Having just returned from the Universidade Europeia in Lisbon, I am keen to share my learning from attending my first academic conference; the University Forum for Human Resource Development.
One of the most interesting papers was me was on the dimensions of HRD consultant professionalism by John Watkins. John, from Coventry University London, highlighted the three levels of purpose for which an HRD consultant may be brought into the organisation; as an ‘expert’ filling a gap in organisational knowledge or skills; for social learning and co-creation of solutions; or as a critical outsider who can shoulder the blame for management’s existing wishes to implement difficult policies. Clearly the boundaries between these can be blurred, with Watkins noting that some so-called HRD ‘experts’ could have as little as 5 year’s experience. Watkins’ point echoed wider concerns expressed at the conference, such as in Bob Hamlin’s keynote speech, of the lack of credibility afforded to the HRD profession in general. One perceived solution is the further integration of scholarly HRD and HRD practice. Both the numerous paper presentations this year from both HRD practitioners and ex-practitioners, and a strengthening of the practitioner element at next year’s conference, is encouraging in this regard.
Values and ethics, particularly against the backdrop of the ‘post truth’ era was also a focus. Peter Kuchinke reminded us that virtue ethics are in the essence of what it means to be human and that work is a major setting for learning through ethical and moral dilemmas; that is how we prove our worth. Yet, as a consultant he has had difficulty trying to talking to organisations about introducing virtue ethics. Kuchinke asked us how we can introduce virtuous language, such as courage, honesty and transparency into organisational dialogue. Alongside this, a lack of effective HR standards frameworks was frequently mentioned against the backdrop of recent corporate scandals. However, there was a range of opinions regarding the level of control required to ensure the effectiveness of standards. Charles Saliba and Dr Khalil Dirani’s joint practitioner/scholar presentation emphasised putting processes in place to consider human risks at all levels. However, Valerie Anderson’s keynote reminded us that a compliance mentality does not enable people to make the ‘right’ decisions; autonomy and trust are also required.
This is closely linked to Nicholas Clarke’s presentation challenging a model of linear decision making in responsible leadership. Clarke noted that such linear models are based on simple decisions and tested via hypothetical questions (‘What would you do if…’). Clarke’s research demonstrates that decision making, particularly where an ethical dimension is involved, is much more messy. His model sees the decision maker as going through a process of sensemaking when confronted by an issue. This is impacted by a range of factors including emotion, experience and “closeness” to those involved. Importantly, the justification of the decision comes after, and not before as previously thought. Clarke not only demonstrated that leaders heavily engaged with their staff found it harder to justify difficult decisions affecting them, but that leaders who were physically removed from their staff could justify those difficult decisions more easily. I can also see this linking to Dr Cliodhna MacKenzie’s paper which demonstrated the dangers inherent in organisations following a path based on assumptions about the problem. In this case the organisation struggled to solve it’s perceived gender issues because their solutions were rooted in misconceptions. In responding to these issues in decision making, perhaps it’s not only virtue ethics we need, but mindfulness (Chandana Sanyal/Dr Clare Rigg).
I very much enjoyed learning from this, my first academic conference in the beautiful city of Lisbon! I look forward to seeing everyone again here at Newcastle Business School, Northumbria University for next year’s ufhrd conference!