With typical humility, Duncan Brown plays down the contribution he has made to the institute during his five-year stint as the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) assistant director-general.
“I tend to be cynical about how much impact one single person can have on an organisation,” he said. “I like to think my contribution was that I freed it up so our people have more room to pursue meaningful research and get out into places of employment.”
But despite his modesty, Brown, who takes up his new role of director of HR practice at consultancy PricewaterhouseCoopers in April, is widely credited with raising the profile of the CIPD and HR-related issues in the wider business community.
Certainly, a number of leading academics who have worked with Brown regard his contribution as substantial. At Henley Management College, professor of international HR management, Chris Brewster, believes Brown has helped to make the CIPD more relevant, not just to its 130,000 members but to a broader audience.
“In the last five years the CIPD has become less of a membership organisation and more of a professional body, providing advice, services and visibility to the relevant publics. A lot of people have been involved in that and Duncan Brown has made a major contribution,” he said.
Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology at Lancaster University Management School, thinks his main input has been to assist in proving HR’s worth.
He said: “He has been at the vanguard of promoting the idea of performance-led HR – convincing senior people in industry that the function is not just a touchy-feely profession, but that it has teeth and it can make a difference to performance and productivity.”
In 2002, when Brown joined the CIPD from HR consultancy Towers Perrin, the jury was out in many organisations on whether HR did actually add any value to the business.
His remit then was clear, according to CIPD director-general Geoff Armstrong, who recruited Brown.
“We wanted Duncan to take on our research arm and use it to offer practical advice on the back of real evidence from practitioners. We were investing a lot in our website at the time and wanted people – members and the wider community – to use it as a resource where this advice was freely available. For this we needed quality, valuable content,” he said.
Armstrong pointed to the recent work on human capital reporting as making a “massive contribution” to showing that managing people well drives better commercial results.
Other areas of research, such as the critical role of the line manager, employee engagement, high-performance working environments, talent and diversity have all had an impact thanks to Brown and his team, Armstrong added.
But now that Brown is preparing to leave the CIPD’s HQ, who will it find to replace him? Applications for Brown’s £125,000 per year position with the revised title of research and policy director – are now closed.
“The successful candidate will ideally have led HR initiatives at board level in organisations recognised for the quality of their people management and development. Credibility and commitment are prerequisites and these should be combined with the drive and intellect needed to make a major contribution to the profession,” read the job ad.
But Gareth Jones, managing director at HR recruitment firm Courtenay HR, doubted whether the language used in the ad was dynamic enough to attract the right person to take over where Brown left off.
“The CIPD is after someone who has represented HR at board level in a FTSE 250 company, but I don’t think many will want to make the jump into a research and policy position,” he said. “[The CIPD] needs a maverick and I’m not sure whether the ad makes the position sound that interesting.”
Certainly, Brown’s shoes are sizeable ones to fill and whoever steps into the role will need to have a thick skin alongside commitment and intelligence.
“People have a complex relationship with their professional body and quite rightly there is going to be criticism,” warned Brown. “But I think, compared with five years ago, you will find more people out there saying we are producing some good stuff and putting on some interesting events.”
Duncan Brown – in his own words
On joining the CIPD: “At the time, I took a sizeable pay cut to do the job, but I believe passionately in the power of good people management, and I thought: ‘Here is an opportunity to assert the implications of good HR practice’.”
On research: “Our research today is less about the findings of academics and is more case study-based through our experts working with employer organisations.”
On the CIPD being out of touch: “In some areas we are more out of touch with the people on the ground than we would like to be. But the team will keep plugging away and most people will say we are getting better.”