As yet another economic study shows the UK continuing to lag seriously
behind our major international competitors in the productivity stakes – this
time from the National Institute of Economic and Social Research – the need for
a fundamental rethink as to how we organise and motivate people at work has
become an imperative.
The odd enterprise or skills initiative here, or work-life balance programme
there is simply not going to address the scale of the problem. The HR function
has a critical role to play in compelling colleagues to undertake and act on
this wholesale reappraisal.
By the end of the century, the ‘religion’ of North American strategic HRM
had become all-pervasive. Strategic alignment, bottom- line contribution,
boardroom presence and HR scorecards have become our new commandments.
But where are we today? The CIPD has led the research agenda in the UK since
the mid-1990s in demonstrating the business impact of HR practices. This work
has been synthesised in Performance through People, by Observer journalist
Simon Caulkin, available on our website. The next instalment in the series, the
full results of a major piece of case-based research at Bath University into
the ‘hows’ of this relationship, will be published later this year.
A less well-publicised but equally significant stream of CIPD research has
looked at British employee attitudes for the last six years. This annual study
explores the state and importance of the ‘psychological contract’, taking into
account the views of over 2,000 employees across all sectors.
When it comes to people: we are changeable, fickle and contrary in our views
and opinions, as difficult to research as to manage. It is true the CIPD
findings are not quite as bad as some other recent attitude studies, although
they are consistent with, and have incorporated that contained in the Workplace
Employee Relations Study database.
But this material should still make pretty sobering and essential reading
for any plc boardroom or Permanent Secretary.
Overall levels of job satisfaction are generally positive and improving,
helped by HR-inspired changes such as increases in formal communication
mechanisms and family-friendly practices. There is a great acceptance of the
need for change in pursuit of improved productivity. However, our research
shows that where change levels are highest, in practice dissatisfaction is
Only a third of us feel sufficiently involved and consulted over changes
that affect us in our work, while a minority think we share in the resulting benefits
to the employer. Only 24 per cent of staff, and just 12 per cent in central
government, trust their senior management. Perhaps most damning of all, when
work is forming such an increasingly significant chunk of our lives, only 26
per cent of us are proud to tell other people who we work for.
Roger Davis, CEO of Business Banking at Barclays, recently committed to
improve that figure for his own 9,000 staff to more than 75 per cent – and with
Links between HR policies and business success operate through the medium of
But as the CIPD’s recent Reward Survey of 970 UK organisations concluded,
paradoxically, with almost "too much emphasis placed on business
alignmentÉmany HR and reward systems do not succeed in motivating employees".
Professor Manfred Kets de Vries at INSEAD has written about the dangers of
organisational neuroses, of pushing apparently desirable virtues to the
extreme, and the human cost of doing so. Now is the time for HR to help
organisations re-establish an appropriate and self-reinforcing balance between
business goals and results, and employee needs and motivations.
This is, after all, hardly a novel realisation, or the latest HR fad. During
the last war, the Air Ministry’s Guidance Notes for Personnel Officers,
reminded them of their duty, "to secure productive efficiency", as
well as looking after the service personnel and their families. And almost a
century ago, Edward Cadbury was of the firm opinion that employee welfare and
company productivity "are different sides of the same coin".
Duncan Brown is head of professional knowledge and information at the