I have been to the CIPD Annual Conference & Exhibition (ACE) several times in the past but only ever to the exhibition. This year was my first time attending the conference. I loved it. It was inspiring to hear top players - psychologists, neuroscientists, futurologists - speak passionately about their latest insights.
At ACE there is a great HR buzz. It’s an opportunity to meet new people, have some great conversations and hear a range of inspiring talks. I felt it only right that I share my five top themes from the conference, which I feel every HR practitioner should be thinking about:
1. We work in a hyper-complex, global world
The backdrop to Wednesday morning was the US election result. Controversial news about the American presidency seemed to give delegates and speakers a feeling of unity, and Trump was mentioned in nearly every talk and in a lot of conversations. This election really highlighted the issues with the world we are living in - one where the average citizen (and therefore average employee) feels a great amount of distrust towards the “system” and will follow leaders who embody hope and change, regardless of whether it is true or even rational. Jobs are becoming increasingly complex, and organisations need to think creatively and be resilient. The safe window for forecasting is now just two years, and we cannot predict the sorts of problems we will need to solve beyond that.
2. The key to business success? Helpfulness
Margaret Heffernan is the author of Wilful Blindness and Beyond Measure, and if you do not know her name yet, my advice is to look her up and watch her TED talks. Heffernan gave brilliant evidence that the performance of an organisation does not rely on a few “super” people but on everyone. It will not be a small few who know the answer to problems anymore, it is the organisation as a whole.
Heffernan quoted an interesting study by Woolley, Malone and Chabris (2015) where they tested what makes a high performing team. Controversially, it was nothing to do with IQ, motivation, or extroverted people. They found all high performing teams to have three traits in common:
• All members contributed equally – there was no hierarchy.
• Their members scored highly on a test for empathy.
• There were more women in the teams.
Although this does not sound radical, most of our HR systems - for recruitment, performance management and reward, for example - are set up to select and reward the super few and do not encourage skills such an empathy and helpfulness. Yet people who have the experience may not necessarily have the answers. We need people to work together. The key to the success of a business is helpfulness.
3. We need to embrace the future
Two interesting talks by Bernard Marr (best-selling author on organisational success), and Daniel Susskind (author of The Future of the Professions), highlighted the pace of change of technology and how this will impact on HR, jobs, and the types of companies which could arise as industry game-changers, such as Uber, Amazon and EBay.
Susskind talked about how professions are likely to disappear. Machines now have so much processing power, we will not need human “experts” forever. What we are likely to need is people who have the empathy to apply the knowledge.
The capability of machines is changing and this will have huge implications for businesses as well as professions. We need to understand and embrace this rather than ignore it. For example, I learnt that 90% of the data in the world was collected in the last 18 months. Facebook “Deepface” can recognise us in photos better than our friends can. Facebook can tell our mental stability, IQ, sexual orientation and whether our parents are divorced, just by what we click “like”.
We therefore are entering a world with so much data we do not know what the possibilities are. We do know it is likely that our competition will not look like us – think Blockbuster rental vs Netflix. As HR professionals we must be open to opportunities, and ready to manage the insecurity this is likely to inflict on our employees.
4. Human Resources deals with humans
If machines do a lot of our work for us, one unique thing we can offer is being human. Hilary Scarlett (author of Neuroscience for Organisational Change) and Samantha Rockey (Global Head of Leadership Development at SABMiller), spoke on using neuroscience to get the best out of ourselves and employees.
As most working environments today are “people” industries, our people are our product. Humans crave understanding and have choice, and if they have these they are likely to perform much better. They quote studies which prove humans are happier when they have certainty, even if it is negative. People will also be happier if they can be honest and bring emotions into the workplace, a point I strongly agree with.
Even when it comes to delivering bad news such as restructures, giving people choice and control and treating them like adults has been proven to have a huge beneficial impact. Most organisations are scared to deliver bad news and hide it from employees, but this is actually counter-productive.
5. We all have bias
Chia-Jung Tsay (Assistant Professor in the UCL School of Management) has studied various types of bias. She found that we all have a “visual” bias and her research shows that both musical novices and experts would pick the winner of live music competitions based on silent visuals more accurately than from the sound, or sound and visual combined. Visual, non-conscious bias in decision-making within a business clearly has huge implications on diversity.
Another study showed the “naturalness” bias and how we favour the “natural” (someone who can do things easily) over the “striver” (someone who works hard). Tsay proves we will accept someone with significantly less experience and IQ points to get someone we perceive to be a “natural”. This also means that although people try to show how much effort they put in at work, on occasion perhaps we should admit when things do come naturally to us in the workplace.
By acknowledging that we have biases, we can work on limitations.
What can we do now?
The CIPD ACE show covered some enormous topics and some really up-to-date issues. My summary above has not done it justice. But it has given me some topics and speakers to keep on my radar and I can see there are some small changes we can all look at straight away to start giving ourselves a competitive edge as HR practitioners.
I came away from ACE with a strong sense that HR departments have a purpose. We are not just androids, we are human, as are the managers and employees we support. There is a lot of change coming and it is our job to create good working environments for our employees. We should encourage individuality and emotions, and we should be looking for skills like empathy. These are no longer second class “soft skills” they are becoming just as important as any other skill.
We need to be resilient and encourage resilience in our organisations. We need our employees to be dedicated, trusting and performing. We should ensure we give them any certainty and choice that we can. We should encourage the building of relationships, not just for commercial reasons.