Leaving the vitamins in: can HR ‘go organic?’

There are lots of dread phrases in our working lives. “Can you come through to my office when you have a moment?’, “We’ve been looking at the figures and …” and “It’s not been an easy decision to take but …” are just some of them. Some of these are more insidious and less obvious: one that’s always made my hackles rise and my blood temperature chill a few degrees is ‘Rules are rules’. It’s not just the dead-pan logic – the kind of thing that gets passed off as Zen wisdom by people who misunderstand the former and lack the latter. It’s also the sense of resignation that it reflects in the speaker and seeks to instil in the listener. If they’d said ‘principles’ or ‘values’ instead of ‘rules’, it wouldn’t seem as bleak: principles and values are guides that flex in response to events. Rules, like latter-day Canutes, are often more interested in bending reality to their will.

There’s an excellent post – How to Rule out Rules? – by Dan Rockwell at his Leadership Freak blog that explores this conundrum of rules, this balancing act between having rules that you need and rules that you don’t. It’s well worth reading in its entirety, although I thought his final note sums up his argument best:

I’m not suggesting organizations do away with all rules. Organizations devoid of rules are in chaos. I am suggesting many organizations rely too heavily on restrictive rules that alleviate leaders of their responsibilities.”

Another of his points is the role of rules in stifling creativity, although I’d argue that this is a point about processes as much as rules. We live and work in a capitalist economy, part of which means accepting that ‘destructive creativity’ is part of the deal: capitalism requires innovation to remain not just profitable, but open as a process – and as a society within which the system is operating. (Points made in Will Hutton’s “Them and Us”, reviewed earlier this week.) If you read our review of Steven Johnson’s “Where Good Ideas Come From” – or, better yet, read the book – you may also have concluded that good ideas don’t necessarily come from following the rules slavishly, obliging each procedural checkbox and checking every step you make against the manual.

Rules that operate as clampdowns are likely to prove ultimately self-defeating in any case. The classic quote is, of course, that “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains”. I’ve not read a lot of Rousseau, but the larger point was something to the effect that ‘law’ should operate to the benefit of everyone, not just the rulemakers. Where those being ruled don’t feel this is the case, the lawmaker may retain (ok, continue to impose) authority, but they will lose trust and respect. There’s a wonderfully amusing chapter in Christopher Hitchins’ Love, Poverty & War (originally written for Vanity Fair, and still available online), where – incensed at the increase in seemingly petty rule making by Mayor Bloomberg – he embarks on a one-man crime spree, taking his feet off his bicycle pedals, smoking a cigarette, sitting on a crate on the pavement and generally destroying the fabric of society as the Mayor would seemingly like it to be re-woven. As Hitchins points out:

The lawbreaking itch is not always an anarchic one. In the first place, the human personality has (or ought to have) a natural resistance to coercion. We don’t like to be pushed and shoved, even if it’s in a direction we might choose to go. In the second place, the human personality has (or ought to have) a natural sense of the preposterous. Thus, just behind my apartment building in Washington there is an official sign saying, drug-free zone. I think this comic inscription may be because it’s close to a schoolyard. And a few years back, one of our suburbs announced by a municipal ordinance that it was a “nuclear-free zone.” I don’t wish to break the first law, though if I did wish to do so it would take me, or any other local resident, no more than one phone call and a 10-minute wait. I did, at least for a while, pine to break the “nuclear-free” regulation, on grounds of absurdity alone, but eventually decided that it would be too much trouble.”

The article’s trigger was Hitchin’s disgust that “one of the world’s most broad-minded and open cities is now in the hands of a picknose control freak”, but cities aren’t the only things that fall victim to control freakery. Consider The Graduate’s post earlier today where he mentioned Binna Kandola’s analysis of negative traits that are more prevalent in leaders – or those that would seek to lead. There’s more to leading than being in charge: even managing (which isn’t leading) is more effective where there are interpersonal skills and an understanding of human nature or both general and individual levels.

In one of those odd little quirks that our brains sometimes produce (or perhaps it’s just people like me who tend not to read the process manual?), I thought of organic farming and battery chickens. Like many sectors, agriculture has seen industrialisation and standardisation of many processes and procedures over the last few decades. Yet the premium products – the ones we will pay more for, and that foodies like me salivate over – are the organic ones, the ones from the farmers’ market or the local supplier. Our bistro-pubs aren’t proudly announcing that their ingredients come from supermarkets, where every effort is made to use the very latest machinery and chemical additives: they’re plugging local produce and organic production.

OK, the analogy isn’t perfect. Juries are out on health benefits of organic versions, although not so much on flavour. We may eat at the most basic level for nutrition, but we’ve moved beyond spit roasting mammoths over a pile of burning twigs – having mastered feeding ourselves, we’re now discerning about what it tastes like. (Eating should perhaps have the foodie version of Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs?) We appreciate not just courgettes that actually taste like courgettes, but also that organically farmed courgettes may not leave such a negative environmental footprint. Having just edited a friend’s MSc thesis on the sustainability and security of the UK’s potato supply, the organic approach also encourages – almost forces – closer working relationships between suppliers and growers, and relationships that are mutually supportive in overcoming not just business hurdles but nutritional and technological challenges too.

You’re possibly ahead of me in saying ‘hang on, there are rules of organic farming’. Indeed there are – as the Soil Association website will tell you. But ‘rules are rules’ is an over-simplification: the quip that ‘yes, but there are rules and rules’ is more than wordplay. There are different types of rules, and different mindsets to their application. Consider the following quote from Graham Keating of Yeo Valley Organic, in a profile on the Soil Association site:

Organic principles – why do they matter?
Organic is fundamentally a sensible way of farming – working within (as much as possible) a balance with nature rather than trying to subjugate it through technology. We apply that sensible approach throughout the food supply chain and it brings us confidence and reassurance in the food we eat. The principles, rather than the rules and regulations of organic food, are the things that engage our consumers and so they matter hugely. The great thing about organic principles is that, as a set of ‘sensible ways of doing things’, they can apply to wider business principles too.”

Outside of horticulture, of course, we’re not dealing with vegetables: they are called human resources. But skilful, thoughtful husbandry of them is what makes a difference. As Dan Rockwell points out, there are areas where compliance is mandatory – health & safety rules exist to minimise physical harm. But compliance isn’t commitment, it’s just obedience. (Insert your own joke about ‘only following orders’ here if you must.) Managing people as people and handling them with skill and intelligence is what generates commitment, and without commitment there can be little hope for innovation. Why bother to improve something that means little to you anyway?

Yet when I look at the world of HR, what is the equivalent of the Soil Association kitemark, the logo on the job ad that makes me think “Ah, now that looks promising and tempting”? The closest that we have is Investors in People recognition – something that ASK is proud of and committed to. Audited on a tri-annual cycle, IiP status is effectively a form of organisational 360 degree analysis undertaken by a third party: largely interview-based, it allows staff to comment anonymously on learning, development, openness and accessibility of line management and other issues within its framework and provides a detailed report back to the organisation. For an organisation that values all these issues, and values feedback (and ASK would be terrible hypocrits if we didn’t), all that is naturally welcome: it’s the kind of thing we believe we (and everyone else) should be doing.

Yet IiP is self-governing to some extent: organisations choose whether to enter for it and the suspicion must therefore be that those who care least are least likely to apply. A web article by Dan Burton – Investors in People – Old Hat or Tailor-Made? – poses questions which seem to still be unanswered, and which the current funding/quango climates must cast under some kind of shadow. (IiP no longer has its ties to the now extinct Business Link network, and costs of certification have risen, although higher levels of Certification for higher levels of people management performance have recently been introduced.) Is a certificate geared to the organisation the right approach? If the goal is engaged and committed staff who’ll make the discretionary effort to be innovative, shouldn’t a certificate be at least partially aimed at them? Despite the introduction of higher level awards, do the broader public – the people working, or potentially working, for these organisations – understand what they mean?

Cranfield University conducted an in-depth survey of its impact in 2008, which you can download as a PDF; you might also care to read a news item at FirstScience News after an independent survey that analysed the level of international adaptability of this model, concluding that it is perfectly extrapolative to other countries.So why is my perception that this is an under-sung success? As the FirstScience article concludes:

It also opens up the possibility of undertaking future research as to why governments of other countries similar to the United Kingdom have not supported the implementation of a model such as Investors in People, or the viability of carrying it out in other countries without the support of the government.”

There’s certainly scope for some radical thinking to put ‘People Management’ further up everyone’s agenda when it comes to their working lives. Jobcentres could offer only to fill positions for organisations achieving certification (leaving the others to pay commercial agencies); recruitment agencies could be regulated to apply higher charges to client companies who are ‘under-performing’ – recruiters are suppliers to job-candidates as well as companies, and their own reputations could benefit. More broadly, the framework and the certification could be reviewed: how does it compare with Gallup’s G12 engagement survey, and the various ‘great place to work’ award schemes? How can the good examples be more loudly advertised? Who should sponsor the scheme (state backing opens a door to philosophical objections, while both business and union representation is needed to avoid perceptions of one-sidedness): any kitemark needs to be credible to be taken seriously. And if schools can have league tables, why not companies? We spend far more of our lives at work than we do in education. (And that’s a sentence that merits unpacking and pondering as a whole enormous issue in its own right.)

Of course, this is blue sky thinking. (And I’ve just had my poetic license marked for using business clichés in the creative quarter of the ASK offices for using the phrase.) It could – even if the words of ‘engagement’ and ‘commitment’ and ‘people management’ are on a government’s or a passing business culture’s lips – go the way of Will Hutton’s advocacy of stake-holding in the mid-90s. (Not a bad idea, just one where the ‘vests’ of the vested interests were of the bullet-proof variety. Like great business performance, moving obstinate barriers requires more than lip-service.) But many of us – both those running organisations and those working for them – would have a damned good point in feeling aggrieved if appreciating the importance of good people management were to prove to be merely a passing fad. As Hitchens said, he don’t like to be pushed or shoved. If anyone influential is listening, perhaps we might be nudged?

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