When the IPD finally achieved its five-year ambition to win chartered status
for the profession, the leadership attended a Privy Council session where the
honour was conferred in a ceremony dating back to Elizabethan times. While
stopping short of donning garters, rosettes and other assorted regalia, all
participants had to show their respect for the Crown and ancient tradition by
remaining upstanding throughout.
According to Nick Isles, head of external affairs at the institute, this had
the effect of keeping proceedings short and sweet. But other commentators have
drawn uncomfortable analogies between the archaic nature of the ceremony itself
and the IPD’s own profile, both within the profession and in the wider business
and political spheres.
"The IPD is an old war-horse dominated by an old-style
management," says one senior academic specialising in HR development.
"It is not a forward-looking organisation. There’s an arrogance about its
attitude – it seems to be saying, ‘This is how we are, and this is how we will
stay’, regardless of how the profession is changing.
"I have a great sense of frustration about the lack of vision and
drive. This is a huge organisation – the membership is vast, it’s got more
money than many comparable institutions, yet it seems to be holding back in
"Really, you would have thought the IPD would have a huge impact on
business and policy-making:it is in as strong a position as just about any
other professional organisation in the country. Yet its influence remains
"I’d like the IPD to stand up and be counted. It needs to start getting
its point across."
Paul Kearns, senior partner of HR consultant Personnel Works, adds,
"The IPD is mired in the 1970s. I’m not a great fan of its leadership.
Their view of the world seems to be coloured by the bad old days of industrial
relations and conflict. They don’t seem to have any vision of the future of the
profession, indeed [general secretary] Geoff Armstrong often appears to stand
against innovation. New ideas are squashed; people aren’t allowed to grow.
"The IPD at present is like a personnel officers’ institute, and I
choose my words carefully – who refers to ‘personnel officers’ any more? It’s
entirely focused on training people in procedures that were prevalent 20 or 30
years ago but have little relevance to the way organisations operate now.
Kearns continues, "One of the most important subjects that upcoming
people need to know about is HR strategy. The one thing organisations are
screaming for at the moment are good ideas on how to get the best out of
people. Yet the IPD has never geared itself up to fulfil this role. HR
directors say that its courses are not aimed at their level, it has no
methodology to teach them. They have to go to informal networks or advanced HR
management courses to get these skills.
"If I were paying the subscriptions, I’d be up in arms. The IPD
operates like a monopoly, and like most monopolies it has become lazy and
complacent. People who want this profession to be important and influential are
being let down by it. There needs to be a complete shake-up at the top and an
injection of new blood."
Admittedly Kearns is hardly an unbiased witness – he claims he has been
banned from speaking at IPD events since he made a critical speech in 1993 and
has been operating beyond the pale of the institute ever since. Yet it is clear
that his is hardly a voice crying in the wilderness – dig beneath the surface
and you discover his views are representative of a rising groundswell of
discontent and dissent with the management at the IPD and the old school values
they stands for. "Aloof", "arrogant",
"blinkered", "out of touch", "too cosy by half" –
these are just some of the criticisms levelled.
The institute might be a broad church, but at present it is riven with
intrigue. Nonetheless it speaks volumes for the power it continues to exert
within the profession that few of these muttering critics are prepared to speak
openly against it.
Yet there are loud voices raised in the organisation’s defence. "I’m
only an affiliate member but it is clear to me that the IPD is a highly
professional organisation," says Andrew Forrest, director of learning and
development at the Industrial Society. He claims the institute does "a
good job for individuals and the profession as a whole". In particular he
cites the quality of its research and publications, the spreading of best
practice, and the establishment of a code for disciplinary procedures.
Moreover, "its branch network is particularly good. I have attended
meetings at other branches and have always been made very welcome".
But even Forrest concedes that the IPD has done itself no favours when it
comes to presenting a positive view of itself – and, more importantly, its
members – to the wider world. "The IPD has tried to represent the voice of
HR in the corridors of power but it hasn’t yet made the impact there that it
needs to. Many chief executives still don’t regard the senior HR person in
their organisation well enough to appoint them to board.
"The IPD needs to make that point more successfully; it needs to point
out the particular contribution which can be made by HR. That hasn’t come
Need for leadership
Forrest believes the rapid growth of the new economy is exacerbating this
need for leadership. "The arrival of e-commerce and the Internet have
shown that some radical thinking needs to be done as to what structures future
organisations will take. There’s an ongoing role for the IPD to clarify these
issues and to make sure that policy-makers are fully aware of the importance of
individuals in all this.
Other influential lobbying groups, such as the Institute of Directors, agree
that the IPD’s profile in both the media and in government circles is lacking.
"I suggest its influence in Whitehall is limited," says IoD business
policy executive Richard Wilson, who claims the leadership of his own
organisation has already had two meetings with the Chancellor this year.
To some extent this perceived failure to capture the attention of the powers
that be is not the IPD’s fault, he adds. Government departments are far more
likely to pay attention to the voices of "explicit industry sectors"
than to one representing a particular profession. And anyway, the mood in
government is beginning to shift subtly in the other direction – particularly
in light of the TUC announcement that it will up the funds it pays into the New
Labour war-chest in the run up to the next General Election.
Nonetheless, Wilson questions the IPD’s ability to grab the public agenda as
successfully as his own organisation or, for that matter, the CBI, Federation
of Small Business, or the Industrial Society. "The IPD should take a more
campaigning role – one wonders why it hasn’t."
It could, for example, have spoken out with authority on such recent
headline-grabbing issues as bullying at work, employment protection rights or
the dangers of stress in the workforce.
One reason for what often seems like an echoing silence, Wilson believes, is
the IPD’s perceived lack of a media-friendly figurehead. The IoD has
successfully promoted the hard-hitting Ruth Lea in this role, while the
Industrial Society recently upped its own public profile by recruiting
"Third Way" economist Will Hutton as chief executive and then immediately
announcing a raft of new campaign policies – including tackling bullying in the
Forrest argues that such a figure does exist within the IPD, in the shape of
its president, Sir Geoffrey Holland, an eminent, imaginative, and extremely
well-connected former senior civil servant, probably best known for his work in
the Manpower Services Commission in the 1980s. "He is precisely the sort
of person who should be put forward more."
It will come as no surprise to most IPD members that the institute continues
to wholeheartedly reject such blatant appeals to popularism. Indeed, as Isles
implies, the organisation is far above such shenanigans. "In terms of
media strategy it is very nice if you have that policy, but does it actually
get things done?" he asks.
"When we have something to say on an issue, we say it. We have, for
example, talked about the bullying issue. But many people think that someone
like Ruth Lea is over-stretched. She is commenting on things she doesn’t have a
real knowledge of. There’s a danger of becoming a rent-a-quote." It is
significant, perhaps, that the most recent media controversy sparked by Lea was
provoked by a policy paper she wrote on health reform, in particular her
remarks on smear tests – an interesting subject matter for the head of the IoD,
to say the least."
But the real point, maintains Isles, "is that the IPD is not geared up
to become a lobbying organisation along the lines of the IoD or CBI, because we
don’t have the mandate to do so".
Its charitable status means it cannot campaign on political lines and, as
Isles points out, the IPD was not set up to pursue a particular macro-economic
agenda. "We are not representing a particular sectoral interest – we are
not there to represent the views of employers – we cover people and management.
Our role is to represent all our members, we straddle both sides."
CBI representatives agree. According to one, "The IPD deals with
professional practice and policy rather than public policy. In any one working
week there are lots or organisations that I’d be interfacing with, but
typically not the IPD."
Although the IPD regularly gives its opinion on government legislation, its
response is hardly what you might call snappy. Isles insists this situation is
unavoidable – wheels must grind slowly when you have to secure a consensus
response. "We go through a consultancy process when we respond to
government legislation. When we ask our members for advice, we base it on
research rather than setting out to grind a particular axe," he says.
This is all very admirable and thorough, but surely such a reactive stance
reduces the impact the IPD could make on government thinking? Isles denies the
point citing the institute’s studied research input into such topical debates
as the New Deal and the Working Time directive. Yet even Geoff Armstrong went
on record to complain that in a recent government consultation the IPD had been
bypassed in favour of the CBI.
"One thing we are trying to do is to increase our profile among
decision-makers. For example, Geoff Armstrong is one of two non-executive
directors on the Cabinet committee looking at the Civil Service change
management programme. We’re also very keen to get more involved in Europe, to
influence the European agenda and run a network of European training
organisations," says Isles. "There is more than one way of making a
splash. We are becoming a ‘must consult’ body. We are commenting. But we tend
to take a moderate line."
Isles is equally quick to refute the charge that the IPD is failing to keep
step with the professional demands of its members. The courses it offers are
currently under review, he says, they will evolve but they will continue to
reflect the organisation’s primary aim of "helping our members add value
to their organisations".
Moreover the IPD is well aware that, "Events are helping the profession
as we move into the knowledge economy. There will come a point when the price
of stocks and shares will be decided by how companies treat their people. So
there has been a coming together of the way the economy is developing and the
way the profession itself is developing."
Nonetheless, the addition of the charter to the armoury – while important in
allowing IPD members to rub shoulders as equals with their peers in other
departments – should not be taken as an indication of future change in the
organisation’s role. Indeed, the IPD sees the conferral as an endorsement of
its existing policies and practices.
"The charter is simply a continuation of the work we’ve done. It’s
business as usual – but with that enhanced status," says Isles. "The
reason we are going for chartered status is we wanted the recognition that
people management and development is a science and art in its own right."
Yet a wide consensus of IPD members maintain that if the body is to fulfil
its stated aim of helping them "add value" to their organisations
there must indeed be change. They argue that the most useful role the IPD could
play in boosting their own standing within organisations is to present a
credible, forward-thinking model of the profession capable of championing and
formulating new ideas rather than merely reacting to those of others.
Even if the institute continues to eschew what many believe should be its
natural role campaigning on the importance of people as a central asset to the
economy, there are signs that it is beginning to lose its grip on its chosen
area of expertise – namely the training and nurturing of the HR profession
itself. As evidence of this you need only look at the widening chasm between
what the IPD now provides its members, and what’s on offer in the universities.
Meanwhile the establishment of a rival training organisation Itol (Institute
of Training and Occupational Learning) convinces at least one observer that the
IPD "is less than robust in its training and development flank" (see
There is no escaping the conclusion that the IPD must shrug off the
restrictive shackles of the past and be seen to be embracing change: the longer
it procrastinates the greater its loss of initiative.
As Forrest concludes, "Sometimes these things are down to perception
rather than reality. But if that’s how people are feeling, then it becomes