Mining the Human Resource…

In a world of high performance working practices (HPWP), where training and development resources are being increasingly focused upon those employees defined as having the highest potential, what are the consequences for the meaning of work and leadership?  Furthermore what are the wider consequences of such strategies?

HPWP is increasingly being applied by multinational companies as a result of both attempts to structure the search for “excellence” and the desire by HR Managers to be perceived as more strategic.  The so-called best practice approach to HR fits well with the existing business lexicon, whilst its manifestation in “talent management”, hints at the underlying emphasis on those with unequally large amounts of talent.

For those chosen few, of course, this emerging new world offers opportunities aplenty.  Training, education, placements; all designed to help succeed on the path to a global career and excellent reward package.  However, what about those not defined as sufficiently “talented” to join this elite group?  Very little research has been undertaken into the consequences of the implicit inequality at the heart of practices like HPWP into the behaviour of those left behind.

The behaviour of employees within organisations is highly influenced by the realities they face outside of the organisation.  HPWP implicitly downgrades the status of those not part of the select few.  More importantly, by reducing access to educational resources, it limits their ability to change their position.  Thus the question is to what extent is HPWP limiting social mobility?  A highly political question, but one, which, in the context of debates about leadership, is hard to ignore.

In the UK the position of those excluded from the benefits of HPWP is most clearly seen through so-called zero hours contracts, which promise employees no fixed amount of working hours per week.  The consequences of this are both to make it hard to access credit and a high dependence upon state benefits.  Will Hutton recently wrote that zero hours contracts are effectively a subsidy, as such employees simply could not survive without that state support.

As currently constituted HPWP and its associated tools and structures are delivering increasingly hard outcomes for those outside of the chosen few.  It is quite the opposite of what those early Quakers, like Cadbury’s and those who challenged Taylorite mass production would have envisaged.  However, HPWP is both creating and embedding a two tier world and not just in the work place.

In the UK the consequences of this can been seen in the recent general election.  The three major parties all offered varying shades of managerialism that is focused upon the individual.  The role of the state, as an organisation capable of delivering change directly, continues to be in retreat.  However, the key reason that people supported nationalists in Scotland and the Greens in England, is because they offer a vision of society based upon an activist role for the political economy in delivering more equal outcomes.  In many ways the current election campaign reflects the inability of mainstream politicians to respond to the need for a vision that delivers something on Pinks three drivers of motivation: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

In terms of leadership an almost paradoxical situation is being created.  On the one hand enormous effort is going into develop the business knowledge, strategic thinking and soft skills of high potential employees.  Whilst on the other hand, those that they are supposed to lead are being asked to make greater commitment to a deal which offers increasingly few benefits in long term development (company pensions gone, training now functional and not aspirational) and delivers a harsher reality in their material status and social standing.

The lesson here is very much that all the theory and clever process will not inspire, motivate or drive people to excel at anything that matters beyond money.  In short, if we want a world that is about more than just money we need to consider to what extent work is a means and or an end.  As E. F. Schumacher put it, work should offer” man a chance to utilise and develop his faculties; to overcome his egocentredness by joining with other people in a common task; and to bring forth the goods and services needed for a becoming existence”.

Whatever happened to the idea that leadership at work was supposed to be about enabling people to achieve their potential and express their humanity through a form of cooperation that is inclusive, rather than exclusive and ruthlessly self-centred?

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