· Features

HR practitioners need to be a bit less mole-like and a bit more meerkat-like

Heavy workloads and tight budgets mean that most of us in HR are mole-like: we knuckle down and get things done. Recent surveys of HR practitioners' top concerns spring no surprises: leadership development; locating and retaining talent; managing change or demographics (baby boomer retirements and keeping mid-career employees engaged); improving performance management and rewards; managing diversity and transforming HR into a strategic partner. All laudable but with one flaw - these perennial concerns tend to be based on assumptions that external environments will remain largely familiar.

Today’s average age of an S&P 500 company is just 11 years: in 1955 it was 45. A 2008 study on small business owners in Devon showed them as having, like most of us, a short-term horizon – of generally less than a year, even though many saw their businesses as intergenerational.

Current research at The Work Foundation is exploring the nature of psychological deals between employees and employers on a more ambitious timescale. The skill and capacity of HR to respond to the multiplicity of such deals will shape HR’s future. In contrast to the more reactive mode of the profession, our recent report, The Deal in 2020, used the Delphi technique to challenge HR’s mole-like tendencies. We aim to offer the possibility of a future where, like meerkats, which rely on social networks and visual scanning to stay alive, HR teams scan their environments to proactively shape their future.

The Deal in 2020 report is based on what over 20 eminent experts from a range of related disciplines identified as the principal drivers that will shape the employment relationship in the next 10 to 15 years. The findings provide a scaffold on which to monitor and shape the future.

The benefits of leadership in meerkat mode are not just economic and financial. Murphy’s 1988 case study of scanning by the Georgia Center for Continuing Education concluded that it enhanced the institution’s ability to react to and implement change in response to external factors. 

By exercising the meerkat in HR professionals, an invaluable contribution is immediately made to an organisation’s future success. Strategic HR is meaningless without the long view. 

Taking the long view is, however, not an easy option. At all costs GIGO (garbage in – garbage out) must be avoided. For results to be useful, attention to process, quality of inputs and detail is important – all very mole-like.

The Work Foundation recently used the Delphi research content and methodology at the Department of Work and Pensions (PDCS) to review and reinvigorate their People Strategy. The workshop involved both the non-executive board and executive management team. By lengthening their planning time horizons, they were able to see the value of knowing what to monitor and the triggers for responding to certain changes that we could envisage affecting the Pensions, Disability and Carers Service by 2020.

Working closely with Dean Morley, PDCS deputy HR director, we demonstrated, to an initially sceptical but trusting leadership, the value of the long view and the effectiveness of Delphi as a methodology for changing their decision making time horizon. The outputs then guided the detailed people strategy review. PDCS had several advantages, not least the meerkat in its deputy HR director – an essential core role for HR.

French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, "As for the future, your task is not to foresee it, but to enable it." The Deal in 2020 is a challenge to HR practitioners that while pursuing savings in a mole-like fashion, it is crucial, especially in turbulent times, to maintain the long view of the meerkat and not take our eye off the external environment.

Wilson Wong is the lead researcher on the Future of HR programme at The Work Foundation