Last week’s inaugural trip was a pretty intense learning experience for me and I’m only now just getting my thoughts in order. Quite a few speakers I’ve seen recently at this and other events have referenced making time for reflection, so instead of firing off a quick summary blog, I’ve tried to really reflect on what I saw and heard at HR Tech Europe.
First impressions are it’s a slick event, well planned and executed by the organisers. There are no exhibition-only attendees, everyone there is a delegate at the conference which I thought might mean it felt a bit less busy and buzzy but that wasn’t the case. The exhibition seemed generally busy with some quite cool tech on offer, more of which in a follow up post. I was really impressed with the speaker line-up and the sessions on offer in the conference. On more than one occasion I had a clash where I had to make hard choices of who to watch.
The outstanding element of the event for me were the keynote speakers. I am not always a real fan of keynotes where high level, conceptual ideas are put out there – which is all well and good but leaves the rest of us with little practical advice on how to take things forward within our organisations. Not so here.
David McCandless presented an interesting view on how to represent data and make it beautiful. For me, it sat outside some of the themes from the other keynotes but was fascinating nonetheless. He expounds that we need to look at data differently and demonstrated how easy it can be to pick up patterns and trends from data when it is not in a spreadsheet. And I’m all for making things pretty!
The sessions from the other headliners had more in common however. Yves Morieux, Ray Wang and Professor Gary Hamel (who were all excellent presenters) all discussed the lack of employee engagement in organisations today. In fact, not only are employees not engaged, they are ‘actively disengaged’. And this, they all seem to concur, is at least partly a reaction to the hierarchy, processes and layers that make up the modern day organisation. Morieux wryly referred to them as ‘labyrinths of complicatedness’ where disengaging is frankly the only sensible option. But disengaged employees don’t make for productive employees which presents business leaders with a challenge that needs to be addressed. However, he posits that the traditional pillars of management, and all the talent and leadership development that gets done these days doesn’t seem to be helping.
Morieux believes if we break down matrix structures and silos and work together that we’ll improve performance. It’s not about the ‘exoskeleton’ of org chart boxes but about focusing on the ‘nervous system’ of connectedness, adaptiveness and intelligence. Basically the different parts of the organisation need to co-operate because when that happens, everything takes less time, less resource and less complexity. He showed a video of a relay race where a team won by the finest margin. When examining what made that millisecond of difference, he found it was lots of little things all coming together at once. It was the athletes’ mental belief, their co-operation with each other, the power that was not just in their legs but rippling throughout their entire bodies…and there’s no measurement for that. The inference is that organisations need to stop being so obsessed with reporting and measuring, foster co-operation, understand what people *really* do in their roles (going beyond the box in the org chart and the typed up job description), nurture their skills and intelligence and encourage them to make a difference.
Wang’s session also looked at shifting business models. He bounced around the stage with great enthusiasm talking about how the advent of the digital era has revolutionised the way we work. A quick show of hands in the audience demonstrated that many of us now work from home for example, we use social media in our working lives as well as our personal lives – but the structures within which we work have not evolved in a way that keeps pace with these changes. Technology has moved the goal posts and we need to change how we hire, onboard, train and develop our people now. No pressure then! One of the parts of his session I loved was his smashing of the millienials myth to talk about segmentation of the workforce not by age but by digital proficiency (apologies for the slightly blurry pic).
Employees now want to create and manage their own experiences outside prescribed plans and we should allow context to drive activity.
His 5 steps to digital transformation advocate changing organisational structures and nurturing ‘digital artisans’ to create, innovate and thrive rather than be stifled within existing hierarchies. And key to all of this is HR and IT finding a way to work in co-operation with each other :) (Photo credit: Mervyn Dinnen).
And then as if to bring it all together, Professor Gary Hamel burst onto the stage as the closing keynote, loud, impassioned and incredibly engaging despite it being the end of a full on two days. All my devices (phone, iPad *and* laptop) had run out of juice by this point so I don’t have tweets to refer back to (I always use them as notes after live tweeting from events) but what he said had a real impact (Photo credits below to David D’Souza).
He told us he wasn’t there to reveal the management practices of the future because the right practices simply haven’t been invented yet. But what was clear from his perspective is that current organisational hierarchies are broken (bet you’re surprised about that by now) and that the only way to sustain competitive advantage is by constantly innovating, not just products, services and technology but the structures and direction of a company itself. The old ‘incumbents’ like Walmart are now struggling against the ‘insurgents’ like Amazon thanks to their inability to change and embrace new ideas from their employees (again, there was a reference to employee disengagement here). Hamel believes organisations need to invest more in the creative capital that employees represent whilst also handing them more power.
His view on existing management structures is pretty scathing and he referenced some organisations like Morning Star where there are NO managers, NO bosses, just peer review. Pretty powerful stuff and pretty wonderful in its way, but for the likes of Vodafone or BP or any of the other large companies in the audience, this must also seem pretty impossible. What I liked about Hamel’s session was that he had some practical tips for starting to make change in small areas. He was involved with the CIPD last year in creating a HR hack and I love the idea that incremental changes can start to happen thanks to one or two brave individuals.
He acknowledged that real change takes time and iteration. And also that the likes of Facebook and Amazon are now becoming the new incumbents so the pressure is now on them to keep innovating too. He closed with some thoughts on what some are already putting into action to create the organisations of the future, today.
Ultimately I doubt any of the attendees at HR Tech Europe are going to be able to go back to their organisations and completely overhaul their company structure. But the fact that employee engagement is so high on the agenda and the root causes of this are now being explored can only be a good thing. If small but sometimes painful processes like expenses or holiday requests *can* be changed and improved whilst employees also potentially being given more time and space to be creative then that seems like a reasonable but achievable goal which is worth chasing. Incidentally, one provider I spoke to at the event told me that all of their staff are given creative time when they want it to experiment and develop new ideas. Two of their staff have now independently developed a new piece of software which has been such a hit it’s been taken to market and is delighting their customers. Good to see some of this theory can work in practice. It will be interesting to go back next year and see what progress has been made and whether the organisations of the future are becoming a reality, even if it’s just bit by bit.