A whole new world

By Colin Williams | 15 August 2018

Let’s go back to autumn 1977 and a 16-year-old who was by then already ‘post-punk’ fell into the world of local government influenced either by an inherent public service ethos or the fact it was November and too cold to work outside... We were then a decade away from the birth of the internet and mobile phones and yet to benefit from the much more important breakthroughs in genetic sequencing and ATM’s. A whole different world.

Having spent most of the next 40 years in HR (or ‘personnel’ as we used to call it) I don’t want to look back at how much the ‘people management’ profession has changed but would suggest we need to climb above the noise of the ‘here and now’ and think about the future in the face of the exponential rate of social change and technological development.

The world of HR in 2018 is about ensuring that the value of people is intrinsic to the thinking of decision makers at every level in our sector. ‘People’ means the people who are delivering all those essential public services, increasingly stretching beyond those who are employed. HR is not about systems, but what systems tell us about our people and what impact they have on our people. It’s more about the business, about connections, helping people to work better and more effectively at individual, team, organisational and sectoral levels. As Dave Ulrich said at our recent loveyourHR conference ‘it’s all about relationships’. He’s right.

Can we predict with any degree of confidence what the public sector will look like in 2028 and what that will mean for ‘people management’? I can’t and if you can, you are welcome to offer your vision through our #loveyourhr blog site. What I will predict though is that the means of public service delivery will more rapidly both consolidate and disaggregate. The cash (supply) and service (demand) is already leading to a ‘beyond’ blurring of traditional boundaries across the public sector and alternative delivery mechanisms (ADMs not ATMs!) will soon become the norm rather than the new.

So, how is our profession preparing for this brave new world? I consciously didn’t use the term HR in that sentence as I’m not even sure the term will retain its place let alone its influence over the next decade. Its work and its (internal) marketplace have already divided and we all need to let go of the past. The transactional processes will be automated to the point of being the domain of system driven customer services, delivered on a ‘shared’ basis across much wider (geographical and technological platforms).

Who would bet against ‘Amazon People Transactions’ having cornered the market by 2025? It should go without saying but if we are still delivering operational advisory services for those managers delivering services on behalf of the sector then we will have already failed by not enabling them to manage their people, or taken the easy route for all by doing an integral part of their job for them.

If my (hardly startling) predictions of consolidation and disaggregation develop at pace, then I may also contend ‘organisational development’ will become a redundant term, as ‘organisations’ per se will cease to be the ‘territorial’ frame in which we try to shape culture (and ‘operating models’ – whatever that means).

When recently trying to help a local authority reposition and redefine its corporate enablers as part a restructuring, I was pushing at an open door regarding the recognition of the need to integrate HR and OD with their transformation and policy & performance teams under a single managerial remit. However, despite my best efforts I failed to persuade them to lose the term OD (which is ‘loaded’ with individual perceptions of meaning) and use the more simple and meaningful word ‘change’.

I didn’t even try to persuade them that within their new combined ‘multi-disciplinary’ structure they should be designing single roles that go beyond better connecting their HR professionals to their other ‘change focused’ colleagues and which are focused on diagnosing, developing, supporting and delivering business change. While the latter may be too radical for some (and threatening the identity of our ‘profession’) if we are the preachers of change, then we have to be willing to lead that change from the front.

Of course, that little example remains constrained in its own institutional boundaries and really needs to be positioned in the context of what public service delivery will look like over the horizon four years onwards from now.

While no doubt ‘commercialism’ will be an essential dimension to underpinning and sustaining public services, I’m not sure its contribution as an income or efficiency generator has the potential to prevent a ‘wave’ of Section 114 warnings as the public service funding gap widens at pace. In my view, it’s just one of a suite of necessary individual competences and organisational characteristics.

At West Midlands Employers (WME) we’d like to think we can at least try to contribute to this debate in as many places as we can. Our Aspire strategic HR business partnering programme – delivered in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) and the Local Government Association (LGA) – has been very successful, albeit just a little step along the change curve the people management profession needs.

We’re ready to talk to the LGA, health bodies and other colleagues about defining need and designing opportunities for individual development that goes beyond OD and is focused on developing people into enablers of change who are fit for the future. If you want to join that conversation, your blog offers are welcome.

Delivering real change demands that magic mix of the right experience, energy and freshness. As I move on after 41 years since being the post-punk 16-year-old, if you think you have the ingredients to lead WME in its people and leadership services and see an opportunity to play a part in helping shape the ‘whole new world’, both regionally (West Midlands) and nationally then look out for our advert in The MJ early next month.

At WME we don’t have all the answers to the issues public services face, but we have the passion to be part of the solution.

Colin Williams is director – West Midlands Employers


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