Duncan Brown at the helm of the CIPD as the new assistant director general,
what is it doing to help its members in these uncertain times? By Mike Broad
A pile of ‘challenges’ is currently occupying HR’s in-tray, and staff
dissatisfaction and the productivity gap sit at the very top.
These are not new additions and, if you believe the research, HR will be
wrestling with them for some time to come – unless there is dramatic change in
the prevailing psychological contract in the near future.
In 2002 – in the midst of an economic downturn – educators and influencers
are needed more than ever to support HR’s efforts to deliver change on the
ground, and the ‘new’ man at the CIPD says the representative body can grow to
fulfil this role.
Duncan Brown was recruited from Towers Perrin six months ago, to replace
Ward Griffiths. He is assistant director general at the CIPD and part of the
reason he has been brought in is to make the CIPD more vocal. He believes the
organisation has enormous potential to instigate workplace change.
Solid HR practices are the key to reducing the productivity gap with other
Western economies, says Brown, and it is the CIPD’s challenge to get members
and business to recognise this.
Brown says: "HR services and practices have a significant impact on
business performance. We still have more work to do to convince senior managers
"While the message is not new, there are still a lot of people who have
not seen the evidence."
Brown points to the findings of David Guest and Michael West that have
helped prove linkages between profits and HR practices. He believes two pieces
of CIPD research, released this month, take this to the next step and show HR
how to deliver these improvements in performance.
A report, Evaluating Human Capital by Professor Harry Scarbrough and Dr
Juanita Elias, demonstrates how 10 organisations – including Shell and Tesco –
are improving the way they manage staff through measuring how effectively they
The second study is by Bath University’s John Purcell, which examines HR
practices that produce improvements in employee attitudes, commitment and
performance in both public and private sector organisations.
"The relationship between line manager and employee emerges as a
particularly important factor," says Brown. "It emphasises that it is
how particular HR practices are interpreted and implemented that really makes
the difference," he adds.
"HR professionals need to pay more attention to these operating
processes rather than just focusing on supposed best practice scheme
Gaining acceptance that good HR will help improve the productivity gap
requires more than a top-down approach, says Brown – staff have to believe in
it. Both boardroom strategists and staff on the shopfloor will need convincing.
"We need to understand the response to the research. If awareness is
low in the boardroom, we have to address it," he says.
"But we also have to recognise that while statistics and correlations
are useful, what difference do they actually make on the ground? The research
with Bath University is really helping us to understand and demonstrate the
linkages in the hospital ward, on the shopfloor and on the production
Brown believes employers need to drive forward work-life balance practices
to address low morale and productivity.
"Employers should be consulting on this area because it can have the
biggest effect on performance.
"There is no magic level at which work and life are balanced: the key
is working out what is right for the organisation and the employee. Employers
that tailor this balance to different employee aims and wishes gain significant
advantages in performance and attracting talent."
He urges companies to adopt an approach that incorporates flexibility and
choice. "Organisations need to work out what makes their staff satisfied
with work. Then you have to give them a choice – when, where and what sort of
hours do they want to work?"
Brown is confident HR is driving work-life balance beyond office-based,
white-collar staff working in the service sectors.
While he acknowledges that some companies are "struggling with it"
and that there can still be a split between HR practice and policy, more
sectors are recognising the importance of work-life balance.
He points to the more progressive call centre operators and manufacturers,
which are making inroads in sectors that have traditionally neglected work and
"The model for call centres is changing," says Brown.
"Screwing the workforce has failed, and it is now about how we add higher
value. If you improve staff satisfaction, customers get better service."
Manufacturers have to be realistic about business demands and flexible
working, he says, but there are examples of leading companies that have
consulted staff and developed sympathetic shift patterns.
Engaging staff in discussions on work practices has to be the first step for
employers wanting to improve performance. High stress levels, for example, are
a product of long hours, low-interest work, and lack of autonomy and
involvement, says Brown.
He warns that employers often rush to implement large-scale schemes, such as
comprehensive performance management systems, to tackle perceived
underachievement and high absence rates without understanding what staff want
But is Brown preaching (or providing guidance) to the converted? After all,
most HR professionals understand the links between HR, satisfaction and
productivity, but they struggle to sell it to the decision-makers within their
Brown believes that HR professionals, supported by the CIPD, have progressed
their role considerably in recent years.
He refers to David Ulrich’s model of becoming a strategic business partner,
and suggests that, to earn respect, HR needs to be both tactical – to enhance
its standing – as well as delivering the basics.
A combination of skills will be necessary going forward. While business
understanding and political nous will be essential to evolving HR’s role, says
Brown, the importance of soft skills should not be underestimated. "Just
getting an MBA is not enough," he says.
To support the changing role of HR, the CIPD has recently revised its
professional standards for membership. Brown explains that the aim is to get
the appropriate balance of specialist expertise in the various areas of HR, yet
also provide a broad strategic overview of the business environment.
"The focus has been to create people management professionals who are
thinking performers," he says.
On the softer skills side, the CIPD this year launched a certificate in
coaching and mentoring, and a certified programme in the psychology of
management. "Our training courses cover the full range of process and
interpersonal skills, technical specialisms and strategic HR."
Brown believes that the CIPD will be able to better equip the profession in
the future to make inroads into the significant challenges facing UK plc.
"HR can act like a performance gene. We have to use the richness of the
research and information available a tthe CIPD, helping members at all levels
and in all types of organisations to feel confident that they can really make a
Duncan Brown’s CV
2002 assistant director general of
1985 joined Towers Perrin and performed various roles, rising
1984 completed a full-time MBA at the London Business School
1981 personnel officer at Vauxhall Motors
…the gender pay gap
There is a lot of fear about equal pay, but people have to take
the tiger by the tail rather than run from it.
"Many companies will be asking themselves, where do we
start? How do we do it? Firms need to break down bits and bite them off in
chunks. Both the Equal Opportunities Commission and the CIPD provide practical
guidance for practitioners.
"It is not just a moral issue, but is inefficient in
limiting organisations’ ability to recruit and retain half of the national
workforce, during a period of key skill shortages.
"The issues involved are too complex for legislation. But
our message to the DTI is that there have to be minimum standards on equal pay
and we have to encourage best practice.
"There are still significant challenges: new female
graduates are starting on 15 per cent less pay than men.
"HR should be pushing equal pay audits at the next pay
review – the outlay will have a payback."
…corporate social responsibility
"CSR has clearly risen up the corporate agenda in recent
months. HR professionals are well placed to contribute, particularly with their
responsibilities to internal stakeholders.
"In addressing issues such as recruitment, work-life
balance, equal pay, diversity and training, HR is contributing both to the
success of the organisation and the well-being of the communities in which it
"With more flexible forms of working, the boundary between
work and community has been blurring.
"One recent survey found that HR is taking the lead on CSR
in 20 per cent of organisations, up from 7 per cent in 1995. HR is clearly
making progress in demonstrating the value to organisations of aligning their
goals with the needs of their employees and the communities in which they
"But more needs to be done to equip people to contribute
fully in the CSR field.
"We will be publishing our own guide to CSR for our
members in November, and are actively considering what else we can do to help
members in this area."
…final salary pensions
"The media’s coverage has been sensationalist.
"It is not necessarily an ‘either or?’ choice: defined
benefit (DB) versus defined contribution (DC).
"DC pensions do not always mean lower contributions, so it
not a case of employers putting in a rubbish scheme to cut costs and rob their
"Pensions are a significant part of the employer offer for
staff, so you have to look at what staff want.
"Employers might find that staff want something more
flexible. Maybe they want a mix of schemes – a scheme with a DB base and a DC
top-up that shares the risk with the employee.
"HR has not been involved enough in the debate and
decisions that are taken purely on a cost basis will cause problems in the
future, such as higher long-term turnover. HR needs to get more involved.