” says Robin Davies. Few organisations have a rigorous and consistent approach for managing theirtalent, let alone assessing it properly. This may be because most are fullyaware of the upheaval that implementing a fully-blown human value managementsystem would involve – and remain unconvinced that the outcome would effect anyreal change in their company’s fortunes. Indeed, some HR experts are convinced the profession has swallowed a redherring with human capital. “It’s too complex and too difficult tomeasure,” says Haffenden. “And when it comes to putting a value oncompanies, I’m not at all sure there’s anything wrong with using the [traditional]financial methods”. He believes HR would have a much greater impact if it concentrated onorganisational and structural assets instead. “I’ve worked for greatcompanies and lousy companies and the people in them all were much the same.What separated these companies were the systems and processes they’d evolved.It’s the context in which people work – not the people themselves – that makesthe real difference.” Big ideas debunkedOn 11 Jun 2002 in Personnel Today Comments are closed. Related posts:No related photos.