Tag Archives: unconference

The one with the paradox of metrics

On May 16th I attended the 4th ConnectingHR Unconference. I’ve been to a few before (and you can find blog posts on my previous experiences here) and it was great firstly to take a member of my new team with me and secondly to see how the event is evolving as time passes. There were a number of posts written reflecting on the event which you can find linked from this cracking post from @flipchartrick

One of the changes from my previous outings was that the day kicked off with a number of short presentations from a variety of people, which went to the title of the day “The Power of a Socially Enabled Organisation”. Jamie Priestley‘s presentation was entitled “The Importance of Being Unreasonable” and he landed a number of points not least the challenge to look behind evidence and also how data is often over interpreted and over stretched in the attempt to make a point.

The point he made that stayed with me most related to that grand adage ‘what gets measured, gets done’. It’s an old favourite and anyone who’s been anywhere near a corporate environment will have had it trooped out on numerous occasions. The point that Jamie made which really got me to thinking went along the lines of ‘if what gets measured gets done do people only really focus on what can be measured’.

Of course he loses 5 points for using the iPod as an example of things that weren’t measured whilst they were being developed (the iPod is akin to Richard Branson in that they both work as great examples against most points) but gains at least 10 points for using e=mc2 (there’s no superscript on here!) as another example.

Given the difficultly of effectively measuring some of the ‘big stuff’ in organisations e.g. culture, engagement, discretionary effort, leadership effectiveness, etc, to an organisation that focusses solely on metrics is there a MASSIVE risk of focussing just on the outputs and not on the inputs? Or as Dr Chris Shambrook put it, the focus being only on the results and not on the performance.

I’m not suggesting for a moment that nothing should be measured but I find myself thinking that a lot of the things I really think are important (and this may reflect my role) are things that are measured more intuitively than a RAG’d spreadsheet.

Two of my colleagues recently went to visit Unipart’s head office in Cowley, Oxfordshire. Unipart are well-known for their motor spares business but have two additional business areas in supply chain solutions and consulting. They are actually working with my organisation at the moment. Rather than dozens of metrics measuring micro parts of their business they have two metrics which (if my memory is serving me correctly) are availability and returns. Their belief being that if those two measures are good then everything else underneath them is functioning correctly.

The arguments for and against metrics will continue long after this post (and likely this blog) and my fundamental belief is they have their role but that role should be put in context and tempered with other considerations of an organisation.

That said in measuring the success of attending the unconference one of my objective  is to come away with some things to think about that challenge my existing thinking. Jamie’s presentation (the pack for which you can find here) certainly ticked one box… More boxes to follow shortly!



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The one with the cooperative

If you read the post last week on the unconference sessions at the HR Director Business Forum in Birmingham you will know I was involved in starting one of the conversations.

I was fortunate enough to be joined by several people who it transpired were up for having a good open conversation. Credit where it’s due, they were:

  • David Clutterbuck, Professor at Oxford Brookes & Sheffield Hallam
  • Steve Moss HRD at Leaseplan
  • Michael Keating HRD at Eaton Electrical
  • David (who’s surname I didn’t write down), HR Insights

and here we are ‘unconferencing’

Photo courtesy of Jon Ingham

The topic I proposed was “Leadership Development: Making silk purses out of sow’s ears” and whilst I had a clear idea in my mind about what I meant it did appear in my haste to come up with a topic I created some confusion. The reference was not intended to refer to the participants but rather the process, how, in times like these where resources are constrained could an organisation still deliver great leadership development activity.

I made copious notes during the session and if I could find those notes now I would feel far more comfortable in writing this post but I opened the conversation with the question and about 3o minutes later we paused for breath!

Of the key points that came out of the conversation some were what you would expect but there were a couple that sparked new thought. The points were:

  • Call it something different – calling it Leadership Development ups the ante
  • There is a perception that external delivery/facilitation is better than internal
  • Involve the wider business in delivering the programme
  • Peer to peer power is often underutilised
  • External consultants have far more freedom to challenge
  • Use different businesses that are non competitive but that have characteristics you want to improve (e.g. one company in the service sector had spent time with a major supermarket understanding speed & urgency)
  • Form a cooperative with complimentary but non-competitive businesses and share internal resource i.e. your internal becomes their external

It was the last two points of discussion that got me quite excitable.

The idea of modelling characteristics from other businesses I thought was great – I have worked with other businesses on practice or processes before and used their best practice examples in developing my own work but this idea of trying to understand their characteristics really appealed to me.

When it came to the idea of the cooperative I got very excitable. The last 2 years have been a real eye opener for me on the power of developing better networks and this idea appealed on so many levels. It could be about sharing best practice, about delivering great work more cost effectively, exposing colleagues to new companies/people, developing colleagues facilitation/delivery skills and building meaningful relationships with new people/organisations. It just has so many possibilities.

The session (and it’s follow-up) demonstrated to me, yet again, the power of meeting new people, getting involved in open conversation and the ideas have been added to ‘the book’ and will be brought to bear in the next role I land in.


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The one where the tail’s gone

In November I was fortunate enough to attend the CIPD annual conference in Manchester as part of the press contingent. Last week I found myself in a similar situation at the HR Director’s Business Summit in Birmingham. At the end of the CIPD I wrote a post called ‘The one where it must evolve’ sharing my perspectives about the limitations of the conference format. It was only in re-reading the post that I remembered the comment from Jon Ingham but my memory aside the latter event did have unconference sessions running as part of the second day’s programme.

To say they were well attended would be a slight exaggeration. I think it was only Jon cajoling people into coming that ensured a decent turn out and in looking around at the fellow table/topic hosts I must confess it did feel a bit like ‘The Usual Suspects’. That said what followed in the unconference session was an interesting conversation which will feature in a post of its own tomorrow. The first of the ‘what was interesting’ points was watching people’s reactions to being invited to participate in the sessions – dismissive, fearful, lack in comprehension or quick to talk about the other sessions they planned to attend. Whilst getting people discussing and sharing may seem attractive to some there are clearly others that are still enjoying being talked at.

I attended the second of two unconference sessions and the output from both then formed the starting point for a discussion session at the end of the day. Charitably it started slowly and I did actually feel sorry for Jon who was doing the facilitation equivalent of endlessly tap dancing… But slowly and surely the pace started to pick up aided in part by the appearance of a screen showing the tweets being shared (why the hashtag was not promoted anywhere in the conference remains a mystery and why this was the first appearance of the ‘back channel’ also I don’t get).

Jon’s fellow facilitators did seem a little reluctant to jump into the unstructured nature of the session but as someone sat there watching it happen and participating you could feel the energy and enthusiasm growing in the room and the second of the ‘what was interesting points’ is that it seemed to grow more when people had something to disagree with. My feeling is we got to the point where as it finished there did seem to be some disappointment that it was time to finish.

Having reflected on the unconference session and the plenary follow-up it does feel like an evolutionary step. I don’t think we’ll get everyone over the chasm quite yet, maybe need to have some time slots that are ‘unconference only’? I’m not sure but if you could capture the enthusiasm and discussion that was happening both in the unconference and plenary and bottle it I’m sure many conference organisers would be in the queue to buy.

I must doff my cap to Jon for putting himself out there in running these sessions and I’m sure like me many people have shared their thoughts with Jon which should hopefully help him and those in similar positions to continue the evolutionary process.


Jon has blogged on the same topic and you can find his post here


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The one where it must evolve

If you read this blog or follow me on Twitter you will I’m sure be aware that I am at the CIPD annual conference in Manchester. It’s the first time for some time that I’ve been to this event and like many who’ve been on hiatus I’m suprised by how much quieter it is both in terms of exhibitors and visitors.

Neil Morrison wrote a post at the end of day 1 making the self same point and whilst not wanting to rehash his post, I have reflected on it and some of my own experiences so want to share what I believe would be a good next step in conference evolution. I should say at this point that I don’t think is an issue facing just the CIPD, I think it’s a challenge to conference organisers everywhere.


Neil makes the comment “Some will argue that the unconference format is the way forward, but I’m really not that convinced”, I am not wholly convinced on the idea of pure unconference (if you don’t know what I mean read this) but my belief is that the next step is what you could call conference/unconference.

Let’s take a moment and reflect on where we are. The modern conference in principle looks something like this:

The conference keynotes and conference sessions are the big down “broadcast” arrow, the horizontal arrow represents the inter-delegate conversation (larger that it would have been thanks to things such as Twitter) but the up arrow remains small – the only real “up” being the brief Q&A sessions that are always a rush as the session draws to a close.

Personally, I like some broadcast. I like hearing what other people are doing. I like hearing what other people have made work and landed in their organisations. That may be just be me…. I think the idea of using that broadcast mechanism to stimulate debate and interaction in an unconference format (more free form and drive by the participants) would be far more productive for attendees and also allow the presenters (broadcasters) to get some meaningful feedback on their work. Also, some (limited) case study does make it easier when influencing internally in my experience – an idea endorsed with “big shiny company X does this” tends to get more traction than “we came up with an idea on a fag pack at a conference”.


Neil also makes the point, “With a three-day ticket costing over £1000 people will think twice about the value an event like this can give them compared to other uses for limited funds.” I agree with him in that a) it’s a lot of money and b) it’s a difficult time. My thinking (and here’s where it may sound a bit hairbrained) is that you need to make the cost of attendance minimal (administration only). I realise that the conference is a major revenue stream for the CIPD (and others like them) BUT I am not suggesting kissing off the revenue….

Imagine you increased the number (and quality) of the visitors by 10. Firstly, your conference/unconference sessions would be buzzing, the venue would be alive with energy and most importantly (and this is where it could make sense) the exhibition hall would be awash with visitors and the stands would be overflowing. Your exhibitors would be buzzing and both the number of exhibitors and the prices you could justifiable charge them would increase.

Now I understand the quality piece may be tricky. That would require some strategic inviting and ensuring the “Who’s Who” of HR were here, which would mean that it would be THE PLACE to come, network and meet the people who are moving and shaking at the top of our profession.

I was just about to press publish and realised that I am here as a guest of the CIPD and this post may feel like biting the hands that feeds etc but this is NOT a criticism of the operation or organisation of a massive event. This is a desire to see an increase in sharing, improvement and networking which can only develop our profession.

So there you have it….my solution to all conference woes. What next? Was going to work on the solution to the eurozone crisis but it’s time for a beer so that’ll have to wait!


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The one where the unconference strikes back

Earlier in the year I attended the 2nd ConnectingHR Unconference. Although it was the 2nd for the community it was the first for me both within that community and also experiencing the unconference format. I wrote two posts about it at the time which you can find here and here and don’t want to rehash those but yesterday I attended the 3rd unconference and want to share some thoughts surrounding it.

The first thing to say is what a great group of people. For a group that came together largely through Twitter it’s a warm spirited, generous, enthusiastic and committed group who really do want to improve their businesses and themselves. I am genuinely pleased to be part of it and will continue to be so (I hope). It’s a credit to the people who put the passion and energy into driving it especially (for me) Gareth Jones @garelaos.

Being as this is social media (ish) what follows are 3 ‘episodes’ which have informed my reflection:

Episode 1: Monday Oct 17, Twitter

A Twitter conversation with @neilmorrison, @thinkingfox and @garelaos this week prompted me to think about what ConnectingHR’s purpose is and is there an opportunity for the passion and enthusiasm to drive significant change. Some involved in that conversation questioned ConnectingHR’s position to be able to do that with a comment along the lines of HR not being a community that needed a forum. My response at the time was that it was a group of people needing a community and truthfully that’s what it is for me. What followed was a spirited, although I believe, well intentioned exchange about the community as is.

Episode 2: Tuesday Oct 18, A London restaurant

So over a glass of something alcoholic, I then had the opportunity to continue the discussion with said same @neilmorrison, giving us both the opportunity to flesh out the discussion we had been having online but also discuss some of the potential that ConnectingHR represents (to me at least). I must point out that I had consumed a few drinks at this point so may have editorialised a little but there was definitely a conversation about how ConnectingHR could be an agent provocateur to spur the CIPD to evolve but the challenge of getting people truly engaged with it beyond the current committed bunch remained significant.

Episode 3: Thursday Oct 20, The Spring, venue of Unconference

I then had a conversation with a fellow unconference attendee yesterday @samlizars about what would happen if you walked 10 big hitting HRDs into the unconference. Would it completely stifle the free and open conversation? Would the HRDs feel frustrated about the lack of structure or directly applicable ROI to their organisations? Or actually in order to achieve its true potential does the ConnectingHR community need some big hitting practitioners to get involved and help it evolve? Another point of interest in the conversation was the perception (at least from Sam & my perspectives) about how little those big hitters ‘publically’ network and that actually getting your message to them was quite tricky.

Where this leaves me in my reflections I’m not quite sure. Likewise I’m not sure where ConnectingHR is on its journey. Whether it will remain a community of great people wanting to support and challenge one another or whether the horizon has a tipping point which could see it play a role in driving broader change is yet to see. Personally, I am frustrated that more practitioners aren’t engaging and taking the opportunity to get involved but would ‘they’ levy the charge that we just haven’t done enough to help/make them engage?

As it’s after midnight (and I’ve just had to edit all the todays into yesterdays) I think it’s time to stop reflecting and start sleeping but in closing there are a few people I would like to make specific reference to as contributing to my day at the unconference:

Natasha (@StirtheSource) for some great conversations

Gavin (@gmcglyne) for not only telling me I was talking bollocks but then using a Michael Jackson song to make his point

Dave (@Changecontinuum) for a great chat and some interesting thoughts and context

Michael (@MJCarty) for great departure from a comfort zone and fighting his corner

Sam (@samlizars) likewise for some great conversations (in addition to those referenced here)

Sarah (@sarahfmatthews) for great homemade biscuits and being one of the few people who has achieved genuinely embarrassing me (but in the nicest way)

And finally Gareth (@garelaos) who is just the guvnor (although probably cross with me for writing this!)

To the rest of the usual suspects, doffed caps and thanks for a good day.



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The one with the unconference part 2

During the freeform experience that was the ConnectingHR Unconference I was fortunate enough to run a session alongside the marvellous @floramarriot and despite the call for free flowing conversation and no structure we both gave into our L&D urges and put a little structure and facilitation into the session. It should be noted that we resisted the urge to use blu-tack and post-it notes…

Myself and Flora had gravitated together having respectively posed the following questions during the opening session:

“What does global mean to you?” (Me)

“What can we learn from business in other cultures?” (FM)

If you would like to read Flora’s comprehensive notes from the session check out the Unconference section on ConnectingHR but what follows is a little context on my question and some thoughts having reflected and digested the session.

I have been fortunate enough over the past 3 years to work in several different cultures and if you consider cultures in the context of Edward T. Hall’s Cultural Context I have worked in the polar opposites of China and the USA. China (a high context culture) values the collective and trusted relationships built over time whilst the US (a low context culture) values the individual and relationships are built on merit. One of the things that came through strongly in our session and certainly resonated with me was the admission of how little time we had spent truly learning about the “other” culture and whilst some great sources of information exist, whether you had the time or latitude to use them seemed to be another question. For the record, the UK is far more akin to the US and is considered also, a low context culture.

The frustration that came through from almost everyone was at the physical distance and the constraint presented by time differences and how this restricted the building of in-depth fully functioning relationships, and how key the relationship was to successfully working across cultures. As much as technology in the form of Skype and similar has advanced the ability to communicate across distance, it was agreed that there was no true replacement for spending real time sat across from someone (and I would had sharing a few drinks over dinner but that is not based on empiric data but user experimentation)

I must confess I have learnt the hard way (jet lag, 14 Chinese people and my attempt at humour remains one of the most uncomfortable hours of my life) and I would say to anyone working outside of their own cultural norm for the first time, there is no amount of preparation and reading that can beat the experience of standing there and doing it.

In the context of my Master’s degree (I feel I must mention it from time to time) what I’ve found interesting is that so much of what we use in terms of defining best practice and ‘the next big thing’ is often from “The West” with America as the dominant influence. The limitations of empiric data derived from studies carried out on groups of MBA students aside, there does appear a certain arrogance in assuming that “we” (the West) know better than the most populace country on the planet that has a culture dating back thousands of years. One of our group put this intellectual imperialism in the most straight forward way and his comment remains my favourite of the whole day…. “We need to remember we haven’t got a big d*ck and a gunboat anymore” – it never made it to the visual minutes….

I really enjoyed this session, both the challenge of pulling something together from a pair of questions, ensuring that I didn’t hog it all for “my” question and to trying to make sure everyone contributed if they wanted to. The take home for me was “we” are all struggling with this ever more significant challenge, we can learn from each other through sharing experiences and that investing the time in understanding and learning is the only way to truly achieve the value and results from your global relationships.

As an afterword, if you are interested in exploring the psychology of cultural relationships a great starting point is the work of Geert Hofstede who has published extensively on the subject.


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The one with the unconference part 1

I hate networking…

No, that’s not strictly true. Networking makes me feel uncomfortable and to be honest until recently I never understood why. On every instrument, test or diagnostic I have ever completed I come out as an extravert (and if you’ve met me this is unlikely to surprise you) but it wasn’t until I went on the qualifying course for the MBTI Stage 2 that all became clear. Most of you will be familiar with MBTI Stage 1 – self perception, compare with your reported scores, come up with a 4 letter personality type (mine is ENTP). What Stage 2 does is break each of the preferences down into 5 facets and this is where, for me, it got really interesting, as when it came to extraversion I scored as an extravert except the facet “initiating/receiving” where I scored as an introvert. The mists cleared, the fog lifted and all became clear – I don’t like initiating conversation/interaction with people I don’t know (or as @Thinkingfox has put it “Jonesy, you can close but you can’t open” – the context of the remark I’ll allow you to decide for yourself)

About a year ago I decided, for various reasons, that I needed to get over myself and start networking more proactively and it was through a blog (My hell is other people) and Twitter discussions about music that I started to network with an informal group called ConnectingHR. A year ago they held their first “Unconference” and yesterday was the second. I had watched the first from the Twitter sidelines but yesterday I moxied up, paid my dues and attended.

If you don’t know what an unconference is, Google it. But the fag packet answer is like a conference but with content driven by the attendees, not structured “push” but more owner operated “pull”. So at 9.30am we started and (through some great facilitation from @dougshaw1) we finished with a grid of topics for discussion. I don’t intend to try and summarise any of them here (I will post a follow up which will summarise one of the topics I was part of….but that’s for another time). If you are interested in the content search the #chru hashtag on Twitter and there are several great blogs already out there. If you can’t do that – sign up to Twitter STAT….

I was asked by several people on several different occasions what I thought of it….and my response on every occasion was the same “interesting”. Which can be, and was, taken in different ways. The caveat I added was that I needed time to reflect and digest.

I have reflected and digested and will offer another caveat – what follows is positive if at times constructive BUT completely subjective – this is from MY point of view and isn’t intended as commentary on how it was for others.

An aside before proceeding. Being an extravert is a double edged sword. You are by type more comfortable to take part in a “live fire” environment, to process in the moment, to be able to respond and challenge. The double edged sword is with the energy of all those people and all that discussion how far do you go? I, by nature, cope with feeling uncomfortable by extroverting, I talk, ask questions, discuss etc and have noticed on several occasions recently that it is assumed by others as hogging, grand standing, over two-pennething. In contrast it appears that introverts cope with the same situation by watching, listening and digesting and the response is very different, no one appears to feel threatened by their response and in fact usually are very supportive in making them feel comfortable to contribute. All that by way of saying if at any point I trampled your point, hogged or appeared to grandstand it was largely (with a few exceptions) me coping with my own discomfort…

So, 24 hours later what has “interesting” become?

  • What a fabulous group of people, whose intention is to learn, help, support, contribute, challenge and share
  • As much as at times I adore chaos, the lack of structure in the unconference format was uncomfortable and left me wanting
  • That said I think the unconference format has real legs and have come away excited about how it could be further applied in a corporate environment
  • Visual minutes are awesome (check out creativeconnection.co.uk, Tim and his team do something incredible by turning the dialogue and emerging themes into artwork)
  • Facilitation is good. With the aforementioned struggle between the extraverts and the introverts, having someone to ensure contribution from all and that the conversation doesn’t spiral off into freeform oblivion is good.
  • There are lots of questions and with so many interested parties; the answers can be elusive especially without structure
  • I would have liked a little (not a lot) bit of input, to hear what others are doing, not big scary case studies and by the numbers presentations, but someone saying “we do this and it works/doesn’t work”
  • Live tweeting during an event is great especially if it’s viewable from “the floor” although it did take me a while to get used to people whopping their phones out and tapping away
  • There was a lot of “stuff” out there yesterday and I felt like a missed loads.
  • It is incredible what a group of people with common intent can achieve without permission, accreditation, incentive or financing
  • However much you caveat it, an elephant in the room is still an elephant in the room
  • Unconferencing is tiring but rewarding

If you work with people (and not just those with an HR job title or as I put it yesterday, in the HR cost centre) you should check out connectinghr.org or on Twitter check out the hashtags #chru & #connectinghr, whether you have a similar fear of networking to me or are a seasoned pro, it’s a really good group and will only get better.

I don’t feel this needs wrapping up as the points all stand on their own but there would be too many to thank for yesterday (both organisers and participants) but if one person should be singled out it’s Gareth Jones (@garelaos) (www.garethjones.me) who’s networking activity keeps Starbucks going, has for me been the driving force to me engaging and remaining engaged with ConnectingHR and took the incessant piss taking yesterday with good grace and very few rebuttals!


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