Thursday, 17 November 2011

With Demos on social mobility


   This blog tends to deal with organisational social collaboration, and within this agenda, its main focus is often on social technologies.  That’s not actually my intent –I do want to focus more broadly on other aspects of being social in organisations eg social responsibility outside these organisations, as I do believe these issues all inter-relate, or at least require a similar perspective. 

Well yesterday morning I attended a roundtable on social mobility with political think tank, Demos.  With a few HRDs, journalists, researchers and parliamentary special advisors there, we had what I thought was a good discussion about this issue, a couple of points from which I summarise below:

  • The concern is over relative social mobility (ensuring the low-skilled / paid can progress upwards – as well as the high skilled / paid downwards) rather than absolute mobility (increasing the standards of living for everyone).  [And people talk about HR-speak!  Unless I’m missing something, I interpret this as concern for social mobility over what you get at the bottom of society if there isn’t any mobility.]
  • The government is struggling with challenges relating the open vs the big society (from an open society perspective, the big society’s focus on informal social networks is one of the main problems in society).
  • Some organisations invest in supporting social mobility (apprentice programmes, paid interns, work experience programmes etc) for philanthropic reasons, some because they think there is a business case – even if it sounds to everyone else as if they’re just doing it because they think it’s the right thing to do.  Most don’t do very much at all.
  • Individuals with ‘low social mobility’ ie crap jobs need to raise their aspirations – neither the government nor employing organisations can do this for them.


I didn’t get a chance to add to the debate yesterday, but the points I would have made are:

  • There isn’t a solid enough business case to invest in social mobility at the moment, particularly when many of them are just trying to stay in business.  I agree that talent management professionals should have a longer-term focus but I don’t think this is the right time to ask.
  • Having said that, there are some signs that focus in areas like social responsibility in increasing, and the government should obviously push the door when there’s an opportunity of it opening.  Organisations can sign up for the government’s social mobility contact here.  The most impactful thing I think organisations could do however, would be to start giving better feedback to job seekers, particularly those who have just left school or university, or are from disadvantaged backgrounds etc.
  • But what’s really needed, I think, is for organisations to change the way they work, and be smarter in what they do - and doing this, might well provide a business case. One thing that would help would be switch in focus from always recruiting the best people to recruiting the most cost effective, eg someone from a lower status university who might not be quite as good (though there did seem to be fairly broad support at the roundtable is that what differentiates the high status Russell Group universities from the rest is the attendance of confident if incapable ‘Dim Tim’s).  But because there’s less competition for theses less attractive individuals they can be picked up without paying anything like so much (a bit like John Boudreau’s arguments for focusing on pivotal talent management perhaps).
  • As another example, one of the speakers talked about PwC moving from recruiting graduates to school leavers.  Well I did this 15 years ago at Ernst & Young.  But the reason that we developed our Accounting Technician stream wasn’t about a philanthropic concern or even a business case for social mobility, it was because we’d redesigned the organisation and realised that not everything done by an auditor needed a chartered accountancy qualification.  So when Demos ask ‘how cna the government up-skill HR professionals to implement more effective social mobility strategies in the workplace’, I have to say 1, that they can’t, and 2, that it’s the wrong question anyway.  HR, and other business leaders, just need to be smarter at building their organisations differently (ie better).  If they did this, then work wouldn’t be so hour glass (or even squeezed toothpaste tube shaped.
  • I’d also like to see organisations loosing some of their focus on individual talent management and putting a bit more effort into building collaborative organisations (ah, back to that again!).  I think social mobility, and just generally better performance, would be a natural consequence of this sort of shift as well. 


Picture credit: accent on eclectic

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