Groundhog day?

It’s show time again for the profession, with the annual conference and exhibition at Harrogate nearly upon us. But how have the conference themes changed in the past decade and what difference have they made to the profession’s development?

Another October, another Harrogate. Time for an army of HR professionals to pack their bags and head for what is billed as the largest management conference in Europe. Apparently, last year no fewer than 6,000 people wandered through the exhibition aisles and 2,500 of them were conference delegates. It is a great excuse for an office outing. But what more does it offer?

If you look at the programme for 1993, it is clear that the conference has come a long way. That year there were 28 seminars, now there are 40. Larger crowds bring larger revenues and it can afford to hire some of the world’s most illustrious pundits. Recent speakers have included Gary Hamel, Arie de Geus and Dave Ulrich. This year you can listen to Charles Handy, CK Prahalad and the great guru himself, Michael Porter. It is a good opportunity to see in person the people whose names line your bookshelves.

So how has the conference scene changed over the past eight years. Are the issues now the same as before?

Seven conferences have come and gone, but some things never change. Performance management. Stress. Flexible working practices. The “new” reward agenda. With each year that passes it is always “new” or “leading edge” yet these issues have yet to be resolved.

Not everything has stood still however. The business climate was very different seven years ago and this is reflected in the 1993 programme. How can a public sector body transform itself into a successful private business venture? What is a “lean organisation”? How do you turn the three Ds – downsizing, delayering and decentralisation – to positive advantage?

Recurring themes

With the advent of globalisation and new technology, the focus has shifted to creativity, agility, flexibility, innovation, regeneration – in a word strategy. One of the 1993 seminars entitled “Adapting Personnel Practice to Economic Reality” posed the question “What do you do when your market collapses?” Today the question is “What do you do to make sure it never happens?”

It is a recurring theme in the keynote presentations. Michael Porter stresses the crucial importance of strategy in creating, sustaining and regenerating a company’s capability to maintain competitive advantage and adapt to changing markets. CK Prahalad talks of reinventing business in fundamental ways to compete against rivals, now and in the future. Lynda Gratton asks: “How can we create organisations that change, learn, move, act and react faster than their competitors?” The same themes are picked up in seminars and master classes by Porter himself and others. The key message – no matter how successful a company is today, it can never afford to stand still.

Another recurring theme is the importance of placing people at the heart of corporate strategy. This features in the keynote speeches and many of the seminars, including a session on the latest CIPD research, which has established a clear link between people management and the bottom line.

The subject was already on the agenda in 1993, where one of the issues raised was how HR could add value. In his keynote address of the same year, Dr Richard Pascale described the human resources practitioner as an endangered species with a psychological contract to be a victim. His advice was to break away from the present, review the role of personnel and work on gaining power. “It is vital personnel professionals have influence on the board,” he said.

Seven years have passed yet little progress has been made. According to a recent study of 1,000 organisations by Cranfield School of Management, only half of HR directors have a seat on their company’s board, virtually the same proportion as in 1992. The report concludes: “Despite all the rhetoric, the formal position and the influence of the HR function has not increased … in the past decade.”

Role of consultants

In this context it is interesting to note one topic which featured in 1993 but does not get a mention today – the role of external management consultants. Perhaps Lynda Gratton will pick up on it, as she believes that lack of commercial expertise is holding back the HR profession. Commenting on the Cranet report in Personnel Today she said, “People issues have gained in importance but employees do not trust their HR departments to make the vital strategic decisions. What this research is showing is that organisations are outsourcing the strategic role to management consultancies.”

So what can HR do about it? One of this year’s seminars focuses on the role of the HR director as business partner, another looks at how to put people back into strategy, a third discusses integrating a successful reward strategy with overall business strategy, a fourth examines the contribution which employees can make to attaining corporate aims. It gives out a clear signal that the HR function must become more business-oriented, although perhaps some more specific guidance could also be offered to help HR staff get to grips with the hard realities of business.

One area that has come of age this year is information and communications technology. This was barely touched on 12 months ago, but now it appears in various guises, from dealing with IT misuse to exploiting the potential of e-learning and coming to terms with the effects of the e-revolution on work practices, information channels and the organisation.

As always the conference runs sessions to keep delegates up-to-date with the implications of current legislation and codes of practice. What is new is the emergence of more “inspirational” talks.

Last year delegates heard yachtsman Pete Goss speak about teambuilding. This year they can learn about coaching from the perspective of a former Olympic gold medallist or attend a seminar based on the QED “How to be Happy” documentary. They can learn how to release their creativity using traditional shamanic methods, consider the role of spirituality in business with a Benedictine monk or “make it to the top” in the footsteps of mountaineer Rebecca Stephens. It may provide a welcome antidote to a surfeit of intellectual theorising, but whether it will help delegates to make an impact on the bottom line is another matter.

  • Turn over for a potted guide to the leading management thinkers who will be making keynote conference presentations

By Alison Thomas

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