CIPD Annual Conference 2017: highlights from day two

From agile organisation to better benefits – rounding up everything you might have missed in Manchester

After an action-packed first day, the 2017 CIPD Annual Conference delved deep into some of the most important challenges facing the HR profession during its second and final day. Here are the highlights: 

The future is agile

Few people know more about the ins and outs of organisation design than change management expert, academic and author Linda Holbeche. And in a well-received conference masterclass, she gave a thorough rundown of the different organisational models that are helping businesses prepare themselves for the digital age.

Agile structures, said Holbeche, were among the most interesting innovations in OD in recent years. “They tend to work in both small and large entities, to help focus on a common goal,” she said. “Each unit might be doing a small subset of that common goal – but the key is that everyone knows what everyone else is doing.”

Holbeche pointed to Spotify, which has organised its technical departments into cross-disciplinary teams. They have a brief to innovate without needing central approval, and help iterate each other’s work. There is deliberately no formal leadership, but central functions such as HR are crucial to help keep an overview of activity.

The key to implementing such a system, Holbeche concluded, is to embrace it fully: “If you only do a bit of it, the hierarchical structures will kill it.”

AI is a divisive issue

A lively debate saw opposing views aired on the effects of artificial intelligence on HR and the broader labour market. David D’Souza, head of CIPD London, suggested that automation was not sufficiently well understood. Forty-five per cent of UK jobs, he said, were at risk according to the Bank of England, and the issue should be driven by business and government rather than Silicon Valley. “We haven’t planned societally for the amount of disruption from technology,” said D’Souza. “It is in the interests of the tech companies to stay ahead of the competition, not to think about ethical oversight. We are getting sold the opportunity but we are ignoring the risk.”

For her part, technology consultant Clare Dillon said AI had the potential to be “the biggest change agent in society”. Pointing to the way it was revolutionising everything from food distribution to healthcare for the betterment of the majority, Dillon said it was more likely technology would automate certain parts of certain roles – most of them more mundane tasks – rather than displace entire professions. “It’s the best chance we have as a society,” she said.

HR professionals must act as facilitators for change

HR departments are often touted as the go-to people at times of organisational change, but the profession should be considered facilitators rather than leaders in the process, said Graham Smith, director of people for Devon & Cornwall and Dorset Police.

Workforce planning is an “abstract art as opposed to an exact science”, Smith told delegates. Using his own experience of a significant merger of two police forces, he argued that, to achieve successful change, organisations must include individuals with a diverse range of strengths and facilities from all areas of business, with HR facilitating processes and pointing out potential pitfalls.

“If you neglect people at times of organisational change, things fall apart – statistics show that 70 per cent of mergers fail to deliver what was originally intended,” he warned. 

Don’t forget to communicate your benefits

When you have worked hard to devise a flexible reward strategy, you need to make sure employees know that their benefits exist and how to access them easily, said Sharron Pamplin, HR director for UK and Europe at engineering giant Atkins. “There is no substitute for face-to-face communication,” added Georgina Corbett, former group HR director at Dandara. “Explaining the details of employee benefits at the right time during enrollment is really important.”

But it doesn’t stop there: communication needs to frequent. Dandara organised lifestyle events and lunchtime sessions, and made sure that employees who had been promoted were still receiving benefits that “spoke to them”. Atkins found that trigger points, such as awareness weeks around wellbeing, were good times to flag up benefits such as its cycle to work scheme.