Author Archives: Dr David Spicer

About Dr David Spicer

David is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change at Bradford University School of Management where he lectures in the areas of change management and organizational behaviour on undergraduate, postgraduate and executive programmes. He is also a visiting professor at TiasNimbas Business School in Holland and Germany and alumnus of Harvard Business School’s Global Colloquium for Participant Centred Learning. He holds degrees from the Universities of Bristol, Stirling, and Plymouth.  His research is concerned with organizational learning and change, and he is currently working on a major project looking at the dynamic capabilities of Motorola and Intel.


+        Organisational learning in small firms

+        Organisational learning in a downturn

+        Styles of leadership – East vs West

+        Cultural change in mergers and takeovers

What makes an excellent business? Motivated and happy employees – and innovation

Yp awardsLast month I attended the Yorkshire Post’s Excellence in Business Awards in my capacity as judge of the Outstanding Employer category, which is sponsored by Bradford University School of Management. It’s always gratifying to see the number of great businesses we have in Yorkshire – both large and small.   These businesses would stand out wherever you put them in the world and any business leader can learn from them, no matter which country they are operating in.

My research in recent years has an interest in what makes for a motivated workforce (covered in this blog on 10 factors creating job satisfaction). Judging these awards felt like seeing this research come to life through inspirational case studies.

The awards (click on the video link below to see clips from the evening) demonstrated the resilience of our county’s best companies despite the economic downturn and showed that they can compete in an ever increasing national and international market.


Courtesy of Yorkshire Post

Winners such as PTSG (companies with a turnover under £10M), Evenort (companies with a turnover between £10 and £50 M), Zenith and the innovative start up Bluesmith which was named as Young Business of the Year, all demonstrate that there are dynamic and growing businesses providing products and services that are exported worldwide.

But what makes a business excellent and ensures it strives ahead of its competitors? Here are my top tips for companies to lead the way.

1. Be innovative

Innovation is clearly a Yorkshire trait and was demonstrated admirably by Harrogate-based business EnviroVent which won the Innovation of the Year award for its heat conscious ventilating systems. It is an excellent example of a sustainable business that has real growing potential.

Courtesy to

Courtesy to

Another winner who won because of his innovation was Jacob Hill, named Young Entrepreneur of the Year. He stood out with his Lazy Camper business which he set up after attending the Leeds Festival in 2011.

His innovative camping in a bag sets have caught the zeitgeist of festival goers worldwide, generating both orders and accolades.

As for our own award , Bradford University School of Management’s for Outstanding Employer of the Year, innovation is also very much in evidence.

Last years’ winners, Plusnet, made the shortlist again. The focus they have on engagement with their growing workforce is clear and they continue to make stellar efforts in ensuring employees have a voice in the organization – despite, or perhaps because of, their growth. Their next big challenge is to build their new additional operations centre in Leeds.

I would say the hallmark of their success has been retaining a Yorkshire focus whilst at the same time ensuring excellent customer satisfaction.

2. Invest in People

Specialists in manufacturing execution systems and automation projects, Cimlogic, made it on to the shortlist after impressing us judges with their organization-wide investment in project management training.

CIMThey have recognized the capabilities that this gives which were of benefit, whether individuals directly managed projects or not.  We were also impressed with their innovative use of the controversial zero hours contracts irrespective of widespread criticism.

Whilst these contracts are often thought of as examples of poor HR practice, Cimlogic has managed to use them to retain and support three members of staff who had other commitments but wanted to stay involved in and connected with the business.

The Shipley based company is also facing the challenge of an office move but again this is about providing the right environment to support a growing business and its employees.

3. Be an authentic employer

This year’s winner of the Outstanding Employer of the Year award was TPP which stood out for their authenticity as an employer.

TPP2Admittedly, this is a factor which is difficult to quantify but it’s about tangible commitment to employees. TPP, for example, have a ‘leave work at 5:15pm’ policy as they expect staff to have a work-life balance, unless of course there is an emergency.

This might sound superficial and if not treated properly it would be, but handled well it sends a clear message that the company values and supports its team. This approach was demonstrated during a meeting with our judging team which was interrupted by TPP staff who were checking to see if our discussions were coming to an end as it was approaching 5.15pm. This would be unheard of in most businesses!

Additionally, TPP have recently moved to their new offices. These were built from scratch to house 600 employees, twice their current headcount and testament to their ambition. The judges were impressed with the extent to which everyone has been involved with the design and the fact the move has given staff an opportunity to learn new skills and knowledge that they would not otherwise have been able to acquire.  This again is another indicator of real authenticity as it shows that every challenge is seen as an opportunity to learn.

4. Be different

As a management researcher, I know that a distinctive, strong and committed culture such as that seen at TPP is a real differentiator – it is something competitors can little hope to emulate. And in this regard TPP is not alone.

As always we also saw loads of really great businesses that couldn’t make the shortlist – companies like 9xb, Compliance365, Navartis, Resolve IT Solutions and Search Laboratory all similarly have strong supportive cultures. Again these are all businesses that are successful, growing and strongly tied to Yorkshire and its skill base. All also have that authenticity and commitment that goes with a workplace in which people feel valued for the contributions they make.

In some respects, these mid-sized companies are Yorkshire’s own Mittelstand – they are very much tied to their region like their German counterparts which are seen as the engines of German’s economic strength.

MittelstandYorkshire – great place to visit, great place to do business and a great place to work. How’s that Lancashire?

What other factors can make a business excellent? Should all companies adopt a 5.15pm leave work policy?  What would stop you doing that?

The 7 key principles for an innovation mindset:Advice for employers and leaders on building innovation into everyday business practices

Dr David Spicer

Dr David Spicer

Dr David Spicer is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change and Head of the Human Resource Management and Organizational Behaviour Group.

Innovation is BIG news. Everyone wants it. Everyone wants to be described as innovative. But what exactly does it mean to be innovative, and can it really be achieved without large upfront research costs and a loss in productivity?

Politicians love to tell us that innovation is the key driver for growth in the UK economy. Think how often we see them roll out the “Britain is innovative” brand with a media photo call opportunity at an innovative high tech firm.

We are also very aware of those massive game changing innovations that affect all of our lives (I am typing this on my iPad, after all). Throughout history, our lives are driven (and largely bettered) by innovation – from fire and the wheel through to the internet and even the humble shipping container – those who saw the recent BBC Four documentary will understand!

Problems with innovation

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

There are problems with ‘big’ innovations, however. Firstly, they are very rare. The Walkman (if you don’t know what that is, ask a parent) was a massive innovation, and a great success for Sony. But it’s one that Sony has never really repeated. In truth, they take significant investment to bring about.

And that brings us to innovation problem number two: cost. Look at how much money the pharmaceutical industry spends on research and development to evidence this. Bringing a new drug to market is fraught with challenges, not least the risk that having invested vast amounts of money in developing a product, someone else brings theirs to market first. Dr Charlie Shepherd, talks about such research costs in his blog on speeding up the innovation process in new product development.

For a big innovation to be successful, it usually necessitates you or your customers making significant changes in practices, approaches, ways of working or living. This is very difficult until your early adopters have given proof of concept and you have achieved some degree of critical mass.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

Steve Jobs is a good example of a business innovation ambassador that conquered this issue. But while he was highly successful in creating the “reality distortion” required to enable Apple to conquer an entirely new market, others have been less so. Lord Sugar’s Amstrad video phone never overcame this hurdle, and – if some technology business innovation analysts and commentators are to be believed – 3D-TV is going the same way.

An alternative to the ‘Big Shift’ innovation models

There is an alternative though. While there can be great value in transformative business models that embrace large-scale changes to adapt to changing markets, innovation for most businesses shouldn’t just be about radical shifts or major leaps forward. It’s also about a mindset that seeks to make incremental improvements that can benefit us, our business, our customers and employees in all sorts of ways. Efficiency improvements are as much about innovation as disruptive technologies are.

Working as a researcher looking at innovation, adaption and change, I have observed some simple principles that we should all be mindful of in trying to encourage an innovative mindset.

The 7 key principles of an innovation mindset

1. Innovation shouldn’t be constrained. Big or small, product or process, labels don’t matter. What matters is that you actively look for and listen to any and all new ideas.

2. Ideas need to be heard. Yes, even the downright daft ones! The discussions that ideas (both good and bad) create can often lead us to something we may not have thought of otherwise. And we need to respond meaningfully to all these suggestions. People need to know ideas are valued, even if they can’t always be implemented.

3. Make innovation everyday. This doesn’t have to be radical thinking or a process change, but a regularly asked question, such as “what can we do differently?” Improvements have to be part of the day-to-day.

4. Keep your eyes and ears open. The established practices employed by the business next door may be your next innovation. Innovations don’t have to be completely new, just new for you. After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery!

5. Conversation and dialogue need to be encouraged. One of the biggest barriers to this is the ‘innovation’ of email. Many firms are now actively discouraging employees from interacting via email. (See Thierry Breton’s ban on internal emails at Atos.) Small huddles, short meetings and talking face-to-face allow for a much richer exchange and more ideas.

6. Incremental improvements can be valuable. If you save everyone in your organisation just ten minutes a day through small changes in practices, the cumulative impact of this across the whole business can be huge.

7. Just because it’s a simple idea doesn’t mean it won’t have impact. I met a CEO recently who was amazed at the intangible benefits that he’d got from providing free fruit for staff. Small changes like this that show people they are valued are not to be underestimated.

These sound (and are) obvious. But the sad truth is that established organisational practices so often neglect these simple opportunities to encourage an innovation mindset.

When times are difficult, we are so focused on getting things done and are often stretched for time and resources, that making space for innovation thinking feels all the more difficult. But it is in exactly these circumstances that innovations are all the more necessary. Even when not facing difficult times, management practices can often inadvertently quash innovation. See Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s shares some of these practices in her Nine Rules for Stifling Innovation.

Courtesy of

Courtesy of

The simple principle is clear. Success comes from being genuinely open to ideas and doing something with them. Nothing more expensive or complicated than that.

Great examples of companies of all shapes and sizes and highlight the inspirational work and unsung heroes in Yorkshire’s business community can be seen on the shortlist for this year’s Excellence in Business Awards.

I hope these tips have shown how innovation practices can be easily incorporated into everyday working practices, and that you really can encourage innovation at work without any expense, disruption or culture shift.

Do you agree with this advice? Have you tried to implement innovation practices in your organisation? What has worked and what hasn’t? Are you a business innovation ambassador for your organisation? I’d love to hear from you!

Please do share your comments below. After all, it is through discussion of ideas that innovation occurs!

Are you really committed at work? Could your employees deliver 1% more commitment – and what would that do to the bottom line?

Dr David Spicer is Senior Lecturer in Organizational Change and Head of the Human Resource Management and Organizational Behaviour Group.

There is a lot of talk about commitment and engagement in the workplace these days, but little discussion of what this actually really means. As a human resource management researcher, I know that the evidence in favour of creating high levels of commitment and engagement is clear, but all too often we see to want to question the commitment of others around us.

1. Can we learn from Rafa Benitez’ rant at Chelsea?

Chelsea FC

Courtesy of

Take the high profile case of Rafa Benitez at Chelsea. He’s been in the press because of his ‘rant’ against the fans who are questioning his commitment to the club and his response was to question their commitment: why are they against me rather than for the team. From his perspective he is completely committed to seeing Chelsea through this season, the fans don’t see this as a valid commitment though given they will be fans still, long after he has gone.

2. Was Alan Sugar committed to Apprentice, Stella English?

The other high profile case that has been in the press recently that highlights the complexity of commitment is the ‘The Apprentice’ employment tribunal. Stella English, who won the Apprentice in 2010, is suing lord Sugar for constructive dismissal.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of this it seems at least very unfortunate that someone who committed to the demanding Apprentice ‘selection’ process  has found herself in a role and position where she didn’t see that commitment and her potential contribution valued. Lord Sugar likewise may be rightly frustrated by someone he’s shown commitment seemingly not reciprocating.

3. Five easy ways to increase employee commitment

So what can you do to enhance your commitment and that of those around you?

–        Colleagues want to know you are in it for the long haul. Many of Benitez’s issues stem from his role as an interim manager and hence the concerns of others, with strongly vested interests, that his heart isn’t really in it. In the workplace whether you are an interim manager or not you need to show that what you are doing and how you are working is supporting the organization’s long-term success. If you are only in it for yourself, you’ll be found out sooner or later.

Lord Alan Sugar

Courtesy of

–        Ensure that the work that people do is meaningful. The Apprentice case seems to centre on just this issue. How meaningful was the job that Stella English got? We also need to think about this issue. Is the work that we give others worthwhile for the organization and for them? Longstanding research evidence tells us that people will commit to and perform better in work where their impact and contribution is valued and valuable.

–        Take time for colleagues. People need to be heard and the very act of talking with colleagues about their issues and concerns can be significant in helping them handle these. Time spent with colleagues, however demanding this is to do with the other pressures upon us is always well spent. It also means that you’ll have a much better understanding of them, their drives and expectations and therefore ensuring that their work is meaningful for them and they remain committed should become easier to do.

–        Model the behaviours that you want others to demonstrate. All three points above can be turned inwards to support your own commitment, and we know that if we’re not really committed it is difficult if not impossible to create this in others. So look at your own long-term expectations and how you can ensure these are, in so far as possible, aligned with the organization. And where your commitment is bounded, as in the Benetiz case, be clear on what that boundary is and where you expect to get to within the constraints that you have.

–        Linked to this, we all have to, at least periodically, look at our own roles – and ensure these remain interesting, enjoyable and worthwhile for us. If you don’t then again you need to think about what changes might be need to regain your commitment. This also means that we have to make time for ourselves, our concerns and development and those things that are important to us. Too often as managers we can end up blown by the winds of the organization, spending time responding to the demands and expectations of those around us. At least part of the week should be set aside for doing the things that are important to you.

4. 1% increased employee contribution will increase competitiveness

These are of course simple ideas and I’d be delighted to hear from others about what we can do to enhance and support commitment and engagement in the workplace. The ideas and their impacts may be minor but they soon add up.

Andy Cook, Executive Chair of the Employee Relations Institute who we are working with on our new MSc in Employee Relations made the point to me recently that if we all could, through changes in our actions and behaviours, create a 1% increase in employee contributions that could add up to a massive impact on the economy and be instrumental in improving the competitiveness of the businesses we work in.

It would also mean that we were all happier in the work that we do, and that would be no bad thing as well.

Employee Engagement is not just for Christmas…five tips for all year round success


"Image courtesy of Ambro /"

“Image courtesy of Ambro /”

We had our annual team Christmas party last night. As usual it was great to catch up with colleagues informally and to say thank you for everyone’s hard work and commitment over the year. This was in the midst of a restaurant full of people on very similar days out. Christmas seems to be a time when we make this effort and do hopefully show each other that their hard work and commitment is valued and recognised.

The evidence about the benefits of employee engagement is clear. Effective engagement benefits both people and the businesses they work for and that has benefits for UK PLC as well. Engagement is about making sure everyone has the opportunity to show their full potential at work and showing that we value their contributions is a key part of this.

The problem is when we only do this once a year. Too often we think a plastic cup of warm Cava and a mince pie are enough to show people that their hard work is valued (or so it seems). As a human resource management researcher I know that employee engagement is about sustained commitments, it cannot be just a once a year activity. It got me thinking though.  If we are serious about engagement, what are the principles needed to support this all year round?

Five key practical ideas occur.

1. Recognise the diversity of people’s contributions

Too often we focus on a particular aspect of a person’s expected contribution. But jobs are rarely that simple. If we ignore aspects of work and the more hidden parts of someone’s contribution, then we run the risk of devaluing all of their contribution, not just the bits that we ignore.

2. Focus on the positives

As managers too often our interactions focus on issues and problems in connection with the work that people do. These have to be dealt with, but we should spend at least as much time, and hopefully more, recognising the value that people create and helping them develop the positive aspects of their contributions further.

3. Give employees a voice

Actively seek out employees’ views and listen to what is said. People want to be heard and know that their opinions count.

4. Act on feedback

Nothing frustrates us more than when we raise an issue or make a suggestion and no response is evident. The implication taken is that opinions don’t really matter. We need to make sure that our own behaviour shows integrity and key to this is being response. Make changes and act on information received, and if you can’t then as a minimum you have to explain why changes cannot be made.

5. Say thank you properly and publicly

Hard work deserves to be recognised. And it’s much better if that recognition is public and meaningful. People seldom shout about their own successes, so we have to do it for them. Plus, if we say thank you right others see what gets valued and that their similar efforts will get recognised as well.

"Image courtesy of digitalart /".

“Image courtesy of digitalart /”.

Someone recently told me a story about thank yous.  Martin Penny who built up the famous GHD hair straightener business said he is always saying thank you in the business – and yet it is the thing he gets criticised most about in feedback from his team.  His point was you need to thank people quite formally – not just in passing or they don’t necessarily register it!

I’m sure my list isn’t exhaustive, and you may want to suggest others of your own, but it seems like a good place to start. And, as it happens, these are all principles at the core of our new MSc in Employee Relations which the School has developed with the Employee Relations Institute. This new programme is built from the principle that effective workplace employee relations start with real mutual engagement between all those invested in the success of the organisation.  Those whose roles are focused in this area (line managers and employee representatives in particular) will benefit from working together to think about how this relationship can be better.

Sustained engagement comes from real commitment to working effectively together and actually that’s not difficult, if we’re willing to take the time to understand our colleagues and genuinely support them in the work that we do. In fact, that can be my new year resolution: spend more of time working collaboratively. I am sure I will benefit and I hope others will too.

Do you have a New Year tip to improve relationships with your employees?

It’s the people, stupid!

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

The phrase ‘it’s the people stupid!’ came to mind recently.  Watching the recent US elections I was reminded of Bill Clinton’s famous phrase that supposedly helped him win the election in 1992.

The key question for businesses across the world is how are businesses going to grow and develop as (we hope) global economies continue to grow and develop?  I am certain it will come down to the skills and capabilities of the people in those businesses and the companies that succeed will be the ones that support those people seriously.

At Bradford University School of Management we sponsor the “Outstanding Employer” category in the Yorkshire Post’s Business Excellence Awards and one of the gratifying things is that it allows us to spend time with such excellent businesses.  Everyone entering is an excellent example of how to get people management right.

These winners and finalists showed us some key principles that as a human resource management researcher I know are critical for ensuring long term success – and all revolve around that old adage, ‘people are our greatest asset’.

1. Grow from within

Properly supported, your existing staff are the bedrock of future growth.  Plusnet, purveyors of ‘good honest broadband’ and the winners of this year’s award have experienced significant growth and see staff across the company as key to this. As it has grown, most supervisory and managerial roles in the company have been filled from within and colleagues are motivated by the opportunities this creates.

2. Exceed expectations

Courtesy of Limehouse

Courtesy of Limehouse

Limehouse, who produce corporate communications, did not make our shortlist this year (though Nick Howard won the young entrepreneur award), nonetheless stood out for their ‘big company’ feel.  It’s a business with just ten employees but presents itself and sets its expectations for colleagues as though it were a much bigger business and gain they see this as a key driver of their success.

Likewise Gordon’s, who did make the shortlist, sets out to be radically different from other law firms and their explicit focus on meritocracy and communication is evidently seen as more than might be expected by their staff.

3. Investment pays off.

Plusnet’s growth has come from within but that’s gone hand in hand with development for those people to ensure they have the skills and capabilities needed for the company’s future. Gordon’s  has invested in apprenticeships to bring new talent into their business outside their traditional roots, and Elmwood – a Leeds based design and branding agency, previous winners of this award and again shortlisted this year – have training focused on helping managers ‘be a better boss’.

We saw lots of other great examples too, the consensus amongst these outstanding employers is clear – we have to support our staff in doing their jobs as effectively as possible and that will help make us successful as a whole.  In times of change this is more important than ever.

4. Make it fun


Making a workplace fun is doubly important when times are hard. Elmwood stood out in this regard with programmes like ‘Knights of the Elm’ (which recognises employee achievements and is voted on by colleagues) acting as a focus for colleagues.

Plusnet have a games room and a canteen (with free lunches) in which staff can congregate and relax in their downtime. Great employers also seem to have a strong social side to their workplaces – and support this for the ties it creates rather than seeing it as a distraction from operations.

5. Meaningful relationships

All these businesses and the many other excellent businesses we saw but I have not had space to mention, also shared one other characteristic in common. There was a genuine and lasting commitment to meaningful relationships at work. That’s not dating or marriages, but meaningful employee relations.

Group of diverse business colleagues enjoying successIt is clear that really outstanding employers work in partnerships at all levels, with employees, with unions, with all the stakeholders in the employment process. By working collaboratively we can create real benefits for all involved.

This is the key principle informing our new MSc in Employee Relations: a better understanding of the employment relationship comes from getting stakeholders together and sharing perspectives across the workplace. This part-time programme has been designed and developed in consultation with the new Employee Relations Institute and its stakeholders in business and unions to be an opportunity for participants to engage in meaningful debate and impact on effective employee relations in their own workplaces.

None of this is difficult, nor is it exactly radical. It comes down to valuing people and showing them that value in authentic ways. I’m sure these are not the only practices we could highlight – what others have you seen that really bring out the best in employees?

Who is responsible for good employee relations at work – the boss or the employee?

employee relationsI have spent the last year designing our new MSc in Employee Relations with the help of international corporates such as BP and RBS.  This programme is particularly aimed at helping line managers and their teams – research shows this is where relationships are most likely to go wrong.

A number of my colleagues are industrial relations researchers and it is easy to think of this as a subject relevant to bygone times.  But look at some of the horrendous union disputes in recent times – the British Airways cabin dispute, teachers on strike over all sorts and an NHS problem brewing over the ‘double whammy’ sick pay cuts at the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust.

These are the headline, high profile disputes.  Every day there are much lesser misunderstandings that never make it to the media but are costing businesses and organisations a fortune in lost productivity, absence and staff turnover.  Last year the CBI reckoned that staff absence was costing £17bn in the UK alone.

We have based the programme around what employers said were the three critical areas of risk in an organisation and which our research backs up:

1. Disconnect between managers and staff

There is often a gap between managers and their teams – lack of trust being the biggest reason why.  Too often bosses think they have explained what they want and they mean – but the communication has not explained the reasons why or what the vision is.

Employees can be quick to start the conspiracy theory – the classic is deciding that changes are all to do with redundancies and they will be in the firing line.

Stephen Martin, chief executive of Clugston Group, took part in the Channel 4 TV programme, Undercover Boss to explore how his employees were receiving company communications – and realised the huge gap in so many areas.

He gave an example of an apparently sensible idea – encouraging his workers to take a tea-break where they were working rather than coming back to a canteen.  But employees took this to mean that the break had been cut.

2. Working with employee representatives

A lot of managers really don’t know how to engage properly with employee representatives.  They feel ‘I’m in charge’ and there is tension with the representative.  This creates conflict rather than partnership, where both sides come together to find the best solution.

export-trade-2-morrisonsThis isn’t about unions – though they are included – but also employee groups, work councils and so on.  At Morrisons, the FTSE supermarket company, they have systems to ensure that employees have a meaningful voice, not just for show.

Stephen Martin from Clugston told the Chartered Management Institute:  “Worker Engagement Teams (WET) are a new initiative we’ve launched since the show.  I visited one of our plants recently and was so proud of the WET they had in place.  They’re a mixture of staff from those plants (from all levels) that meet every four weeks and they discuss things openly and provide a bullet point summary of the meetings on the site for all workers to see.

“You often see the same gripes from the same people that show up in feedback all the time but we encourage a variety of people to join these teams so we get a true understanding of things.  I’ve even had lunch with several employees recently, what I call brown bag lunches, and they talk openly about their concerns.  Staff wanted to see where I work as well as me seeing where they work so they came in to head office and we had lunch.


3. Who owns the employee relationship at work?

This may seem a strange question – the first instinct is to say the bosses?

But in organisations with good employee relations, there is shared responsibility.  This ensures the culture is integrative rather than adversarial.

logoOne of the challenges we had in creating the MSc was where the balance should be to ensure a programme that addresses the academic theory but gives students the practical skills they need in the workplace.  We have worked with the new Employee Relations Institute (ERI) to get this balance right and also with trade unions such as UNITE.

Where communications so often break down is in a line manager and employee relationship.  Then a grievance can escalate quickly into major conflict that could even lead to a tribunal.

happy-nurseGetting the best employee relationships in your organisation shows up on the ‘bottom line’ – whether it is in delivering the best services to patients in a hospital or in business management particularly in challenging times,  ensuring long term success and profitability.

It should be said that this new programme is not for HR professionals.  Good employee relations – as Stephen Martin above shows – is for all line managers.

Going Undercover is a rather extreme way to ensure good employee relations – hopefully our programme will be a more realistic solution for most!    Where do you think employee tensions are to be found in most organisations – and who is responsible for that?

The Importance of learning in today’s business climate – business critical, not just a ‘nice to have’

developmentDr David Spicer is Senior Lecturer in Organisational Change and Head of the Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour Group at Bradford University School of Management, one of Europe’s leading full service business schools.

A recent piece from HR Magazine highlighted that financial investment in learning and development is falling in the UK. This is yet another worrying if inevitable outcome of the pressures firms find themselves under today (for a view on another outcome of these pressures read my last blog).

It has always been a feature of difficult business environments that businesses make cuts in areas that are seen as having low operational impact and high costs. It is unfortunate that many still persist in the fallacy that learning and development is one such activity. That is not to say that in times of challenge firms have to make difficult choices and learning and development has to shoulder its share of this burden of cost cutting, but these are not just costs, they are investments in the future and when we cut support for learning and development we cut support for the very things that might just help us out of the challenges we face.

Nonetheless, organisations seemingly still persist in seeing these activities as ‘nice to have’ luxuries, rather than business critical activities. This is despite the long standing and increasingly compelling evidence that those firms that take learning seriously (what are sometimes called learning organisations, an often misused and over-used phrase) are indeed those that do show higher levels of success. A recently completed study with a colleague here at Bradford University School of Management (Craig Johnson) shows evidence for the uptake of and interest in learning organisation principles in the UK’s largest firms, and my work with other colleagues published in Long Range Planning makes a case for a link between the learning approach and performance of smaller firms. Similarly, in our work at Bradford with Yorkshire’s Leading Employers, as part of the Yorkshire Post’s Business Excellence Awards, we have seen consistent evidence of organisations who see investment in training and development as integral to their success.

So what should you do if you find yourself in an organisation that has cut or stopped investing in learning and development? A key implication is that if your organisation is so short-sighted it has stopped investing in its and your future, then that surely is the time that you invest in yourself. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that in recession we do tend to see demand for programmes such as the Bradford MBA being maintained and even rising amongst individuals in work who are investing in themselves. They are recognising that there is real advantage to be gained in developing their understanding, skills and capabilities to ensure that they are capable of responding to the changing environment in which we find ourselves. It is recognising this that we’ve been so clear in ensuring that a focus on professional development should be a part of the MBA programme here.

But even when cuts are made in learning and development budgets that should not mean that all learning stops. It makes it more challenging for individuals and organisations to maintain and support learning, but there are some simple things we can do to encourage learning in challenging times:

1.       As individuals we need to get the right mindset. Challenges and difficulties are more easily addressed and more beneficial in the long-run if they are viewed as learning opportunities. In easy times we actually have little impetus to learn the demand for this ought to be much clearer today

2.       Individuals also need to pay attention to their networking, both internally and externally. The communities of peers and colleagues we engage in and interact with are an unparalleled source of learning opportunities, just by questioning and discussing with these groups we can do much to enhance our understanding. We have to recognise as well though that such engagement is reciprocal we should be seeking to put as much into such networks as we choose to take out.

3.       As organisations we should still invest where we can. High impact, low cost activities are the order of the day. Things like supporting peer mentoring and providing time and space for knowledge and expertise exchange are as potentially powerful as much more timely and costly training activities, but they do need some investment if they are to work.

4.       Organizations also need appropriate leadership support for learning activities. Investment (where possible) is significant, but all managers valuing and supporting learning activities is as important. Learning has to be publically seen as a valuable and valued activity if staff are to keep their focus on this we dealing with the other pressures placed upon them.

As always it not an exhaustive list and I’d be delighted to hear other suggestions of what we can do to maximise our own and our organisation’s learning in times of challenge.

It’s not change we fear but uncertainty – 5 things to do to minimise uncertainty

ChangeChange has changed – the drivers of change now focused on the negatives

Change is back. Not the positive change that we’ve had in the recent past which is all about development and growth – that’s gone for now at least – but the ongoing pressures on businesses to change caused by the economy. The difficulties this will continue to create in both public and private sectors mean the nature of change has itself changed.

Today’s drivers of change are negative – we have to change because of the demands that are being placed upon us rather than wanting to change for the benefits that accrue. This does have some value –  it is easier, for example, to communicate the need for a change if the need is as simple as ‘do this or we are likely to go out of business’. But, it has an effect on people’s responses to change and how we manage them.

Outcomes of change are rarely positive

With the challenges we are facing today, the outcomes of changes are rarely positive and are much more likely to impact on employees negatively. Take redundancies for example – very bad for those who are made redundant, but problematic as well for those that are left behind. In such negative circumstances it is not unreasonable to expect some resistance.

Resistance to change is usually caused by uncertainty

However, it is a gross simplification to just say that people resist change. Resistance has to come from somewhere – there has to be a cause. And in the current climate the cause is usually uncertainty – about roles, jobs, prospects, the organisation’s future –  and this uncertainty has a debilitating effect. It makes people hesitant to act and unwilling to commit to change. It can also lead to increased levels of stress and anxiety and impact on peoples’ performance; at the very time we need them to be contributing to the maximum.

What then can we do in response to manage this uncertainty? There are some simple principles that can help reduce its impact

1.      Accentuate Communication

Ensure open, honest communication. In our work with Yorkshire’s Best Employers, a coherent theme amongst the best businesses was the emphasis and effort they put into maximising communication with staff about the impact and implications of the current business environment. Completeness is key – ensure that the whole message is provided in a timely manner.

2.      Adapt Leadership

Recognise that different forms of leadership might be needed.  My work with Aya Fukshighe (see the Leadership and Organization Development Journal, 2007) saw that in Japan following the collapse of their economy people started to look for new forms of leadership, favouring approaches that supported them over charismatic leaders who they felt had failed to deliver the visions they were asking followers to commit to. We may see a similar and more widespread phenomenon with concerned employees.

3.      Avoid Contradictions

Watch out for contradictions between strategy and practice. One problem with making decisions to respond to changes in the business environment is that we run the risk of acting contrary to the organisation’s vision, values and goals. We must respond but not at the expense of our ultimate aims. If anything the decisions we take should ensure we keep a focus on our core strengths to sustain us through the challenges.

4.      Behave Coherently

Chris Argyris talked about the challenges caused by conflicts between ‘espoused theory’ and ‘theory-in-use’ – when we say one thing but our practices and behaviour suggest something fundamentally different is guiding what we do. Such inconsistencies are more likely when we are acting responsively. It is important with uncertainty that we ensure that what we say and what we do are as well aligned as possible.

5.      Act Ethically

Robert Sutton writing in Harvard Business Review in 2009 makes the point that to be a ‘good boss in a bad economy’ we have to deal with people in a fair and just way and that when dealing with difficult situations the onus is on us to facilitate individuals’ choices and decisions. Allowing people to act in an informed way should underlie everything else we do.

This list is not exhaustive, but offers a starting point and begs the question – what else could we do to help colleagues and employees handle the challenges we continue to face?

What Makes a Great Employer? 5 Important Qualities your Business Needs

champagneCongratulations to Leeds-based advertising agency, Gratterpalm,  winners of this year’s Best Employer category in the Yorkshire Post’s Business Excellence Awards.  Over the last few years the School has sponsored  this category  and, as chair of the judging panel,  I’ve had the  privilege of visiting many businesses throughout Yorkshire to hear them present on their approaches to people management.

The gratifying thing is how many great businesses out there do genuinely take the engagement, commitment and motivation of their employees seriously. We saw many that had much to be proud of and I’ll talk about the finalists a little later. But first, let’s look at what exactly it is that lifts the truly great employers above the many good employers?

Stand-out business qualities

There seems to be a set of intangibles qualities that differentiate the employers we judged as “excellent”, and these five things stand out.

1. Authenticity

All the firms we saw had an authenticity to their practices that gave them a credibility that was difficult to quantify but evident on observation. It’s about a genuine commitment to the human side of the organisation (not the resource aspect of those humans that we are sometimes guilty of focusing on).

2. Reciprocity

The best businesses give, but expect reciprocity with their employees, especially in the current climate. This is about keeping promises. Employees join with expectations of support from employers and in making that commitment they expect commitment in return. It’s not about the vision for the business but the transaction we make with employees. It would be easy when faced with economic pressures to cut costs by reducing training and development budgets for example. But we saw a number of businesses bucking this trend – Morrisons and Gratterpalm as examples – and investing in people despite the recession; they are seeing massive payback in commitment and engagement as a result.

3.    Partnerships

Leading employers work in partnerships at all levels, with employees, with unions, with all the stakeholders in the employment process. By working collaboratively, we can create real benefits for all involved. As just one example, two of our finalists, Morrisons and Create are working together to support each others’ goal. By employing people through Create’s process to bring the homeless into the workplace, Morrisons are supporting their own CSR agenda (and their challenges of recruiting staff) whilst supporting Create’s own social aims.

4.   Family orientation

Great employers have a family orientation. I’ve lost count of how many times we read or heard people tell us that ‘it is like a family to work here’. It would be easy to view this as superficial but in fact what it highlights is the importance of genuine and open relations between and with employees. It’s about providing an open business climate that both supports and challenges to get the most out of the people we employee.

5.   Results

Underlying all this is a recognition that results matter. Regardless of what the organisation’s goals or objectives are, great employers recognise that there is a benefit for their business in supporting people and giving them a great place to work.

The Business Excellence Awards finalists

I’d like to finish by sharing what we thought was particularly commendable about the finalists this year.

  • Gratterpalm, the winners, impressed us with the quality and focus of their training and development (you can even follow their ‘G Academy’ recruits online), and the extent to which recognition, support and motivation were embedded in the business. We were also impressed by the integration of people management practices across the firm and the careers within it and by the clear focus on how supporting people contributes to the bottom line.
  • Morrisons is a massive Yorkshire success story and their success is clearly built on the support it gives and gets from its people. The judging team noted the strength of Morrisons’ culture and its evident commitment to developing employees (and its shop-floor to top-floor initiative). The extent to which employees had a voice within the business was also seen as a real strength.
  • Create stood out this year as well. This wasn’t  just because they are a social enterprise with a clear commercial drive to push their social aims of developing employment opportunities for people who have been homeless, marginalised or vulnerable. It was also to do with the way they provide genuine and long-lasting support to people, whether they’re moving in to the workplace or are employed by Create themselves.  We particularly noted the highly effective use Create made of peer-mentoring within their training and support.

In addition to these finalists, two other firms deserve mention:

  • Arena are previous winners who again demonstrated why they are an outstanding employer. Particularly noted was the commitment they made to maintain employment despite the pressures of the recession.
  • Lucre are in PR, communications and event management. They have a clear, performance-focused culture that stresses outcomes and rewards yet maintains a high level of support for employees alongside this.

Every year, our judging task seems to get harder and harder and it is perhaps divisive to single out a handful of firms in this way. But as so many of us spend so much of our time working for other people, isn’t good to know that many, many of them take their commitment to their employees so seriously?