HR’s “point of inflection” – Peter Cheese shares his thinking

Peter-Cheese-webI recently attended an event with Peter Cheese, newly appointed CEO of the Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development (CIPD), which celebrates its centenary this year (2013).

Peter was answering questions put to him by an audience composed of mainly HR professionals. He was refreshingly honest and candid with his answers. He seemed to be recognising both the great and not so great aspects of the CIPD and the HR profession it represents. He referred to a point of “inflection” as the HR profession wrestles with its identity and how it might add more value to organisations.

There were many points I agreed with in Peter’s thinking and this post summarises those areas that struck a chord for me. After reviewing Peter’s comments, I will go on to close this post with my view on one of the key paradoxes facing HR at its “point of inflection.” I will also comment on how OD might better support HR, but not before OD is better understood by HR.

In shaping his thinking about how to lead the CIPD, Peter referred to contextual changes in the nature of “work, the workforce and the workplace.” He referred to Gary Hamel’s view that the changing nature of business, points to a new role for HR. To be prepared for this new role Peter referred to earlier CIPD research¹ that had called for HR professionals to learn the “3 savvies” of “business, context and organisation”.

Peter was also refreshingly open to challenges about HR’s role in the recent failures in our banks and other organisations. He didn’t point any fingers or name names, but he does seem open to asking questions such as “Where were HR when these corporates failed?”, “Did we not see it?” and “Were we complicit?”

This particular part of the conversation was prompted by a question that asked “How do we [in HR] balance becoming more business savvy with upholding business ethics?”

I find it interesting that this question seems to imply that being business savvy automatically implies a degree of working in the more unethical areas of corporate life or business dealings. If this is a view held by HR in general, then this could explain why they might proactively avoid becoming more business savvy. I’ve been present in more than a few meetings when someone from HR has declared they don’t need to be involved in thinking about business or operational challenges on the basis they are from HR. I’ve written about HR’s attitude to risk here.

Needless to say, I don’t see it this way. Becoming more business savvy implies an understanding of business practices that helps us identify more clearly with both ends of the business ethics continuum. I believe Peter sees it this way too. He seems a particularly business savvy and ethical professional, with experience grounded in operational roles.

This non-HR background, brought us to another point in the line of questioning, namely whether HR professionals can maximise value-add for the business when they spend no time in operational roles. This question has been forefront in my mind since entering the HR profession. I entered from an operational background and have been in and out of operational roles ever since. I see myself as primarily operational with an HR/OD specialism, not as an HR/OD specialist per-se. In my experience, the most impactful HR, L&D and OD professionals have been those plucked from operational roles.

On this point, of how the profession sees itself, Peter spoke honestly about the CIPD having been “too inward looking, not keeping pace and lacking relevance”. He talked about the need to create a value chain based on research, which would lead to learning, which would in turn lead to helping HR people do their jobs better.

Peter talked about the need to “professionalise” the profession, with clear progression routes and clarity on Continuing Professional Development, something I have written about here.

Amongst the questions I asked of Peter was an observation he seemed to agree with. This was that HR had taken too much accountability for the people agenda. This desire to control was at the expense of operational managers seeing a balanced view of their accountabilities – that of managing both process and people.

It is interesting that Peter quoted Anthony Jenkins and the Board of Barclays following the Libor scandal. They have been asking themselves “How did this happen on our watch?”

In this question lies one of the issues I see at the heart of HR’s attempt to add more value.

Peter and I seem to agree that failings in our banks and other corporates are centered on failings in leadership and culture. To add more value it is here that HR must concentrate. However, not by doing more. HR must wrestle with the paradox that in order to do more for the business, it must do less. They must give back critical accountability for leadership development and culture change to the managers, especially the Board. HR must be more strategic and consultative, and less tactical and controlling in these important areas.

Peter calls for more focus on organisation and less on individual. This, for me, is where we start to split out the Organisation Development agenda from the broader HR agenda. Hopefully, this is where we will focus our discussion on the future of HR over the coming years. Part of that discussion needs to be the field of OD better articulating what it is and how it can help HR at this organisation level.

Peter approached me after the event and asked for my definition of Organisation Development (OD). Having given it, he agreed and expressed a thought that maybe the CIPD and the broader profession, are not fully conversant with OD as a field of research and practice. I have to agree. Most in HR see OD as the activity of developing organisations. For HR this activity is most often carried out by implementing current HR best-practice. This is simply HR renamed as OD, it isn’t true OD.

OD professionals do go about developing organisations, but their work is not centered on HR best-practice. It is centered on a broad range of theory and practice from psychology, the social sciences, the ‘hard’ sciences of biology, chemistry and physics, the complexity sciences and case-studies in complex business change. OD doesn’t implement HR best-practice. Rather OD supports organisations create and then re-create the most relevant people practices based on their emergent, ever-changing needs.

In summary, Peter Cheese is calling out a point of inflection as the HR profession wrestles with its identity and how it might add more value to organisations. I’ve pointed out two key issues as I see them, that must underpin the discussions flowing through this process of reflection, reframing and ultimate refocussing of HR. These are the paradox of HR doing less, in order to do more and the need for OD to better articulate how it can support HR with its more strategic organisation development agenda.

I’ve written here at greater length on how OD and HR need each other so that they can both better support our organisations. Cheung-Judge and Holbeche (2011) have written an excellent book on OD and HR for both OD and HR practitioners. I would highly recommend it.

I also highly recommend and welcome Peter Cheese’s fresh perspectives. Let’s hope the OD and HR professions get behind him and make the changes necessary for the CIPD to be around for another 100 years.


¹CIPD (2011) Next Generation HR: Insight Driven. Available at http://www.cipd.co.uk/hr-resources/research/next-generation-hr-insight-driven.aspx
Cheung-Judge, M-Y. & Holbeche, L. (2011) Organization Development: A Practitioner’s Guide for OD and HR. Kogan Page, London.

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