It's hard to believe that a conference of 15,000-plus people featuring such headliners as Virgin Group boss Sir Richard Branson, media mogul Arianna Huffington, actor and activist Michael J. Fox and country music luminary Keith Urban could be overshadowed, but in Vegas there's always a bigger show.
In this case, it was the Electric Daisy Carnival, a three-day electronic music festival featuring more than 150 DJs and performers that attracted a reported 250,000 ravers and club kids to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Sunday finale coincided with the opening of the 2011 SHRM conference, leading to the rather amusing clash of business casual with what I'll politely term casual in hotel lobbies and on the Strip.
Just as SHRM kicked off in the shadow of Electric Daisy, loads of great presentations and workshops took place in the shadow of the big-name keynoters. Branson, Huffington, Fox, et. al. garner the headlines but I feel like they could, except for Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, just as easily be giving the same speech to a conference of financial planners. With the exception of a few HR-themed comments, some probably have.
The big keynotes, attended by thousands, take place in the limelight but other sessions steal the spotlight. Such was the case for the Monday afternoon presentation by Jackie Orme, chief executive of the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), the U.K. equivalent to SHRM. Tucked away off the main drag in a ballroom in the Las Vegas Hilton, Orme outlined CIPD's Next Generation HR research, the culmination of the organization's dialogue with more than 100 HR leaders and corresponding study of HR at 36 organizations in the U.K., Europe and Asia.
The goal, Orme told the few hundred people in the audience, is to use the research as a catalyst for change and help HR leaders apply the principles of next generation HR to practice. To start, CIPD's research identified problems that have limited HR as a function, including:
- The rise of HR orthodoxy: Blind allegiance to the structure and process of HR at the expense of developing business solutions.
- HR's service heritage: The view that process excellence and HR structure are the route to transformation of the function.
The recent financial crisis provides a great case in point. Some of the world's leading financial firms were held up as paragons of HR process and activity but in fact were plagued by a systemic failure of leadership and culture. As subsequent events revealed, they were in fact rotten at their core, focused on growth at the expense of capability. HR should have been playing a critical role to bring those problems to the surface but didn't or possibly couldn't.
Better HR could have helped avoid that unhappy outcome. Orme outlined core propositions at the heart of next generation HR:
- Purpose is what matters most. This clarity of purpose for HR goes beyond short-term needs assessments and narrow definitions of HR value (such as 'being a great place to work' or 'getting the right person in the right place at the right time') to shaping the future and actively seeking out growth opportunities aimed at creating sustainable organizational performance and health.
- Insight is the most important thing. This insight, which is different from information (more on that below), sets the guidance system for HR and provides a viewpoint on HR's value to the organization.This insight comes from a combination of organizational savvy, business savvy and contextual savvy (ie, understanding of external factors and trends that will affect the organization in the future).
- HR needs to become truly situational. It is not possible to be strategic as a function if we're only focused on our own internal processes. HR must be more external facing and ready to respond to business situations as they arise.
- Brains are as important as brawn. Curiosity and inquisitiveness needs to be a core aspect of HR.
I caught up with Jackie and Lee Sears, a strategic advisor at CIPD and co-founder of Bridge, CIPD's leadership consultancy, the next day. After swapping Vegas stories, we turned to CIPD's work.
Next generation HR needs to be a sense-making function rather than a process-oriented one, Sears said. Many HR organizations have evolved from a traditional productivity focus, aimed at employee satisfaction and process efficiency, to a more modern engagement focus, aimed at performance and building capability. That's not enough. The best HR teams are focused on delivering insight and translating new understanding of the organization into creative and relevant solutions that are about tomorrow, not today.
That last point grabbed my attention. Many HR organizations, as they have focused more on effective and efficient talent management and tighter business alignment, have become more adept at synthesizing and analyzing the reams of people information generated every day. The vendor community has helped by integrating products across the HR spectrum, from recruitment to on-boarding to performance management and succession. But that increasing sophistication of information does not equal insight. There's a correlation but not causation.
It's easy to lose sight of that key point in the noise of day-to-day management of HR, in the roar of new product announcements from the trade show floor or the flood of thoughts and ideas from the stage. CIPD's research and analysis shines a light on a possible way forward that can ensure HR is never overshadowed again.