HR's 'unprecedented opportunity to define role': CIPD 2014 keynote address

World-leading strategy and growth expert Rita Gunther McGrath got 2014's annual Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) conference in Manchester underway with her insights into the HR practices and thinking needed for today's uncertain times.

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Around 500 delegates attending the professional body for HR and people development’s annual conference heard the acclaimed academic frame the proceeding two days' seminars, workshops and conference with her keynote speech "Are we all entrepreneurs now? People strategies for the five-minute competitive advantage."In the context of this year's conference aim of preparing the HR and people development sector for the future, Rita Gunther McGrath, a professor at Colombia Business School, described the quickening pace of change and why high performing companies today are not necessarily going to be the high performing companies of tomorrow.Disruptive technologies, too narrow a focus on competitive advantage and competition from outside the industry are foreshortening product life cycles and therefore the length of time companies dominate the market.Rita Gunther McGrath contends that as these changes inevitably affect business strategies, HR – and by extension those involved in relocation and global mobility sector – needs to adopt new approaches to managing this more uncertain business environment."People strategies are not being served by outdated tools; those designed before competition went global and markets opened in India and in China. We really need to be thinking in a radically different way to invest in the future. A lot of our methodologies are not suitable to the world we are encountering,” she explained.Professor McGrath outlined the characteristics of companies that were addressing the changes through their strategy and people practices, proposing a new “HR playbook” in the process that focuses on “continuous reconfiguration, healthy disengagement, deft resource allocation, innovation proficiency, a new leadership mindset and entrepreneurial career management.”Companies that are thriving in this new environment "are those that assume change is the norm," she noted. "But rather than lurching from one big change management process to the next, the kind where everyone in the left-hand side of the building is fired, these businesses make a lot of small changes and continuously reconfigure. HR has such an important role here in moving people round and deciding structures."For HR in the context of an often silo-driven approach to company structure this means helping with "healthy disengagement" from projects or products that no longer drive performance, she contended."Many companies I have spoken to have yet to have a disengagement process where the parts of the project that add value are retained and those that no longer drove performance are no longer resourced," said Rita Gunther McGrath. "Companies do this all the time, but the lessons learned from the process and how to do it in a healthy way that reallocates resources are often missed."This, she says, presents a significant opportunity for HR to drive and support the business. "We need to get better at moving resources round. But powerful people tend to defend their own interests, so we need people with a different vantage point and who are going to be courageous enough to do it."She sees this being led by people with a new leadership mindset. "Leaders in future need to focus on candour and be willing to change direction as new information comes in. We need leaders who will maintain a sense of stability and help people feel confident to change. Leadership is therefore critical. It really matters – that ability to face the hard truths and get the organisation to work together to find the solutions.”Zeroing in on the role of HR here, especially in environments where it is often difficult to find the people with in-demand skills and new job roles that are being created, Professor McGrath believes there is a need to look at resources in a very different way.“We are going from stable career paths, hierarchies, teams, infrequent job hunting and careers managed by organisation, to a greater emphasis on individual skills, a series of ‘gigs’, individual superstars, permanent career campaigns, and even more to careers managed by the individual. We are increasingly about individuals, which means HR therefore has huge responsibility.“This is all challenging the notion of what is a job. It is something you do, not a place you go. It’s increasingly about ‘tours of duty’; a project-based approach that is constantly morphing. So who is orchestrating this? HR needs to look more into external networks, preserving them and making sure you are in the right ones,” advised Professor McGrath.It is also about making sure the “company is a talent magnet” and one that values its alumni. “What if we can build companies that mean people can step away, fulfill personal ambitions or blend outside interests with work? It could unleash a lot of human potential."

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