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This blog is way longer than most, but it's a deliberate attempt at what Geertz called a "thick description" of what's really happening on an RSA project.

One of the things we've been talking about internally is the need to share the close reality of our projects with people outside the RSA. By that I partly mean emerging findings and learnings, which these blogs regularly do. But also some of the context, and the backstage events that accompany them.  Some of the messiness, uncertainty, worries and failures, and the sheer dumb luck that typify real projects. When people come to formal project events the impression they're given is always one of serene and inexorable progress towards a glorious conclusion. But life isn't really like that when the projects we undertake are experimental, complex and unpredictable.

So I thought I would set the ball rolling with a "dispatch from the home front" about a project I'm working on.

For over a month now we have been running the first RSA "Premium" (an innovation challenge open to all) since 1850. The goal of the challenge, called Valuing Your Talent (VyT), is to increase the skills of the UK's workforce, organisations' performance, and societal value by helping employers get better at understanding and investing in their human capital. It's based on an underlying conviction that employers and employees should better recognise their respective value, and have each others' long-term interests at heart, as well as those  of wider society. Central to this is investment in each other's learning and development, and the ability to tackle important problems.

That all sounds sensible and nice, but it's a tough nut to crack. Usually when times are tight for businesses (at least in places like the UK and US) the first thing to go from any budget is money spent developing people. We and others want that to change, and VyT represents a partnership between CIPD, UKCES, Lancaster University, CIMA, CMI, RSA and a host of other prominent professional  organisations from a range of disciplines.

The RSA's open innovation challenge is only part of the wider VyT programme. But I thought I'd share some 'warts and all' reflections on how the challenge is going and what we're learning. As my colleague Conor said in his blog the other day, open innovation challenges like this are a great expression of our emerging (and historic) "Power to Create" RSA ethos. But to achieve anything meaningful they have to achieve a certain rare sort of chemistry which, we're learning, is exciting when it happens, but hard to create.

Some context is helpful here. I'll spare you all the details about the project as that's available on the website. But what you need to know for the sake of this blog are three things:

1. Valuing talent has a short history of disappointment and scepticism

The discipline of human capital accounting, and the idea that organisations can put substance behind the rhetorical claim that "our people are our greatest assets" has been around for a while.  Long enough, in fact, to have suffered some notable setbacks and disappointments. This has aroused fatigue and suspicion among many people in the worlds of business, finance, HR and academia. But it is also sufficiently new that the tools and methods are relatively under-developed, under-researched and under-utilised. We were going to be entering the fray aware of all this, but unsure how another initiative would be received.

2. Experts often don't work together, share innovation or speak the same language

Until now these expert communities have tended to operate in siloes, and have not developed a common way of describing, negotiating and acting on this issue. There are lots of cultural, structural and conceptual reasons for this, such as the ongoing tussle over whether human capital can (or should) ever be classed as an 'asset' on the balance sheet.  HR, Finance, Business leaders and academic researchers (let alone employees and the wider public) have not really worked together on trying to tackle this problem, or when they have, it's ended disappointingly. Products, services and tools which help organisations value and develop skills have been developed on a closed, proprietary, profit-making basis, and academics not given access to valuable data for research purposes. And the 'discourses' (i.e. language, artefacts, habits and conventions) of HR, finance, management - while all sharing commonalities - have some important differences. In particular the discourse of finance seems far more powerful and dominant in organisations than that of 'people' and HR, which has hindered the development of an integrated understanding of how people are central to value creation, and how in turn, work organisations should be central to developing people.

3. Open innovation as a way to break through?

The RSA's analysis was that an open innovation challenge or experiment could help to overcome these barriers to progress. We wanted to see whether people from different, but relevant disciplines could come together in a shared online space, with a common interest and stimulus (in the form of a VyT 'framework') to make progress under the banner of an inducement challenge. We hoped that a new 'hybrid' discourse would emerge, which truly reflected human value in our increasingly knowledge-driven economy.

So what have we found so far? For the sake of simplicity, it perhaps makes sense to separate the subject/content learning from the process learning, although in practice the two are interlinked.

A) Subject/content learning

In the first 'Insight' phase, which we recently completed, we were just interested in collecting insights into the problem itself. Why do organisations find it hard to know what their people really bring to the job? Is it a measurement problem, a cultural one, or something else?

Here are three of the emerging themes from the insights so far:

Getting beyond measurement

  • Many people highlight problems that occur when 'metrics' and measurement are pursued at the expense of actual insight, and when insight is not translated into meaningful behaviour
  • When it comes to metrics, some people wanted something that blends a wide range of organisational and individual "indicators", and that could be aggregated into a sort of Index (perhaps akin to a human development index) which employees actively  use to understand and manage their own personal development, rather than purely for the benefit of organisational performance management
  • Some argued that many standard data collection methods (e.g. employee surveys) can be very blunt instruments, and may in fact be more trouble than they are worth. This is largely because they are a) not context-sensitive b) not dynamic c) are easily manipulated or corrupted and d) are too linear and do not embrace uncertainty
  • However new cloud-based software and social media technologies, and ways of capturing mass narratives and analysing them may provide the way forward
  • The increased pressure towards integrated reporting, the systemic risks that have been exposed by risky human behaviour (e.g. in the banking sector) and the upward pressure from a new generation of employees who want work to have more meaning and societal value are cited as enabling forces towards adopting more 'mature' forms of human resource management
  • The need for humanistic and developmental organisations

    • Values, culture, leadership, intrinsic human needs and motivation, social/organisational purpose and systems are some of the key lenses people used to look at this issue. They tried to shift the discourse away from a seemingly finance-dominated one that provides only a narrow account of talent, skill and human performance, to one that is holistic
    • There was criticism of conventional training and development as the way organisations invest in developing people. It should be more about coaching and on-the-job learning, with behavioural outcomes as the measures of success rather than the typical HR metrics of completed training hours and "happy sheets"
    • There was a consistent call for organisations to be consciously 'developmental' in their ethos and practical approach
    • Various requirements of a people-powered, actively developmental organisation are starting to emerge, but there are varied and competing accounts of what this looks like
    • The VyT framework divides opinion, but needs improvement as a stimulus

      • [The VyT framework is a graphic representation of how organisations can better understand and invest in their people's skills. It is a synthesis of academic research and practitioner application drawn from leading organisations by the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Anthony Hesketh of Lancaster University]
      • For one or two it was good, if in need of refinement and clarification.  Others thought it adequate, but somewhat cumbersome and not sufficiently groundbreaking. Others still thought it unhelpful, confusing and hard to apply.
      • Some called for greater clarity about the assumptions and empirical data that underpins the Framework.
      • We are now in a "Reflection" stage, taking stock of the insights we've received and altering the next 'Innovation' phase of the challenge in light of them. The Project team is meeting next week but our emerging conclusion is that we need to a) change, redesign and clarify various aspects of the framework as an 'open source' product before b) throwing it out to organisations to test for themselves and identify bugs, fixes and improvements to the framework, as well as wider, unrelated innovations to achieve the overall goal. In that way we'll identify what is already happening in lesser known organisations (particularly the SMEs who don't have HR departments and sophisticated tools), capture their 'theories in use' and identify the barriers to greater adoption.

        From a content perspective our partial success has been in stimulating some thoughtful, insightful and heartfelt contributions on the topic. But the failure has been in the lack of engagement with the framework as a stimulus, which we can partly attribute to its lack of accessibility. Our priority is therefore to improve it and get it back out there pronto...

        B) Process learning.

        What have we learnt so far about running an emergent prize challenge in (relatively) virgin and controversial territory? 

        We wanted this challenge to go beyond many other competitions and challenges. We wanted it to be emergent, rather than rigid and inflexible, since we could not be certain of the best way forward when we first began, and wanted it to be a co-discovery process with those interested in the problem.  Thankfully that flexibility at the start has allowed us to change course for the reasons I'll explain below.

        Here are a couple of initial process learnings that are coming out

        Achieving diverse participation is hard

        Building expert community participation from scratch, among people from very different disciplines takes time. It also takes continual   awareness raising, active facilitation and responsiveness.

        So far this has been more of a struggle than we anticipated. So far most of the contributors have been those from the world of Human Resources. We haven't managed to bring in those from other key disciplines such as the accountancy profession whose voice matters enormously, business owners and managers (i.e. employers), and/or those from a design or creative background who could approach this problem fresh. It's starting to cause us real concern, so we've investigated why.

        In the case of accountancy, I hear from senior figures that it's partly a cultural leap for them to engage in something like this, but partly a difference in motivation. They just don't see the issue as much of a priority, compared to the HR folks. The same goes for the business owners and management in some cases, though others seem keen (but just too busy!). And for the creatives and designers, part of the problem is that the subject appears too technical and complex, when in fact it is far more open to creative interpretation (e.g. visualisation tools, apps, template designs, narratives) than they might think. We will be doing a big push over the coming fortnight to overcome this problem so please help us if you hail from the world of finance, management or design!

        Community not competition

        Early on in the insight-gathering phase, someone posted a comment that stuck with me. They said they very much welcomed the project but asked why it had to be run as a competition, albeit a rather friendly and collaborative one. This was the community telling us what it wanted to do.  And so, in light of this and other feedback, what we expected to be an inducement prize challenge at the start is likely to morph into more of an open source development community for human capital products, tools and services.

        We had always hoped this would happen in the long term (honest!), with the challenge competition acting as merely the initial spur to create the community. But  it's happening far sooner than we expected and I feel rather ambivalent about this. On the one hand I'm reluctant to let go of the original short term plan to run it as prize challenge, even though I hoped it would ultimately go in this direction. It feels like a loss, a deviation from the original idea of an RSA Premium, which we have just relaunched and a challenge to my ego, in terms of my ability to foresee how the project would unfold! But on the other I realise that it may better reflect the needs of the community, meaning we could achieve our longer term ambition more quickly.

        What's great is that all the other partners on this project knew and accepted from the start that it was a leap into the unknown, and we are able to make decisions together as new developments arise. Ultimately it's about achieving the outcome we all want (more businesses investing in their people), not necessarily the immediate output we planned. The project team from all the organisations involved talk regularly to take the pulse of the initiative and the reaction outside, and we are able to agree things quickly and amicably.

        The challenge therefore seems now to build   a healthy, self-sustaining community to make this happen, which is why it's so crucial we address the issues with the framework and the lack of diversity in participation.

        That's the priority for the next two weeks. But who knows what it will be in a month.... Back to the trenches to find out.




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