ConnectingHR: a not uninteresting unconference

Creating Connections at work at #chru3If you’re not yet familiar with unconferences in general, or Connecting HR in particular, I knew exactly how you felt until last Thursday. Informal gatherings where the attendees formulate the agenda and discuss topics of the greatest importance to them in self-selecting break-out groups, you can read more at (although searching Twitter for #connectinghr or #chru3 – the hash tag for last week’s event – will add seasoning to the flavour: #chru people tweet like amiably over-caffeinated budgies at the drop of a smartphone).

But to truly taste the atmosphere, you might want to consider attending. I arrived last Thursday with very little idea of what to expect – I was half-anticipating something akin to #occupyHR and toyed with bringing a tent, although that would be to do a disservice to the day’s hosts at The Spring Project, based in a former warehouse in Vauxhall, South London. But I also arrived as far as possible with an open mind – always a good travel companion: if nothing else, it weighs so little to carry. (This came in useful during the Aikido session that had valuable lessons about mental perceptions and assumptions, even if arm-wrestling with someone you’ve only previously read on Twitter is an unusual way to actually meet them.)

Teas, coffees and travel anecdotes duly despatched (London Underground had what traditional HR might discretely note as ‘issues’ that morning), we loosely split into rotating groups for a four-stage ‘world café’ collective brainstorm around a) good things about work, b) bad things about work, c) changes we’d like to see and d) obstacles to them. Out of this process – where my inner calligrapher was as thrilled as my inner child to be encouraged to write on the paper table-cloths – emerged themes for the day’s break-out groups. (We were also encouraged to move freely between these groups.)

Looking back on the points that emerged during the day, I sense a mixture of ‘eternal issues’ that will probably always arise in HR debates and of some interesting and refreshing food for thought – although both felt grounded in daily experience rather than drawn from manuals or the sacred texts of the industry’s gurus. At no point did I feel like the Monty Python character attempting to return the legendary dead parrot: there was a honesty to the discussions that was very welcome.

Break-out group discussion at #chru3

Among the eternal verities, I certainly noted:

  • The ‘expert to leader’ scenario, where functional skills are developed over years or decades and suddenly replaced by a need for people and managerial skills – one answer to which is for organisations to give greater recognition to the value of functional skills. Another is to ask what’s wrong with someone who performs highly capably in an ‘expert’ role and harbours no desire to ‘progress’ to a managerial one: the commonly viewed definition of ‘ambition’ might not be one that everyone shares, so why create a problem where none currently exists?
  • Micro-management and what was (I hope) jocularly referred to at one point as ‘cost management über alles’. Ifwe spend an hour monitoring and evaluating every 6 hours work, don’t we lose an hour’s productivity? And how do we account for the value of that hour?
  • For women, the disruption to (and surrender of) career ambitions that maternity can bring.

We are, as I’ve noted before, the species that put men on the moon (and they were men too) before we put wheels on our suitcases, so our prioritising skills may always have been dubious, but there was a sense during the day that this was the kind of gathering that wouldn’t stop at labelling these as ‘sacred cow’ issues: the mood was more about deciding whether these sacred cows should continue to graze freely and hungrily through our working lives – or be swiftly but humanely slaughtered and flung on the grill.

Other themes that emerged are far too numerous to discuss at length here, but here’s just a selection of those I overheard or participated in:

Break-out group discussion at #chru3

‘You are your own recent history’: while most people have a varied backstory to draw on, do organisation’s judge, assess and value on our current or most recent role. In one participant’s words, “You’re not even your CV; you’re your last job description”. Another participant, facing her own redundancy after 3 years spent managing those of others, is being viewed as potential employers as a redundancy expert despite a long career in HR and a wish to be involved in aspects she values as being more concerned with development. Apart from the obvious issue of motivation, there was concern that hidden talents are being further buried rather than disinterred as a result of this Dymo™ label management approach. While this is an issue that ultimately requires cultural change, one shorter term suggestion might be to ask two appraisal questions that are rarely heard: “What skills do you have that you’re not getting the opportunity to use?” and “What would you like to have the opportunity to do that you’ve not yet had?”

Gareth Jones and Doug Shaw compare bicepsRethinking our approach to recruitment: during our full group session, The Spring Project introduced participants to a group of recent graduates who’ve been taking part in a variety of projects with them to improve their employability. Faced with bright, enthusiastic people with abundant proof of knowledge (most had completed Masters programmes) and not expecting a ‘Eureka!’ moment as a response, I posed an open question – what can we use in recruitment other than CVs? Tailoring many hundreds of variants (as some of these graduates had done) to submit to recruiters who then read many hundreds of them (or receive a selection filtered through online application processes where score-carding and box-ticking are applied to a highly condensed snapshot of a life) would, I suspect, strike the proverbial visiting Martians as odd.

The debate that the idea triggered may have been inconclusive, but it was certainly interesting: most of graduate recruiters’ energies are spent not on recruiting, but on rejecting. And the rejected, who all too frequently receive no explanation or reasoning – if they receive a response at all – are not helped by the process either. We might be forgiven for concluding that the whole process is geared towards keeping people out of work, not in it. And a benefits system for jobseekers that forces them to make at least a minimum number of applications exacerbates the problem: to be supported in looking for a job where their talents can be employed, people are pressured into making unfocused applications for inappropriate jobs, thus further filling the inboxes of the recruiters with CVs to reject and increasing the scorecard/snap decision tendency.

Hats off to The Spring Project for their client-collaboration projects, but in a world where “What is the future of work?” could easily become a more pointed question – see Doug Rushkoff’s recent CNN blog, Are jobs obsolete? – reviewing recruitment may well be inevitable. Questions like “So what exactly are universities for?” may find the answers shifting with the socio-political sands too: yesterday’s news about falling applications will be interesting to follow.

“What do I pay HR for?”: a question reported by one participating practitioner whose own organisation top-slices the funding of divisions to pay for a central HR function, as it was a question that had been asked of – perhaps ‘pointed at’ would come closer? – her. It partly relates back to the ‘expert to leader’ conundrum, where people trained to and focuses on implementing difficult processes or handling complex equipment find themselves expected to conduct difficult conversations and expect HR’s support, help – or, in some cases – intervention.

The idea that HR might not need to exist if line managers could handle people issues emerged repeatedly throughout the day (we argued this case back in 2009, but it’s still worth reading!), but it struck me as a visiting ear at #chru3 that this is a relationship issue for HR that’s as, if not more, important that their relationship with senior management. (A relationship they seemed frequently vexed about too: perhaps the desire to be seen – from above – as a strategic force is HR’s own ‘expert to leader’ issue?) To free itself to focus more on its own desired activities, doesn’t HR need to have the kind of relationship with line management that allows line managers to perform those ‘HR’ functions it often struggles with? To impart those skills in line managers, there are other ‘people skills’ issues to be faced in many organisations, earning respect and trust among them. I can’t help but remember the Guardian’s “HR: Your friend or foe?” article (see our earlier blog on HR futures), where we observed:

[…] ‘friend or foe?’ is a question you can only pose if there’s already an ‘us and them’.

Break-out group discussion at #chru3

I could say so much more about a day where ideas flew round the room like toddlers round a sweet factory, but I’ll finish with an optimistic observation. Many years ago, as a university administrator who knew his email from his elbow, I helped set up an online network for my colleagues across the sector – the sector had Internet connectivity ahead of most of the UK, but it seemed potential for using it by administrators hadn’t occurred to anyone. Within a year, we had national email discussion lists (which I’ve just discovered are still going some 19 years later), online boards, national bodies using the Net to communicate with us, and the opportunity to share our experiences of common themes (at that time, the introduction of student fees, the abolition of ‘Polytechnic’ status, how to manage secure printing of degree certificates). We weren’t opposed to our existing professional body (who gave us platform space at their events) or our institutions, but we could see there were opportunities to learn and to explore new approaches that needed to operate outside or beyond those structures.

In its mixed use of social media and ‘real life’ (ghastly phrase) events, Connecting HR is doing something similar. Let’s all hope it too can evolve with a string of positive developments for all of us – and continue to be as admirably open and inclusive as its beginnings suggest.

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Filed under: authentic leadership, behavioural change, communication, HR, leading performance, line managers, management, motivation, relationships, reward and recognition


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