Opening up Engagement

The concept of employee engagement is a pretty divisive issue. Some people think it’s the answer to many organisational woes, others that it’s little more than the corporate wolf of unpaid overtime in fluffy sheep’s clothing. The idea has been kicking around for about a quarter of a century, and it’s widely recognised that in his 1990 article, “Psychological Conditions of Personal Engagement and Disengagement at Work.” William Kahn provided an early formal definition of personal engagement. He described it as:

“The harnessing of organisation members’ selves to their work roles; in engagement, people employ and express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally during role performances.”

Since then it’s become a more widely debated idea, and many businesses use surveys and other tools to try and understand it better, and even to try and measure it. I’d advise caution here, as trying to link simple measurements to more abstract human qualities, doesn’t always go to plan.

Like many others, I’ve spent time and effort looking at engagement and what it might mean for us. I volunteered in the discovery phases of what was to become Engage for Success, a process which I disengaged myself from after a few years because although I witnessed plenty of good conversations, I wasn’t seeing any significant shifts in the way we work. I left the matter to one side until the good people at Symposium events contacted me recently and invited me to attend their forthcoming Employee Engagement Summit. I’m happy to go along and see what’s changing – here are a couple of thoughts on what would help reopen my interests.

Improving Responsiveness

I was recently in a conversation with a friend whose work patterns are currently undergoing a lot of shift. The project they are currently working on involves lots of deadlines, lots of travel, and multiple points of accountability and responsibility. The work is mostly interesting, and quite hectic – with the result that my friend’s mood, or level of engagement if you prefer, varies frequently and significantly.

The fluidity of work and our need to be adaptable is often poorly served by many business processes – some of which may be necessary. When it comes to the employee engagement survey as a necessary business process, I’m not convinced.

This scenario I discovered when talking to my friend is not uncommon and is an excellent demonstration of why the shelf life of employee engagement survey results may be too brief to be useful. I think we all feel dramatically different about our work from day to day, and sometimes hour to hour. “How do you catch a cloud and pin it down?

I’m hoping to hear about new ways in which organisations are trying to be more responsive to employees’ needs.

Broadening the debate

Continuing the conversation with my friend, she suggests that more broadly, maybe engagement is a symptom, rather than a goal or outcome. It’s what occurs when people have challenging, meaningful work and feel valued. It can also be a great avenue to discuss really important issues, like diversity and inclusion, in ways that don’t make people feel defensive and shut down. I’m keen to learn if and how organisations are exploring the concept in this way. Previously I’ve seen thinking on the subject get quite stagnant. When engagement is such a broad concept, there should always be room for creative and important work inside the idea. I’m hoping I will find some on March 10th.

A version of this post was first published on the Symposium web site.

Moving to a more fluid definition of talent

(This post was originally featured in a 2015 White Paper jointly produced by HR Zone and Cornerstone On Demand titled ‘Talent 2020 – What is the Future Talent Landscape’. You can download it here and read further contributions from Rob Briner, Mervyn Dinnen and Dr Tom Calvard)

Moving to a more fluid definition of talent

As someone who relies on improvisation in my work, and someone who practices meditation, I enjoy going with the flow, and trying to be in the moment. The idea of trying to see five years into the future for any reason, let alone what that might mean for talent at work, is a challenge for me. Nevertheless, here are a few thoughts about what talent could mean for an enlightened organisation in five years’ time, and some things that need to shift in order to make talent the dynamic, wider opportunity it should be.

Talent bubble

I find the notion of talent as some exclusive club into which only a few can pass, quite abhorrent. When I worked for BT I declined a request to join the talent community, because it felt like a secretive, invitation only club, into which you were quietly drawn, rather than something everyone knew about and could take advantage of when needed.

Everyone has something to offer, and I prefer to think of talent as an all-encompassing notion which we use to encourage everyone to bring their best, and be the best they can. It’s a fluid concept, my talents may be particularly useful for a given time, and for a given set of requirements. I’d like to see the idea of talent as something highly permeable through which anyone can move through, to achieve mutually beneficial outcomes.

A shift – from employee to freelancer

According to a 2014 report published by the ONS, self-employment in the UK is at its highest level since records began. There are 4.6 million people working for themselves, with the proportion of the total workforce self-employed at 15% compared with 13% in 2008, and as few as 8.7% in 1975.

This shift looks set to increase, with some predicting the number of people in a freelance role could be as high as 50% by 2020. I think what this means is that the bubble in which talent currently operates will burst. The idea of a ring fenced, private club for talent within an organisation will no longer be practical as organisations increasingly look outward to freelance workers to help them deliver. How willing will these organisations be to invest in talent that they don’t ‘own’?

I invest frequently in my own ‘talent development’. In the past 12 months I’ve spent time and money with The Improvisation Academy developing my improvisational skills. I’m investing time and money through the CIPD to learn more about Organisational Design and I’m investing in improving my artistic skills.

Currently I fund these activities directly from my freelance income, and I’m wondering if maybe, my freelance arrangements should be tweaked so that clients who invest in my talents can see that part of their fees is a direct investment in me, and therefore the service I give them?

The same ONS report which confirms the current levels of 15% self-employment in the UK also reveals that income from self-employment has fallen by 22% since 2008/09. There could be all sorts of reasons for this – and maybe, just maybe, if the buyer could see that the freelancer was committing to his or her ongoing development, this fall could start to become a rise.

A shift – from being trained to learning to learn

Within organisations I’m observing a move towards a more self-determined approach to learning and development, albeit currently at quite a slow rate. Technology is a clear enabler for this, and by 2020, I think this will offer a challenge to people in traditional organisational talent communities, for whom membership often means access to an enhanced training programme.

For some – the idea of co-creating and co-owning this facet of talent development will be very exciting, yet there’s a degree of arrogance that comes with admission to the club, and an expectation that learning and development will be done for you. People with that mentality may see this shift as a cheapening of the talent experience, and I’d argue they are not the kind of people you will be looking for in future.

A move to more self-determined learning should make talent communities more open, and make it easier to connect with relevant talent at relevant times, personally and professionally, organisationally and individually.

Clarity in the hiring process

There is already a need for greater clarity in the hiring process, specifically around making sure the role description is tangible, and matches the needs of the employer – regardless of whether this is for a permanent hire or not. I think recruitment agencies need to work much more closely and robustly with their customers – not only in making job descriptions fit the role better, but being generally more responsive and accountable too. A failure to achieve this will mean that talent increasingly bypasses the recruitment industry and goes direct.

A Review of the 2013 CIPD Annual Conference and Exhibition

I’m just back from a busy, fun few days in Manchester at the CIPD conference, and a little more besides.

Northern OD Network

On Tuesday morning I took the train from London to Manchester with Meg Peppin to take part in a Northern OD Network meeting. The session was held at the BBC HQ in Media City and we got a tour of the building including a visit to the set of BBC Breakfast. Here’s a picture of me in the studio grinning like a kid in a sweetshop.

Doug at the Beeb

After the tour we settled down to listen to David D’Souza talk about his forays into the world of social media, and his compilation, editing and publishing of the HR book of blogs, Humane, Resourced. Here’s the essence of what I heard David say:

Six months ago he began tweeting, meeting and exploring – David met people who challenge and push boundaries, are open to new things and care about their profession. He met a lot of bloggers.

He noticed that a lot of these people are intent rich – time poor, and settled on the idea of curating a book of blogs. The pace of the project ebbed and flowed and people were very generous in supporting David and sharing experiences to help him along his journey.

David wanted the project to be crowdsourced, low on control – high on opportunity.

The book got published, fame and fortune now ensues (David didn’t say that I hasten to add).

The conversation developed into how HR professionals can make use of social communication to drive ownership action and even, *shudder*, engagement. I enjoyed the dialogue very much – it was a good mix of enthusiasm, challenge and open minded exploration.

The day was capped off with a dim sum dinner in Chinatown with two lovely friends.

CIPD Conference – Day One

It felt like the whole of Manchester had turned up to hear the opening address to conference. Peter Cheese took a few minutes to update everyone on current and emerging thinking on how the CIPD is and will deliver on its purpose of Championing better work and working lives, and then introduced Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones who talked about Creating the best workplace on earth. I found the talk light on insight and heavy on cliche and rhetoric. It was also riddled with plugs for their various books. Guys – we know you’re authors, you don’t need to ram it down our throats. The talk was reviewed by a few bloggers here, and I encourage you to take a look.

This year the CIPD asked me to curate conference content on their tumblr site. In previous years I’ve focussed on covering conference sessions on my blog, which I find enjoyable and hard work. I thought the curation gig might be a bit easier, and I was wrong. I really enjoyed the challenge of trying to keep on top of everything and I was keen to photograph elements of the conference to add a visual twist in among the many blog posts.

Talking of visual twists…

Doug People Management

The folks at People Management came up with an excellent idea for this year’s conference – offering to put anyone, even me, on the front cover of their magazine. Inspired.

The evening of Day One included a Hacker’s Hangout which Perry Timms hosted. Peter Cheese and a number of hackers gathered for conversation and a couple of drinks. After that it was off to the Personnel Today party hosted by the genuinely charming Rob Moss, and then dinner with a few friends. Unusually for me I checked my emails when I got back to the hotel just after midnight and in my inbox I found this question. ‘Why do so many workers feel they have no power to think differently about their workplace? How can this be addressed?’ I responded, then I went to bed. More on this another day.

CIPD Conference – Day Two

I slept poorly on Wednesday night, and awoke around 4.15 am, thanks to a combination of things that go bump in the night, and nerves. The CIPD conference team had earlier agreed that Meg Peppin and I could facilitate a short unconference session this morning, called HR Unscrambled, and I was my usual mix of excitement and nerves.

We had an enthusiastic turnout for HR Unscrambled, which was a chance to meet new people, and discuss the future for HR. A few of the people who came along we knew, and many we didn’t. Peter Cheese was there too – this guy gets everywhere! I think it’s commendable how available Peter makes himself, and in this case, people who registered and turned up for a chance to talk about the future for HR, got to do so with their professional body’s CEO. I think that’s cool. Meg and I will be sharing some reflection from HR Unscrambled in a few days, for now though, I thought you might be interested to see a word cloud built from the notes that people made at their tables as they talked.

HR Unscrambled Word Cloud

I had to head off after our HR Unscrambled session, so I missed Dan Pink and plenty more besides. I tried to keep on top of things over at the CIPD tumblr where I hope I’ve managed to feature most, if not all, of the conference session blogs and reviews. Please let me know about any glaring omissions so I can include any good stuff I’ve missed. Just a brief mention for Ian Pettigrew who must have aching fingers today after somehow managing to write up over ten posts on various aspects of the conference.

In Summary

This year’s conference was a great mix of useful fun, connections and learning. Maybe it was the centenary year celebrations that helped add to the excitement, but more importantly, more sustainably, I feel like the CIPD is making real efforts and steps to deliver on that purpose I mentioned earlier. Championing better work and working lives. I’m sure there’ll be mistakes along the way, and disappointment too, such is the nature of exploring, experimenting and changing. It should be fun.