Tuesday, 21 October 2008

HR Departments - do they need to be exemplars of talent-management best practice ?

Imagine the following scenario:  

You have recently moved into a small town with two hairdressers/barbers.  Each week you walk past both salons.  One individual always has immaculately cut hair, while the other looks clearly pays little attention to their appearance.  Both are fully qualified, with plenty of certificates on display in their premises.

  • Which would you choose to cut your hair just before you go for an important job interview?
  • To what extent would other factors (price, waiting time, customer feedback …. ) influence your decision ?


“In a knowledge economy, companies with the best talent win. And finding, nurturing, and developing that talent should be one of the most important tasks in a corporation.” FAST COMPANY, 2005

Hence, to what extent is it important that senior HR professionals manage their own departments as exemplars of talent-management best practice?  

Does this build credibility and trust with business leaders, enabling HR to style the organisation-wide people-strategy? Alternatively, is this viewed as diverting effort from supporting the core business agenda?

I doubt there are clear answers to these questions.  Equally, I feel that it would be helpful for the HR profession to invest more time in understanding this issue.  We should aim to research which elements of talent-development best-practice are best ‘sold’ to leaders through how we manage the HR department, versus using economic (ROI) arguments; just-in-time relevance, or (iii) client feedback from pilot projects.


I’ll be interested to hear your views on this. 

Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Revisiting the HBR 2002 paper "Everything I Know about Business I Learned from Monopoly"

Originally published by Harvard Business Review in 2002, "Everything I Know About Business I Learned from Monopoly" by Phil Orbanes provides great insights for all working in HR/L&D.  I recently rediscovered this paper in my files.

Orbanes is cited as "one of the world's foremost board-game designers". To be successful he needs to understand what makes people want to compete - and win.  

I see clear parallels with a people-manager needing to understand what makes their direct reports want to be engaged and committed to the organisation's mission.

Orbanes presents six principles of "Great Game Design"
  • Make the rules simple and unambiguous
  • Don't frustrate the casual player
  • Establish a rhythm
  • Focus on what is happening off the board
  • Give 'em chances to come from behind
  • Provide outlets for latent talents

Make the rules simple and unambiguous
"people can [also] find a game bewildering if the aren't given a sound structure and clear guidance"

So, while from an L&D perspective the use of simulations in training can help cut through real life complexity, this also hints that the inconsistency and unpredictability of the workplace needs to be mitigated where possible.  

I see strong links here to a central role of leadership - namely defining the vision & mission of the organisation/team and communicating to reinforce understanding.  From an HR perspective, this also needs to be supported by ensuring employees have a good understanding of policies/processes & the wider psychological contract.  

Don't frustrate the casual player
"if a game is to last ... it must appeal to a critical mass of casual players who will rapidly comprehend and enjoy playing it"

I'd suggest this insight can be related to the issues of information overload in the modern workplace.  Just as there is a wealth of entertainment options competing for an individual's leisure time, employees need to navigate conflicting priorities.  

When an organisation changes its strategy (i.e. game), mass communication is needed, and it needs to be kept simple !  To 'enjoy playing it' I'd suggest aiming to involve employees in collectively working out the details of the change.  I see a great role for Enterprise 2.0 tools in achieving these aims.  Podcasts help focus leaders on keeping communications short and to the point, Blogs provide a level of access & interaction with senior management that was previously only enjoyed by HQ staff.

Establish a rhythm
"If a game paces itself effectively, people will instinctively know which phase they are in.  If the pace doesn't build, its not so much of a game."

Orbanes makes his own connections to the workplace: "Is there an analogy for business to the beginning, middle, and end rhythm in games ? I think so. A good manager might engineer these types of shifts over the course of a critical project - and be prepared for different moods and levels of motivations from people".   I'd certainly agree that building 'Interpersonal Skills' is a powerful lever for enhancing Leadership.

For HR, I also see the importance of guiding an annual cycle of managing performance - with well-understood phases of goal setting, feedback and reward. 

Focus on what is happening off the board
"a well-designed game makes people feel better afterwards - and for many players, that's due to the larger social experience, of which the game is only the core activity"

Gallup recognise the importance of having 'a best friend at work', if employees are to be highly engaged.  Also, as the HBR paper states "... a manager must consider people's work:life balance". 

I see HR taking a lead in this area: championing the benefits of flexible working etc. 

Give 'em chances to come from behind
"One of the trickiest aspects of game design is achieving just the right balance of skill and luck"

This raises the issue of what role is there for 'luck' in the workplace.  Reward & recognition mechanisms need to be fair and consistent (i.e. driven by acknowledging the outcomes achieved from skill) if they are to motivate rather than demotivate others.  Equally, good performance management processes should provide reasonable support to help struggling employees turnaround poor performance, with manager setting clear, attainable goals for improvement.

But, just as a Monopoly 'Community Chest' card can introduce a new, improved situation for a player, I see the need to invest in both the predictable future (e.g. grooming high potentials for the next level of leadership)  and the unpredictable (e.g. encouraging 'skunk works', by expecting 10% of an employees effort to be directed towards bottom-up projects).

Provide outlets for latent talents
"great games and great workplaces, also offer outlets for skills that people would like to express but don't use during their normal routines"

Orbanes also highlights that "Chess and Bridge had their heyday in the United States in the 1930s and 1940s when wide-ranging opportunities to exercise intellectual powers or gain intellectual stimulation on the job simply did not exist".

In the workplace there is an increasing trend for multiple careers.  As individuals' interests  and circumstances change over time, organisations can capitalise on this if they provide outlets such as secondments.  I'd also see the role of L&D/HR as helping employees better manage their own career development.  They can then effectively partner with the organisation on creating appropriate outlets for their skills and interest.

No doubt I've only scratched the surface of the links that can be drawn between 'making engaging board-games' and 'engaging employees by the board'.  Please share other workplace insights generated from this introduction to the principles of board-game design   

FYI: The HBR article also makes comment on the use of game-playing to build teams:
"at very least an afternoon of playing games builds relationships among workers and increases the social capital within an organisation..."

PS: in the current economic turmoil it would be interesting to consider what 'new rules' Waddingtons should add to their board-game .... or was it great insight that while the waterworks, the electric company & the railways stations could all be privately held, the bank is centrally managed ?!

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Learning 2.0

Clive Shepherd provides a helpful summary within his blog of the latest research from the elearning guild on 'Learning 2.0 - Learning in a Web 2.0 World'

Clive highlights that: "It is the belief of the authors that younger workers will demand it, and that organisations who adopt it will do better when it comes to attracting and retaining talent."

I'm also struck by the following bullets from the Key Findings of the report:
  • Only 28.1% of members report that their organizations are preparing workers on using Web 2.0 approaches for learning and work.
  • Among members working in organizations with 10,000 or more workers, 10.8% cannot access LinkedIn, 26.2% cannot access Gmail, 35.0% cannot access YouTube, and 39.2% cannot access either Facebook or MySpace.

I don't think we should be surprised by this data, but it also shows the magnitude of the challenge to move from uptake by individual early adopters to embedding this as the norm for the majority of the workforce, especially in large organisations.

Given that I'd hope that the majority of business leaders value networking & informal learning (as levers that have made them successful in a pre-Web 2.0 world) - I feel we need to challenge ourselves to do more to help them understand that the new technologies are first & foremost just tools to help their workforce network and learn more efficiently & effectively.

Great Leadership - Carnival

Check out the Great Leadership Carnival currently being hosted by Dan McCarthy.

I particularly like the following insights (the bold emphasis is mine) - but there are many more lessons to be taken from the rest of the content !]:

"When leaders infuse the organizational culture with the element of human value, it has a ripple effect. First, it helps leaders form an emotional connection with the people they lead.  Second, it strengthens the emotional connection among the people they lead as employees adopt the leaders’ values in their interactions with one another. Third, the sense of connection reaches out to customers (or patients, in New York-Presbyterian’s case) when frontline employees become intentional about demonstrating human value"  [Michael Lee Stallard]

To manage well requires that you recognize the subtle, but important, differences between people and that you know how to put those differences to work for your organization. Great managers thrive on helping people experience incremental growth. The dynamic creativity of figuring out how to move from the player to the plays is the real genius of a great manager.
Leadership isn’t about that at all. Leadership is about finding the words, stories, and images that bring great clarity to people. And that’s just different from being a good manager. You could have both talents, but good managers don’t necessarily make good leaders.
So when you actually "learn" leadership - you actually make a great shift in your worldview. You cannot build a new worldview on top of your existing ones. You have to let them go.
[Gautam Gosh - citing Marcus Buckingham]


6 Unwritten Rules to Advancement in the Workplace (aka - Professional Networking 2.0)

  • Network and build relationships both within and outside your organization.
  • Find ways to become visible in your team and organization, e.g., seek out important assignments. 
  • Lobby for yourself and your work, do not be afraid to “brag” about your accomplishments.
  • Communicate effectively and ask for feedback.
  • Find a mentor, coach, sponsor; developmental relationships not only provide knowledge and experience, but can help expand your professional network. 
  • Develop a good career plan; prepare for each step, learn the right skills.  
[Britannica Blog]


You will not grow if you sit in a beautiful flower garden, but you will grow if you are sick, if you are in pain, if you experience losses, and if you do not put your head in the sand, but take the pain as a gift to you with a very, very specific purpose.

The message here is that we can learn from every experience, and that in fact every experience can be regarded as a gift. This, perhaps, is a hard thing for us to hear - we have been conditioned to think of illness and pain  in a negative way and we try to avoid suffering at all costs. But all growth involves pain and so perhaps we should be less eager to shy away from it, learning instead to welcome it and take something of value from these experiences. [Michael Miles on 'the wisdom of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross]

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

Interesting Links (October 2008)

Help More, Judge Less

Marshall Goldsmith (HBS Discussion Leaders) provides a list of seven steps to stop finger pointing during a crisis.

These are:
  1. Encourage everyone on your team to remember four words that can help all of you get though your crisis in the best way possible: help more, judge less.

  2. Try to get team members to focus on a future that they can impact, not a past that they cannot change anyway.

  3. Try to get people to take responsibility for their own behavior.

  4. Ask each person to reflect on the question, "What can I learn from this crisis?"

  5. Ask everyone on your team to reflect on the question, "What can we learn from this crisis?"

  6. Encourage each team member to avoid speaking when angry or out of control.

  7. Before speaking don't just ask, "Am I correct?" - ask "Will this help?"

As mentioned in the discussion linked to the article - this is good advice at any time ... but especially helpful at times of stress. As Marshall states:

"Anyone can provide leadership when times are easy. Great leaders - and great teams - step up when times are tough. Rather than get lost in whining, have each team member focus on how he or she can grow from this experience. "


Are Leaders Portable ?

How do you ensure that incoming high performers deliver as promised?

Also from HBS, is this easy to digest article from Boris Groysberg, Andrew N. McLean, and Nitin Nohria. They highlight that

"Too many hiring companies wrongly assume that certain skills and experience are just what they need and will transfer automatically to their own setting. Sure, general management skills (performance evaluation, vision setting, financial acumen) translate well to new settings. But other assets—including strategic abilities such as cost control expertise, and industry-specific knowledge—may or may not prove portable, depending on the hiring company’s needs. For example, hiring an expert cost cutter when your company must drive top-line growth could set him up for failure—though that same executive would likely excel if your strategy hinged on cost management"

This may sound like common sense - but as the article states:

"When a company hires a CEO from General Electric—considered the United States’ top executive training ground—the hiring firm’s stock price spikes instantly. But not all newly hired stars deliver as promised. One former GE giant, for instance, underwhelmed his new employer with an annualized rate of return 30% below the S&P average."


Remote Working - avoiding the pitfalls

Management Issues highlight "Five ways to get Remote Working Wrong" - mistakes that companies tend to make when setting up teleworking or remote working programmes.

Telecommuting is a growing trend - so this paper will be of interest to many.

  • The first pitfall is that organisations rush into it without any concrete policies and procedures in place

  • The second common pitfall is to over-invest in technology, with companies rushing out to buy the latest technology and gizmos when often they did not need to.

  • The third failing was the failure to train managers. It is now well recognised that managing someone from afar requires a different set of management skills, especially how you communicate and stay in touch with your remote team.

  • Fourthly, firms often failed to explore whether this type of initiative even fitted within their business model.

  • Finally, organisations too often failed to pilot their programme before "going live".

L&D colleagues will be particularly interested in bullet 3, especially as the authors highlight "Yet too often day-to-day pressures or budgetary constraints meant training around this new form of management simply failed to happen".


Finding the Right Boss

Few things have more impact on your happiness at work than the person you answer to every day.

The Washington Post highlights the need for workers moving between roles to place greater emphasis on understanding their potential future boss they state: "Here are a few signs to watch for during your next intervie to help you find a boss you respect"
Meetings with all the right people. If you don't have an interview with the person who will be your direct supervisor, watch out. 

· A willingness to talk about himself. It's not appropriate to grill the interviewer about his qualifications, but it's perfectly acceptable to ask about his education and experience, and how he wound up in his job. You're trying to get a sense of whether you can learn from this person.

· A positive vibe about the person who held the job before. Ask your prospective boss what happened to the last person who held the position for which you're applying. 

· A strong career of his own. You want a boss who is considered a rising star, Ask around to see what sort of reputation he has within the company, as well as his field. Is he getting regular promotions? Does he have a strong internal network? "You really want to be near the movers and shakers, if possible," she said.

· Encouraging nonverbal cues.Was the person on time and attentive? Did she look you in the eye? Is her attention focused on you during the interview? If not, don't get your hopes up.

· A good hunch. A big part of finding the right job is pure chemistry. A job may seem great intellectually, but if you have a bad feeling about it, there's probably a reason, even if you can't articulate it.

I'd suggest this theme is equally applicable for internal transfers - and thus the 'chemistry' is something HR should help the business lines determine as part of talent management.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Keeping L&D/HR focused on the 'Big Picture' during the economic downturn.

While talk of recession dominates the current business agenda we should not forget that most are short lived.  Hence, I believe that the L&D topics being debated before the phrase ‘sub-prime mortgage’ entered the popular press remain important. 


The economic growth of China continues.  It is thus inevitable that, like Japan beforehand, management and leadership practices associated with their climb up the world order will be of global importance.  Currently the vast majority of textbooks read by our UK managers are written by US opinion leaders: but should we expect this to be the case in 10 years time? For HR to influence the uptake of ideas from these new thought-leaders, we will need to build global partnerships.


Global communications and mobility have changed how the efforts of individual employees are aggregated.  Management structures refined over the past century now look clumsy if not obsolete, as ‘amplifying effort’ (i.e. colleague engagement) becomes the greater challenge for leaders.  Gary Hamel’s thesis on “The Future of Management” provides great insights, and now HR must help take up the challenge.   


Mentoring, coaching and on-the-job experiences have always been an important part of workplace learning.  Training is becoming increasingly squeezed both from a time and financial point of view.  In a world where vast amounts of knowledge can be accessed with a couple of key strokes, ‘just-in-time’ performance support rather than ‘just-in-case’ training is being demanded.  Understanding and integrating the ROI of training and other forms of learning has never been more important than at present.


Equally, a harsh economic climate provides some additional opportunities for those involved in Learning & Leadership.  The psychological contract with employees has already moved away from expectations of ‘a job for life’ in return for loyalty and commitment.  Individuals who accept the need to invest in life-long learning are most likely to successfully navigate a world of rapid organizational change and multiple careers.  Building this mindset and ensuring organizations contribute to keeping their workforce ‘employable’ is likely to be most valued now.


Leadership judgment is critical at this time, as poor business decisions are unlikely to go unpunished.  Perhaps more important, however, is the ability to execute whatever business strategy is selected.  This depends on successfully changing employees’ behaviours, a complex challenge where HR expertise can contribute significant business value. 

Hence I hope that the value of L&D/HR will come to be better recognised by business leaders as they navigate the current economic downturn.