Wednesday, 9 March 2016

What lies ahead...

So today I've attended the Association of Colleges HR conference for the first time since 2002. The AoC are the employers body for Further Education, the sector I've now (re)joined. 

It was unusual to be attending an HR conference where I knew no one before attending, and wasn't speaking at the event. In fact the last time that happened was probably 2002 at this same conference. 

I have a view of HR within FE as being quite insular and a closed network. I'm obviously in this network now and have been warmly welcomed onto some online HR groups, but even so having scanned the delegate list I was surprised to see no names I recognised before joining the sector last week. From a diversity perspective, scanning around the room, there were far more men evident than at any other HR conference, and the age profile was also quite a bit older than I'm used to seeing. Not sure why. 

I was further surprised by the relative peaceful hashtag leading up to the event, with 90% of tweets coming from exhibitors. 

Why are HR professionals different in FE? I am not so sure, but I'm going to try to change it. 

We started off with an introductory speech from Marc Whitworth, Director of Employment Policy at AoC, who gave us an update on sector wide developments and some of the negotiations taking place at a national level. 

The first keynote speech was from John Callaghan, Chief Executive of Solihull College. John gave an overview of the challenges facing the sector, and offered some interesting insights into why some mergers will be resisted and may not work. Having gone through a merger style activity in the last two years where both sides wanted it and sought it, it's an interesting concept to me to have unwilling mergers, particularly on both sides. 

John urged the sector to be proactive and take control of our destinies. This is good advice, not just for organisations but for individuals too. The problem is, says John, what we do won't really change but the structures we have to do it with will need to, and increasingly the sector will be judged on its ability to churn out employable people with sought after skills, and therefore judged as much by industry as anyone else. 

John finished by giving advice on the role of HR, summarised in this photo. 
I am perhaps too new in the role to know how well placed my organisation and team are to meet these challenges, but I'm confident we can even if we aren't ready right now. 

Up next was Samantha Clark from Irwin Mitchell. She gave an overview of the types of things HR can do to contribute to organisational effectiveness. The speech would have been perfect for those new to HR, or students perhaps. Maybe she had just pitched her speech to the wrong level of attendee. The advice was practical and straightforward, just old news for me. 

What was interesting was Samantha's run through of her legal toolkit, including "strategic redundancies" and the links to protected conversations, without prejudice discussions and settlement agreements. Samantha encouraged their use to enable change but to proceed with caution. 

After the break I'm in a session looking at HR lessons from the area review process. My new organisation has recently been through this but the outcomes are not yet known, so one of my tasks will be to pick up the outcomes, so this promised to be a good session. 

Pete Haynes from Solihull College, who were amongst the first to go through the process, likened it to a game of poker but again stressed the importance of transparent and open negotiation between Colleges. 

Warren O'Donovan from Salford City College highlighted the types of information that HR is likely to be asked for, and how this presented challenges with the types of data that systems held and how this highlighted the shortcomings of some HR systems in use in FE. 

Musrat Zaman from Lambeth College was at a very early stage in the review. She also focuses on the need to get ones data right and the challenges they face in doing this and providing narrative to support this. She talked about other processes running in parallel to area review around mergers and inspection processes, and whether area review will have any impact on this. 

What these anecdotes hammered home to me is how different the FE sector will look, structurally, within 2-3 years. I hadn't fully appreciated this when joining the sector, but it's an interesting time to join the sector at least and not too dissimilar to the situation that faced social housing when I left it, though I'd suggest that social housing is more a master of its own destiny than FE at this stage, although FE are perhaps 12-18 months further down the line in these types of sector wide changes than social housing is. 

Another useful lesson from those that had been through it was the realisation that other FE Colleges are not their competitors, that it is often Sixth Form Colleges and private training providers who are the competitors, and that FE Colleges can at least work more closely together to promote the sector at large, even if they don't come together structurally.

There was a lot of good, practical advice in this session but more for organisations who haven't had their area review yet. For me, with the review done and outcomes almost ready to be released, I'm not convinced I'll be able to use the majority of it. The main lesson was about getting your data ready and being ready for any outcome. 

After the lunch break there was an opportunity to go to one of several provider demonstrations, but none of these really grabbed me so I stayed in the exhibition space and chatted to those who were there. 

The first keynote of the afternoon was from Dunstan Arthur, a business psychologist from CEB. Dunstan had a range of information about the changing environment in which FE operates, and told us that individuals and organisations need to adapt and evolve. He spoke about new ways of working and in particular the concept of enterprise contribution, which is not only being good at your own job but being good at helping others be good at their jobs. People who can do this achieve twice as much outcomes as those who just focus on their own tasks. 

In the photo above Dunstan outlined how organisational approaches to building collaboration and networking will fall foul of one of the four scenarios he has noted. 

Having come from an organisation where collaboration was encouraged, expected and almost a requirement of working there, to an organisation where performance is highly individualised, this is interesting stuff. Dunstans views would have resonated well in Torus but I'm not sure how they will translate to FE. He acknowledged that most FE performance management systems are individualised and make it hard to collaborate, and so in the sector we need to rethink our approach to reward and recognition as well as performance management. 

Dunstan suggested that we can start by asking people to quantify their own input into collaboration and to rate others contributions too. I've started to do something like this by mapping a kind of social network at Trafford but this goes beyond it and I can see how this would develop a collaborative culture. In the case study given, people could allocate ten ratings points to any other individuals based on the contribution that person had made to the raters success. Another key success factor was to allow individuals and groups to determine what collaboration means for them and to design their own structures for collaboration. 

This talk needed more time to really sink in but I liked the concepts Dunstan put across. 

He was followed by inspirational speaker Rob Brown talking about personal branding strategies to build your reputation. Rob was an excellent and engaging speaker, but his speech didn't appear to have immediate relevance to the audience or the sector. But he was interesting - I just think many weren't ready for it. 

He had six tips. 

1. Get in the game. This is about having a job where you have choice, creativity, impact, control and reward. This is the dream job, on your own terms, but you don't always get the chance to get all these. But if you make an effective contribution and are recognisable, you can ask for and take these things. To get these you need to be better than good. 

2. Get a game plan. Every individuals game plan will be different. He outlined four different types of career players. The Fatalists who wait for the world to give to them and rely on being good enough. The Hustlers are proactive but have no plan and rely on luck to get anywhere. The Planners have a plan and know what they want, but don't do anything about it. And the Pro, who has a plan and is proactive enough to achieve it. So be the Pro. 

3. Be likeable. Firstly, be happy and see the positive side of things. Give compliments and encouragement. 

4. Be valuable. Be worth knowing, in terms of your usefulness or importance to other people. This is based on: your influence or ability to make people act; your skills or stuff you do better than everyone else; your knowledge or stuff you know more than most; your connections and ability to open doors for people; your usefulness or ability to help solve problems; your productivity or ability to get things done; and your reliability or ability to keep commitments. 

5. Be visible. Network continually and dig your well before you're thirsty. Be active online, speak as often as you can, write too. Create stuff and come up with ideas. 

6. Take action. Connect to people, take the networking test online, and start NOW. Do something.  

Robs speech was excellent, just the tonic after lunch and it had something for everyone, I just don't know if everyone will heed the advice he gave. 

It was nice to be name checked by Rob in his speech as someone active online, but as I said to him as we chatted afterwards in the toilets (as you do) this was more noticeable because the vast majority of the delegates were so quiet online. I've never known a conference quite like it in the last 5 years or so. 

Anyway. 

The conference ended for me at that point as I had to get back home to collect my daughter from nursery just after 5pm, but for me it achieved its purpose of giving me an overview of HR within FE, helping me make some connections and giving me a sense of what challenges lie ahead. 

Till next time...

Gary

Ps in other news, had my first race of the 2016 season on Sunday and did average. At least it gives me a bit more momentum for upcoming races and it's nice to be out of the six month train but no race cycle.