Deborah Blackman on ‘dancing with the system’
Professor Deborah Blackman adds a valuable academic perspective to the APS HR Professional Stream working group. When she’s not actively sharing her expertise on the integration of systems and people, she’s busy teaching Public Sector Strategy Management at the University of New South Wales and juggling various research projects through her work with the Public Service Research Group.
Given her diverse range of research interests – which include Public Sector policy implementation, systems level change and organisational learning – we were keen to catch up with Deborah to hear her insights and tips on effective business partnering, turning practice into policy and rethinking how we evaluate success.
You have been on the HR Professional Stream working group from the start – what has that been like, and what have you observed about the development of the APS HR Professional Stream more broadly?
It’s been an amazing opportunity and not something academics get to do often, so I was very pleased and honoured when Jacqui invited me to be a part of it.
My job is about asking questions that get people thinking about the bigger picture, and what I have the time and capacity to do is to step back and say, ‘what do you actually want this to be doing’, and ‘how will you know if it’s working?’ When giving feedback on the HR workforce strategy, I was coming at it from a slightly different perspective. I’m not concerned with whether we’re using the right government language; I’m thinking about whether the things we have espoused are likely to lead to what we are trying to do. My brain is wired that way because of the work I do with systems. So, I’m saying, ‘While these are really nice aspirations, why do you think this strategy is going to lead to that?’
My students know that my two favourite questions are ‘why do you want things to be different?’ and ‘what does success actually look like?’ Whenever you get stuck, those are questions you should go back to – they help you realise where you’ve gone off track and identify what it is that you wanted to do. Always go back to the intent.
One of the things the HR Professional Stream has been really strong on is being clear about their intent. But every now and then I remind them that this is not just about being a professional stream, it’s about improving the capability of the APS and to do that we need effective HR. This is part of a bigger picture of a more effective and more capable APS. And this is one of the system levers – good HR will enable us to do this better.
The HR workforce strategy is a major achievement in the evolution of the profession; however, it’s difficult turning strategy into practice. Do you have any tips for how agencies can do this?
In a way, it comes back to what I was just talking about: what is it we need HR to do for us and what will be different if we have good HR? It’s a fundamental question which, if you can articulate the differences, will help you prioritise.
One of the problems with implementation is that you’ve got to make choices about the order you do things. Coming back to my picture of systems – which lever do we need to press first to get the right things moving? If we’re not careful, we end up with many streams of work all at once that aren’t working together. We see all the various programs happening, but we don’t necessarily see a coherent outcome because we’ve lost sight of what success should look like. A few things done well, early on – the ones that are going to have the biggest value add – will be much more useful.
If you have to choose one, the first thing should be business partnering. HR must be able to work with their business and understand what they need to do and why. Good HR teams are really clear on what their business needs them to deliver. That might sound obvious, but when you’re not careful the business will start to say, ‘let’s have a new recruitment strategy, a new this, a new that!’ And sometimes you do need to do those things, but often less is more. You need to go back to the intent and say why do we need these – is it a change in implementation we need instead, for example, rather than a major revamp.
A colleague of mine, Dr Sue Williamson, often analyses diversity policies and whether they are enabling people to improve diversity and inclusion. She’ll find all the different bits of the policies that are working against each other. Nobody meant for them to, but when they all came together, they just don’t work as well as they could because we separate the bits of work instead of looking at the bigger picture. My advice is to concentrate on two or three important things at a time that will have the biggest impact – one of them will likely be about working with your business.
A big challenge for HR is demonstrating success – how can HR Professionals evaluate their success? What should we be thinking about now in order to evaluate our effectiveness down the track?
The thing about evaluation is you need to plan it right at the beginning; one of our biggest mistakes is that we start thinking about evaluation as we reach the end. The other thing we tend to do is evaluate the planned outcome or output, and not necessarily the movement towards it. But for HR, movement is critical.
Realistically you can’t say, ‘50% of that change in recruitment was due to me’. It’s hard to think about success in other ways, but perhaps it’s about whether your organisation now undertakes HR activities in a different way. It’s not just about having the best recruitment or best development – we need to consider how the business is making those decisions and how we are supporting them to achieve those outcomes. Success might not be a policy, a process, or a thing – it might be that something is now being done differently than before. And you can identify that; you can see who is at the meetings, and whether people are coming to you only when there’s a crisis or coming to you at the beginning because they know you’re going to give good advice. That’s a tangible difference. So start thinking about success in a different way.
Another important consideration is indicators. You might need to start thinking about recruitment, but what measurements do we have around that? Do we want our indicator to be how many people we have recruited, or do we want to think about how long those people stay in those jobs? That’s a much longer indicator time, but a really interesting one.
We can rethink how we manage some of these things – a lot of it is about knowing what we have indicators for and how we can use them. Measuring movement rather than end points can help shift the way we think. We are trained to get things done, so often we jump straight to conversations about performance, where we ask, ‘what are we going to do?’ We start there but end up having to go back several times because we didn’t establish a clear understanding at the beginning of why we’re doing this and what it will look like when it’s working. Instead I advocate thinking about having initiative and understanding types of conversations first to make sure everyone has a shared view of the longer term.
If you were trying to change the way people are making decisions, which is one of the things I’m always trying to do, we can see if they’re slowing down and having different conversations at the beginning, so when they get to the performance conversation it is not only faster, but more importantly, only needs to be done once. So the HR outcome is not necessarily the same as the business; instead it may be about improving how things are done. It’s really about considering different ways of understanding what we’re doing.
Another big challenge for agencies that are relatively new on their HR journey is in winning the support of business. Do you have any insights to share on how HR can better do this?
Coming back to partnering again, it’s HR’s job to support the business, not to drive it or control it. That doesn’t mean HR can’t or shouldn’t say no, but what you’re really trying to do is to ask, ‘What is it you want to achieve, why do you want to do it, and how can we help you do it?’ There might be a bunch of reasons why their idea is a little shaky, but the role is to then say, ‘This is what we can do and this is how we can help you’.
I worry sometimes that the word ‘risk’ is used to avoid doing things. One of HR’s jobs absolutely is to identify the inherent risks in what people want to do. But you can’t completely avoid risk – you’re there to help manage it. If you can show your business that you understand the risks, recognise that some need to be taken, and explain that you’re going to help them mitigate the risks by identifying which things really cannot be done and which ones you can help them with, then you’re going to get your business on side.
The difficulty is when HR are seen to be policing, and not supporting or enabling. It’s not that you should enable people to do bad things, but you need to recognise that there are reasons that the business is trying to do something and you’ve got to work out how you can help them achieve their end game. When the business comes to you for help, your role should be to say, ‘We can help, but before we do that, why do you think you want to do this and what is your end game?’ Then you can present better options or more strategic ways to achieve that, as opposed to either telling them it can’t be done or doing what’s been asked when it wasn’t the best value.
It also comes back to priorities. Your job is not to go in and try to turn your business into a clone of where you’ve been before or implement everything that you can. It’s about understanding the business that you’re in. We bring our organisational history and experiences with us, and that may or may not be helpful. As an HR professional you’ve got to be thinking, ‘how do I fit within this culture?’ And if it needs to be shaped that’s fine, but you’re going to have to do that from the inside.
One of my favourite quotes, from a marvellous systems thinker called Donella Meadows, is that ‘you can’t control a system, you can only dance with it’. By that she meant you can help shape it, lead it and guide it, but if you try to push or shove, it’s not going to move and it may fall over. I think that is something HR really needs to think about – how do you dance with your business, rather than trying to push it? If you choose to dance with it and guide it, it will go willingly… if you’re any good at dancing!