The brain game

Think-tanks can provide a useful resource for HR strategists. Scott Beagrie

They may seem an unlikely set of bedfellows but the DTI’s Patricia Hewitt,
the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development’s (CIPD) John Philpott and
Trevor Phillips at the Commission for Racial Equality have a past in common –
they have all been think-tank policy ‘wonks’.

Think-tanks have their critics and those who work at them may come across as
too clever for their own good (they are called wonks because they ‘know’
everything backwards). But there’s no denying that much of their thinking has
had a huge influence on the workplace, shaking up conventional ideas of
business practice and impacting significantly on the world of human resource

The term ‘think-tank’ derives from the Second World War when a military
backroom was used for strategic battle planning. It has evolved to mean a group
of specialists detached from the decision-making process.

Arguably the roots of the term stretch further back to the Fabian Society of
1884 or Political and Economic Planning (PEP) of 1931. Few can dispute the
heyday of the think-tank, however, which came in the late 1970s and early 1980s
when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher entrusted the Centre for Policy Studies,
the Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs with the task of
determining Conservative policy.

Think-tanks were again revitalised in the latter half of the 1990s when New
Labour swept to power and Demos, which considered itself the first
post-ideological group, and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)
came to prominence.

The image of the think-tank has changed over the years and these days many
make a virtue of their ability to attract contributors and thinkers from across
the political spectrum. Funding from corporations has also led them to be
described as pseudo-consultancies in some instances, with a remit that
stretches beyond influencing Westminster and Whitehall.

With or without the new corporate emphasis, however, a wealth of employment
research make think-tanks a valuable and, indeed, a free resource for HR – in
the main lending weight to the theories, values and practices that the
profession champions.

But how do they operate, what’s their political leaning, which of them
advocates corporate social responsibility, who’s eminent in race relations and
where does Prime Minister Tony Blair go for his big ideas? Read our analysis of
14 key think-tanks and find out.

The profiles

Academy of Enterprise (AoE)

Political persuasion: Ultra trendy, not-for-profit.
Profile: Founded by Alec Reed, chairman of recruitment agency Reed
Executive, the academy has engaged with three other think-tanks to help shape
government thinking on the way ahead for UK companies and offers guidance to
business on how the world of work is transforming. It also wishes to
revolutionise the way children are prepared for the world of work.
Claim to fame: In a keynote address at CIPD, Harrogate (2000); presented
the concept of Peoplism – an economic state where individuals possess the most
important factor of production: brainpower. (Also see Demos and Smith

Centre for Policy Studies (CPS)

Political Persuasion: Right wing.
Profile: Founded by Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph in 1974, it
provided the means for the right wing’s takeover of the Conservative party in
the late 1970s. Basing its policies on free markets, individual choice and
respect for the law, CPS was responsible for some groundbreaking proposals that
helped define the term ‘Thatcherism’. Now a shadow of its former self, it still
develops and publishes public policy proposals and arranges seminars and
lectures on topical issues.
Claim to fame: Trade union reform; privatisation of state-owned


Political persuasion: Claims independence, but widely regarded as
right wing.
Profile: Tipped as the think-tank to watch, the lofty aim behind its
studies is the creation of a better division of responsibilities between
government and civil society. Its research focuses on four areas: health,
welfare, education and the family.
Claim to fame: Hit the headlines last year with a highly contentious
proposal for race and equality laws to be scrapped as they "lead to
race-conscious employment practices instead of the treatment of people
according to their individual merits as fellow workers". The same report
also called for the Commission for Racial Equality and the Equal Opportunities
Commission to be abolished.

The Conference Board

Political persuasion: Global, independent membership organisation.
Profile: Stemmed from the US industrial crisis in 1916, when a group of
business leaders, fed up with propaganda machines and partisan associations,
came together to examine major issues impacting on business and society. Has
evolved into a leading management and business research body that aspires to
helping businesses strengthen their general performance so they can better
serve society.
Claim to fame: Major HR resource – runs European Council on HR and holds
the annual Human Resource Conference in the US and Asia.


Political persuasion: Left-leaning, right on.
Profile: Once Tony Blair’s think-tank of choice, Demos was set up in
1993 with the aim of "reinvigorating public policy and political
thinking", and to develop radical solutions to long-term problems.
Although it continues to make waves, not least for suggesting that HRH
abdicates when she turns 80, it’s not as hip as it used to be. Blair has also
long since extracted co-founder Geoff Mulgan to head up his ‘blue skies’
Strategy Unit.
Claim to fame: Rebranding of the country as Cool Britannia – boosting
jobs and the economy; identified ‘The Independents’ (think Generation X) –
tomorrow’s high-fliers who create new models of employment and become
increasingly important to the generation of new jobs. It is disciple of

Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR)

Political persuasion: Centre-left with impeccable Downing Street
Profile: Described by the Daily Telegraph as the most influential
think-tank in the UK, IPPR, run by former Labour party official Matthew Taylor,
is also the biggest with an annual budget of approximately £2.5m. Despite its
impressive credentials, it has come under fire from trade unions and the media
for its reliance on corporate funding.
Claim to fame: Responsible for several major New Labour initiatives
including the public-private partnership and educational maintenance
allowances; recently attacked New Labour’s manufacturing strategy – three weeks
before a government-sponsored ‘manufacturing summit’.

Institute for Social and Economic Research (ISER)

Political persuasion: Independent.
Profile: A department of the University of Essex, the respected group
aims to understand how an individual’s behaviour, beliefs and life changes are
structured over time by domestic arrangements and patterns of employment. Its
use of longitudinal data offers a key advantage over a snapshot in that it
allows analysis of the dynamic links between an individual’s living and
employment conditions, behaviour and values over the lifecycle.
Claim to fame: Has conducted the annual British Household Panel Survey –
a key method of measuring social change – since 1991. Its analysis of 5,000
workers last year highlighted the ‘myth’ of workplace stress with levels of
misery varying depending on the day of the week.

Policy Studies Institute (PSI)

Political persuasion: Independent.
Profile: Leading research body and a pioneer of large-scale surveys of
employers and their company practices. PSI’s Employment Group conducts both
qualitative and quantitative research on labour markets and labour market
policy evaluation and has been responsible for more than 100 research projects
in the last decade.
Claim to fame: Drew up the blueprint for the Race Relations Act;
co-sponsors the Workplace Employee Relations Survey (WERS) – the largest of its
kind in the world.

The Runnymede Trust

Political persuasion: Independent, and a charity.
Profile: The trust has been at the forefront of the fight against racial
discrimination for the past 34 years. It aims to stimulate debate to help
employers re-energise their policies and practices and explore appropriate
models to combat discrimination and embrace workplace diversity. Runnymede was
chaired for five years by Trevor Phillips, now chair of the Commission for
Racial Equality.
Claim to fame: Influenced the 1976 Race Relations Act and the highly
controversial The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain report. This was a study of
FTSE 100 companies that showed that after 20 years of race equality, only 1 per
cent of senior managers came from an ethnic minority.

The Smith Institute

Political persuasion: Left-leaning and closely linked to chancellor
Gordon Brown.
Profile: Founded in memory of former Labour Party leader, the late John
Smith, its work centres on the policy implications stemming from the
interactions of equality, enterprise and equity. It prefers to identify the
most relevant and recent research and present it to business and industrial
leaders, ministers and specialists. It then published the texts along with the
subsequent discussion.
Claim to fame: Intends to review Michael Porter’s analysis of the
underlying reasons for the persistence of the UK’s productivity gap with its
competitors; Dynamic Reporting for a Dynamic Economy, produced for the AoE,
proposes a new model for financial reporting.

The Social Market Foundation

Political persuasion: Formerly SDP, now centre-right.
Profile: Set up by Lord Owen and David Sainsbury (using his cash) in
1989, it skilfully extols the virtues of a social market economy. An ardent
supporter of greater business involvement in education, it has also influenced
both education and welfare debate.
Claim to fame: Decentralised pay bargaining; legal aid reform; Making IT
Work: How Teleworking can Change our Lives for the Better. This is a report
published this year, which found that while teleworking increased productivity
by up to 30 per cent it has failed to deliver on the promise of a better
work-life balance.

The Strategy Unit

Political persuasion: Mood of the moment.
Profile: An internal Government think-tank, formed following a merger of the
Performance and Innovation Unit (PIU) and the Prime Minister’s Forward Strategy
Unit. Regarded as Tony Blair’s personal think-tank it is responsible for ‘blue
skies thinking’.
Claim to fame: Launched a five-year action plan for a better skilled workforce
following the publication of the PIU’s report, In Demand: Adult Skills for the
21st Century.

Tomorrow’s Company

Political persuasion: Independent – punches above its weight.
Profile: Founded by Mark Goyder in 1996, it was born out of the
groundbreaking study Tomorrow’s Company: the Role of Business in a Changing
World. With a vision of creating "a future for business which makes equal
sense to staff, shareholders and society", it seeks to promote fresh ideas
to business leaders and for them to reflect on the role of business in society,
not just chase profits.
Claims to fame: Influenced the Higgs Review on the role of non-executive

The Work Foundation

Political persuasion: Independent and worthy.
Profile: Formerly the Industrial Society, the revamped 85-year-old
organisation brands itself as a new kind of organisation – "part research
institute, part business consultancy, part advocate". Its goal remains
constant: to create a better workplace. As the UK’s most high-profile workplace
think-tank, it has established a reputation as an influential campaigner.
Claim to fame: The Work and Enterprise Panel of Enquiry aims to
establish the links between productivity and quality of working life; chief
executive Will Hutton is also a regular columnist for Personnel Today.

To explore NIRA’s World Directory of think-tanks GO TO

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