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Thinking like a revolutionary – CIPD conference keynote address


CIPDThe sheer size of the CIPD event marks out the difference from the other shows during the year. This was evident from the exhaustion that resulted from exploring the whole exhibition, but it really became clear when we attended the keynote address.

The sight of thousands of HR people in one room brought home just what a high profile this event has for the profession. Thumping dance music provided a strangely inappropriate introduction for CIPD President Mike Kinski's friendly and accessible style, but he took it in his stride, welcomed us, and went straight on to emphasise the main themes of his presidency: learning and turning learning into performance. Kinski's straightforward manner belies the strength of his enthusiasm. His determination to advance the status of learning was infectious, and demanded a change of perspective. He even rebuked those who call for tax breaks on training, for still seeing learning as an extra, just a marginal element that could be improved in the right conditions. And he had time to draw attention to the CIPD's own research on learning before making way for the main performer.

Gary Hamel rose to the big occasion by giving us an unrestrained performance in a time-honoured role: the American business guru telling us how the future is gonna be. His credentials have taken a bit of a battering because of his enthusiastic puffing of Enron (prior to it's ignominious collapse), but to be fair he did refer to this in passing, and in all made a fair effort to persuade us that we are ill-prepared for what's coming. But (happily) so is everyone.

Hamel's theme was organisational survival in a changing world, beginning from the very effective proposition that we all need to accept that the 1990s are over, and stop expecting such favourable conditions to return. Ever. The next slice of uncertainty to be served up was a frank statement that new leadership skills are needed to replace the out of date ones of the failures, crooks and one-trick ponies who have intermittently been celebrated as exemplary CEOs over the past decade. These new skills need to foster resilience and ongoing development: "success is more fragile than it has ever been".

This in turn, Hamel argued, is because the world is getting more turbulent faster than companies are getting more resilient. "Exponential growth is over, exponential change isn't... retrenchment won't work either, we live in a deflationary world, customers are pushing prices down... timidity is no more effective than greed was... every business is successful till it's not... for 100 years managers have worked tirelessly to drive resilience out of organisations".

He offered resilience as the antidote to turbulence, innovation as insurance against irrelevance. He stressed the need for realism: "failure comes as a surprise because people aren't honest with themselves". Though perhaps short on immediate practicality, his formulations made good sense: "separate values from habits... treat every strategy as a hypothesis... deep insights come from knowing customers' unacknowledged needs... teach everyone the necessity for paying attention to deep change".

So far, most of the address was really a warning to the whole of business rather than to HR in particular. However, there was in this speech a challenge to HR to get ownership of some of those principles to which everyone is going to adhere.

One example is the need to push senior people into gaining new experiences. Beyond that lies the creation of a wider culture of innovation. "If you can't show how you have stimulated people to come up with 1000 new ideas, I wouldn't bet on your survival... Alertness to innovation at the bottom is essential, it's how nature works... You can't make management responsible for all innovation... Markets are more resilient than hierarchies or companies, so build internal markets for ideas, capital and talent."

Quoting Ricardo Semler, Hamel reminded us that democracies are resilient, and suggested that if we want to know how to make organisations more so, perhaps we shouldn't be looking to companies. What do democracies have? Tolerance of paradox. Whereas we give too many decisions to accountants and engineeers, who are trained not to tolerate paradox.

"Organisations fail when the forces of perpetuation outlast the forces of innovation". In the end, Hamel gave HR the unenviable role of battling those forces that tend to perpetuate the status quo.

It was a great performance, at once bravura and thought-provoking, full of soundbites but persuasive at a more considered level too. If there wasn't that much direct guidance for HR, there were some particular challenges, and a reminder that everyone without exception will need to keep reassessing roles. This wasn't a comforting address, but it did set out the stark, if familiar, alternatives: HR can get more involved in driving change, or just be reactive and excruciatingly aware of the upheaval that change leaves in its wake.


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