Date: 03/01/17 | Duration: 00:17:21

2016 has been a year of change and upheaval socially, politically and economically. From the National Living Wage and the Apprenticeship Levy to Brexit and the US election, events over the past year are set to have a significant impact on work and working lives.

In this episode we talk to Margaret Heffernan, Laura Overton and Laura Harrison about the effect these changes are having – and will have – on businesses and their employees and what HR and L&D professionals can be doing to help prepare themselves and their organisations for the year ahead.

Correction: Laura Overton is founder and CEO of Towards Maturity. This episode mistakenly refers to the organisation as Beyond Maturity.

CIPD Podcast 121 – Looking ahead

Philippa Lamb: Politically 2016 was a year of big decisions, an extraordinary 12 months but this is the year when those decisions will begin to evolve into concrete change: and evolve is the key word here because right now there are very few certainties. But what might we see?

Dr Margaret Heffernan is a BBC producer turned international business woman management thinker and author. She's known for her acute observations on the big issues like talent, innovation and the role of leaders. So what does she think 2017 might bring?

Dr Margaret Heffernan: I think probably the most significant change that we’re in a position to understand, strangely enough refers back to an earlier book of mine: Wilful Blindness, which is how was it that the sea change that was expressed through Brexit, through Trump’s election, how is it that we didn’t notice that? How were we blind to the seismic changes that were going on?

PL: It’s a fair point and it’s being much discussed, why the pollsters, the press and great swathes of the population both here and in the States just didn’t see Brexit or Trump coming.

MH: I think that we have been guilty of sticking within our tribes and listening to the people who agreed with us. I think in terms of diversity we’ve done poorly in terms of not talking to people, different from us, different ages, different backgrounds, different attitudes. And one of the big arguments in Wilful Blindness is that we’re not prepared to have arguments and we need to be prepared and have a language to have debate that isn’t personal, that isn’t ugly, where we can discuss ideas and find better solutions.

PL: So looking ahead to this year in that context what are the key issues for organisations? What should they be having those conversations about?

MH: Well I think we have got finally, finally, finally to take diversity seriously and recognise that homogenous organisations are doomed to be blindsided.

PL: Laura Harrison is the CIPD’s people and strategy director and she's been thinking about what these global political changes might mean for HR.

Laura Harrison: Last year was a momentous year but really that's only the beginning of significant change isn’t it? So we’ve had the shock of the results of Brexit, of the US election, and so on, but in terms of how they’re actually going to play out I think we’re quite some time from knowing. I suppose the implications of that for HR in organisations start I think with recognising where people are when they’re coming to work. And that lack of certainty there is no doubt it breeds anxiety. And it would be an amazing individual who is able to leave that anxiety at the door when they go to work and concentrated on their work 100% heart and mind without that. We’ve talked a lot in HR about helping people build their resilience and their response to change and if ever that was important it’s now. But I suppose it’s also about asking ourselves what we can do to help to reduce some of that uncertainty and anxiety.

PL: And the best way to pull this off?

LH: Talk openly about your strategies, about your plans. Listen to your workforce and understand where they are. Try and reduce any level of uncertainty that you can, even if it’s only about the organisation’s direction, because there's only so much ambiguity that we can cope with.

PL: And I mean as you say we’re all thinking about what Britain’s going to look like when Brexit plays out. For EU workers here now, I mean obviously, and there's lots of them, clearly they have very real uncertainty don't they?

LH: Yeah it’s huge and obviously it’s not just for them it’s for the teams that they work with; it’s for their managers, their colleagues. What we’ve done actually in the CIPD ourselves as an employer because of course we have a number of EU workers here, is find different ways that we can to support them. So again there is uncertainty but what we can at least do is bring in an immigration lawyer for example to talk about what their options might be. We’ve had some sessions where we’ve got everyone together so that they can just talk openly about how they’re feeling and share any experiences that they’ve had. There are things we can't solve but let’s look at the things that we do have some control over and try and do what we can.

PL: Margaret Heffernan agrees that open communication in our organisations goes to the heart of healing those divisions in our society.

MH: I think we have to start thinking much more seriously about a climate of safety in which people are allowed to articulate what may be difficult or unconventional or awkward ideas because we have to be prepared to discuss them and hear them. I think leaders need to smash out of the bubbles in which they are put and sometimes in which they put themselves. And I think that real leaders are going to be the people who are prepared to speak up and who are also prepared to listen.

PL: Thinking about diversity that's something we’ve been talking about for a very long time, the conversations we’ve had in the Podcast Series in recent months have played into the thought that we’ve concentrated on certain aspects of diversity, maybe the easier bits – gender…

MH: Well they can't be that easy because we sure haven’t done them very well but anyway.

PL: So are there areas, less obvious perhaps, areas like socio and economic diversity have not had such recognition, so listening to what you’re saying there about that's playing into the outcomes we saw politically last year, is that something that needs to be discussed more widely in organisations? You don't hear a lot about that.

MH: Well I think it is a kind of diversity we need to be thinking about more deeply. I guess I come at this from a position which some people may find too radical to stomach which is, is there such a thing as talent at all?

PL: What did she say? ((Tape rewind))

MH: Is there such a thing as talent at all.

PL: Okay so we heard that right.

MH: I think we certainly have been guilty of thinking that talent looks a particular way or behaves a particular way, ways which conveniently we can measure, and I have a really big nagging question in my head which is really, do we really understand what talent looks like, sounds like, acts like? Is the idea even helpful? I mean we know for example that social connectiveness is a better indicator or predictor of professional success than IQ. We know that academic success is no indicator of professional success. So when you take those things into account and you think how we hire people, we’re hiring people for a sort of identikit that could be completely wrong.

PL: And a true story about some chickens explains this. Margaret calls it the ‘super chicken thesis’.

MH: Well this is our work done by an evolutionary biologist who looked at what happens to an average flock of averagely productive chickens over six generations compared to a flock that is constructed of the individually most productive chickens over six generations. And what happens is the average flock just gets better and better over time, which is exactly what happens to teams and the flock of super chickens or high potential chickens, if you like, after six generations all but three are dead.

PL: Do they kill each other?

MH: Yeah. And the conclusion that was drawn was the productivity of the few has been achieved by suppressing the productivity of the rest.

PL: I mean there's a real lesson there isn’t there?

MH: There is a real lesson there and most people I tell the story to absolutely see corporate politics implicit in the story. So maybe we have to at least get rid of that and think about what, if anything, replaces it. I mean I think this is philosophically and operationally a very, very difficult challenge but I'm reminded of a company based in Cleveland which when, like any start-up, had its big moment of success, the owner didn’t have the money to hire all sorts of super-trained people and instead chose to hire pretty much anybody who’d walked through the door which turned out to be primarily Hispanics and Latinos who had not graduated high school. And the CEO brought in literacy and numeracy teachers who operated classrooms in working hours. And the entire, very successful business was based on the back of this. Now I think that's a real challenge. That's saying really, you could hire anybody.

PL: It depends what you do with them.

MH: And it depends on what you do with them

PL: So it’s not about them it’s about you, the organisation.

MH: Yeah and how supportive are you? Are you prepared to invest in people? Because if you want them ready made where are they going to come from and anyway what you need now is not going to be the same as what you need in the future so if you hire what you need now what confidence do you have that this horse is going to turn into a car? It’s a very unusual evolutionary sequence, right? So actually what you need to do is you have to find people who just love learning and who embrace change and then you have to provide them with the tools and the structures and so on that they need. Everything that we have taken for granted is up for grabs.

PL: This has serious implications for L&D practitioners as they become ever more central to organisational success. Laura Overton is founder and CEO of Beyond Maturity*, which provides independent research to help organisations improve their performance through learning. She was recently voted number one in the top ten most influential people in corporate e-learning in the UK, oh and the third most influential on the planet. She's in no doubts that the events of 2016 will have a huge impact on L&D.

Laura Overton: There are so many seismic changes that have been happening. We’ve been talking about the apprenticeship levy, we talk about Brexit, we talk about the political atmosphere in the country at the moment and I think working in the Learning and Development professional there's been a real sense of things need to change. I think there's been an awakening in 2016 about what is our role? What is our function? What can we add back to business? So we’re certainly seeing through the Towards Maturity researches that learning professionals are no longer just thinking about how can I transform the way I do my courses but they really fell that they ought to have a role in the way organisations learn at the most fundamental level, the extent to which individuals learn from each other, share knowledge, share information and learning professionals believe that we really do have a strong role to play in integrating learning into the workflow, getting closer to supporting individuals to be able to respond rapidly to change. And you can't just do that with traditional courses. So definitely we’re leaving 2016 with a real sense in the profession that there is something more that we can be adding.

PL: But at times of high risk we could all be tempted to retreat to a safe place and that goes for the HR profession too.

LH: With all of the pace of change in fact going into 2017 that's one of the biggest challenges that learning professionals are flagging is that things are moving so quickly and I think that possibly people are reverting maybe to what they know and there's a sense of whilst they know there's so much potential out there, curation, technology, the digitisation of business, of work, of learning, we’re kind of retreating a little bit and there's a real danger in 2017 that we are going to be sitting there too nervous to move forward, too nervous to take a risk, too nervous to try something new and fresh, even though it’s really being demanded of our profession. More is being demanded of our profession now than ever before. So I think there's a sense of that, maybe possibly facing the year with a tiny little bit of trepidation.

PL: America has long been a big influence on the UK, from pop culture, to food and corporate culture, where America has led we’ve usually followed but will the arrival of a divisive new president undermine that long-standing cultural connection and if it does might we start to look elsewhere for inspiration? Is there a sense do you think that if Britain feels slightly less culturally aligned or perhaps less loved by the States will we start to look elsewhere? Will that diminish that idea that where America leads we follow?

LH: I suppose the best thing that we can do is look as widely as possible for inspiration about what’s the best nation we can become? What's the best business we can become? And what I wouldn’t exclude from that is looking to our own legacy. The UK moved forward the abolition of slavery. It did that not because there was a business case it did it because it was the right thing to do. So I would be really concerned if I felt that recent political developments mean that we would move backwards in terms of equality, because equality stems from a basic human right and if we start to erode that that's a real race to the bottom and I'm not sure who wants to be part of that.

PL: Yes and the whole dangers of group think reasserting itself just when we've spent a lot of years working towards avoiding it.

LH: Yeah. And there's a lot of talk in the media now about echo chambers, we all have to get outside of our echo chambers and talk to people who aren’t like us and work gives us the opportunity to do that in a way that perhaps other institutions don't so we tend to live amongst our own kind but we work with really diverse workforces. So make the most of that because that's what helps us develop as human beings.

PL: As you say us, the media, one tends to get into conversations that are very negative about the looking forward but as you say that is a real opportunity to have conversations at work that perhaps you haven’t had before and might not have been felt to be appropriate conversations because we’re all having to recognise that people have very different opinions to perhaps what we thought before.

LH: Yeah precisely and I mean you may have been shocked in a positive or a negative way by Brexit, for example, you may have been absolutely delighted but shocked or you may have been absolutely horrified but shocked. But either way hopefully shock inspires us to learn and if we’ve learnt anything from the Brexit debate is that there's a risk of a very polarised country and we all have a role to play in that not being the future and I think in our organisations our opportunity is to get to understand each other better, understand each other’s talents, creativity, potential, that's what’s going to lead to a more positive future I think.

PL: And could all this be a trigger for a real creative burst in the UK?

LH: I think it has to be.

PL: On every level.

LH: On every level about how we identify with ourselves, how we see ourselves, about how we work together, about the vision that we have for the future.

PL: If Laura Overton has one piece of advice about 2017 it’s this, trust your gut.

LH: They should just start with their gut instinct. Why are we in this profession? Because we love to deliver value. We’ve been talking to so many learning professionals over the last few months about, you know, what value do you want to bring? And we know instinctively that people want to help individuals fulfil their potential, help businesses to fulfil their potential. As learning professionals there's a real hunger to do that and I think if we are just open about that and we actually start to have the conversation with business leaders - what can I do for you this year that will help you achieve what you need to achieve better? I think we’ll probably find that there's a lot more that will come from that conversation. Now I know that a lot of learning leaders are frustrated in business right now because they’re saying that their business leaders just want them to provide a course and I think if there was a second step they could take is to maybe get genned up on what’s the evidence out there? How can you actually look and see what others are doing, look at some of the benchmarking evidence, use that to maybe bring an alternative position.

PL: A year to be bold.

LH: Absolutely. It has to be a year to be bold definitely.

PL: Next month behavioural science and how it plays into business performance with need to know insights on getting the best from your people in 2017. Happy New Year.