Limitless or limiting

What is the future of HR in the virtual world?

HRPS Conference: In June, the Strategic Capability Network (SCNetwork) hosted a special event to provide an overview of what was learned at the 2008 Human Resource Planning Society Global Conference in Huntington Beach, Calif. For more information about SCNetwork, visit

Limitless or limiting

Highlights from the HRPS global conference

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies

Limitless or limiting

It’s coming. But is HR in the virtual world a high-speed train that must be caught now or one to watch, at least for the next few years?

That’s the question Strategic Capabilities Network (SCNetwork) member Dave Crisp, CEO of Toronto-based Crisp Strategies, has pondered since attending the 2008 Human Resource Planning Society (HRPS) Global Conference in California earlier this year.

It’s a question he posed again at a recent meeting with SCNetwork members in Toronto to share the highlights and lowlights of the conference.

Social networking sites were a major, and somewhat controversial, topic at this year’s event. Many attendees had difficulty finding a practical purpose or business case for conducting HR online in places such as Second Life, says Crisp.

How IBM uses Second Life

But that uncertainty didn’t stop IBM from investing $10 million into a virtual community in which real people are represented by three-dimensional icons or avatars. IBM uses Second Life to reach employees around the world. Employees’ avatars do everything from onboarding, training and recruiting to collaborating on “islands.” Workers even file work in Second Life so colleagues can access it.

Second Life has 16 million members worldwide, 1.1 million active “residents” and 350,000 hours of use per day.

“So when you think it’s out there somewhere, it’s here now,” says SCNetwork president Ian Hendry, chief administrative officer of Alpha Trading Systems.

But not everyone is sold on the idea. David Wexler, senior vice-president of HR with the Canada Pension Plan Investment Board, was at the HRPS conference and was a panel member at the Toronto meeting. He’s “a little cynical” of the hype.

“All too often you have unbelievably talented and brilliant engineers who are building unbelievably wonderful solutions — but they are solutions to problems that people aren’t going to pay money for,” he says.

Wexler says IBM has devoted thousands of hours to developing its Second Life presence. Yet, even though it has been around since 2003, Second Life has only gained notoriety since late 2006. At the HRPS conference, just 10 per cent of the audience had an avatar.

“It’s tough for me to understand, from a business perspective, the cost benefit of Second Life versus other forums that are available for training, recruiting and so on,” he says. “Will I get my bang for my buck out of it?”

Can social networking replace face-to-face meetings?

That skepticism was shared at the Toronto meeting. Social networking sites are an intriguing new venue, says Carol Aberdeen, director of HR services with KPMG in Toronto. However, she questions whether they can, or should, ever replace face-to-face meetings. Aberdeen has used web and teleconferencing to manage a global team but says technology has its limits.

“I held a lot of global web conferences, but it wasn’t until we actually sat in a room and brainstormed as a team — with flip charts and dialogue — that we really made the breakthroughs that we needed,” she says. “A lot of getting that done is through personal connections where you can talk directly to a person rather than an avatar.”

Others in Toronto questioned the intertwining of work and private life and wondered how to set parameters around the technology. Some were concerned about privacy in such an open world.

Employee-driven Facebook

The same reluctance echoed through another discussion of new technology. Best-selling author and personal success mentor, Marcus Buckingham, was a speaker at the HRPS conference. He shared a new product called Performance Accelerator, something similar to Facebook.

The difference is that Performance Accelerator is employee-driven, according to panel member Geri Markvoort, director of total rewards at KPMG, who listened to the pitch. Workers post profiles in which they list their strengths, education, interests, goals and accomplishments. Colleagues can add accolades or share information. It’s meant to be a community-building technology, says Markvoort.

“For me, it was appealing. It was very interesting to see how a new social technology was migrating into an HR system,” she says.

At the SCNetwork event, the audience was hesitant of yet another technology that blurs the line between work and personal life — or one that allows employees free rein to post material.

There’s a danger employees will post fabricated information or compare themselves only to their peer group when measuring their strengths, says Chris Chambers, a business consultant with Kenexa Corporation. He questions the net benefit to an organization.

“If you’re letting people just say how good they are at certain things, that’s great for all of the extroverted people. But let’s think about all of the people who are introverted and aren’t going to get 10 people to go out there and write accolades about them,” he says.

These new “layers of technology” will take time to find their fit within the HR realm, says Crisp.

Delivery teams

While technology was the hot topic at the 2008 conference, panel members say there was plenty of other thought-provoking debate. Markvoort was also intrigued by Jay Galbraith and Amy Kates, experts in organizational design, who talked about the concept of a “delivery team” — an evolution from centres of excellence and business partners.

“A number of years ago, the issue was really getting a seat at the table. That’s not what most HR organizations are now struggling with. It’s who is going to sit at the seat that they have at the table,” she says. “There are lots of people who have the competence, the relationships in the business, the professionalism.”

The “delivery team” style uses a strong project management discipline. The team focuses on a particular part of the organization, with a person from every area — whether it’s learning, recruiting, talent management or total rewards, to name a few — making up the team.

A final highlight, according to Wexler, came from the perspective of Adrian Wooldridge, a columnist and Washington bureau chief with The Economist.

Wooldridge presented the following facts: the developing world holds 70 per cent of foreign exchange, 80 per cent of the world’s population and has annual gross domestic product growth of 10 per cent to 12 per cent versus one to two per cent in the developed world.

Wooldridge also predicts that, by 2040, the Chinese economy will be equal to that of the United States. Before 1870, the developed and developing world were “pretty much equal in terms of their impact on the local economy” so this shift should come as no surprise, noted Wooldridge.

“Over the past 150 years, there’s been a bit of an aberration,” says Wexler. “That’s now shifting to what’s maybe a better balance worldwide.”

Danielle Harder is a Whitby, Ont.-based freelance writer.

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Highlights from the HRPS global conference

SCNetwork’s panel of thought leaders brings decades of experience from the senior ranks of Canada’s business community. Their commentary puts HR management issues into context and looks at the practical implications of proposals and policies.

How far and wide do we have to stretch?

By Dave Crisp

What do you get when you put a large group of senior HR practitioners together to talk strategy? Answer: A bit unsettled.

Over the years, the Human Resource Planning Society (HRPS) conference has delved into increasingly far-reaching questions in HR. This year it took us into territory at times puzzling and certain to raise resistance in some quarters.

Most of us took home images of increasing complexity in which the world economy, dollar-wise, has doubled in just 12 years, most of it in developing nations. Creativity is believed to come from cities, but ours are no longer the largest or the fastest growing places on the planet. That honour now goes to turbulent and unevenly expanding places in Brazil, Russia, India and China — the so-called BRIC group of nations. It’s a world in which fear of running out of resources makes us ever more eager to find new, yet unknown and untested, solutions.

Not least of our challenges to stay in the game comes from rapidly evolving technologies heavily used by our potential recruits and not-so-far-in-the-future leaders. There is Facebook (average user age 32), LinkedIn (average user age 37) and now the 3-D, animated virtual world of Second Life, which was adopted a year ago along with YouTube as a recruiting tool by police in Vancouver who need recruits as tech-savvy as the criminals they chase.

The challenge with increasingly diverse populations is to keep up with increasingly diverse methods of appealing to them, handling them effectively and guiding them to the tools and training to create the sort of innovation organizations need. Not every age group is equally interested or willing to spend the time. Even within Gen Y, it’s unlikely every individual is equally knowledgeable, excited or willing to participate in all this. But we need to have some familiarity.

The challenge in HR is to try to help organizations find their way and be ready to face up to new competitors that can suddenly appear wielding highly disruptive technologies and never-before-seen processes that turn business environments upside down almost overnight. Who can blame listeners for feeling a tad overwhelmed?

This year’s conference left us with way more questions than answers. But that’s the great opportunity. As HR finally comes into its own, being recognized as having the potential to contribute more to organization success than any other factor, it’s up to us to formulate answers to entirely new challenges.

Dave Crisp is SCNetwork’s lead commentator on leadership in action. He shows clients how to improve results with better HR management and leadership. He has a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co., where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit

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I have seen the future, and it is upon us

By Barry Barnes

Keynote speakers at this year’s conference were HR professionals, CEOs and business leaders who shared best-in-class information. Events at the conference also examined the role of HRPS and the HR profession as a whole, with a view to future challenges.

It saw a convergence of ideas presented over the last few years by leaders such as Dave Ulrich, Jay Galbraith and John Boudreau leading toward a more disciplined approach to outsourcing the transactions and insourcing the transformations such as strategic initiatives and development. There was also a clear attempt to recognize that the face of HR, and society, is getting younger and increasingly international.

Talent management is no longer a buzzword, but an active set of clearly defined activities from search through retirement and every stage in between. And there are an increasing number of viable technical solutions to support various activities.

The HRPS started to address intergenerational issues with a focus on social networking and how it can be used in a positive way for HR strategies and practices. Perhaps even more importantly, we saw a shift from listening to “experts” to listening to younger practitioners who were experts in their use of the technology. This also saw HRPS starting to address the issues of succession within its own ranks and a desire to better reflect the population it serves. For example the change in the name from The Journal of The Human Resource Planning Society to People and Strategy recognizes that HR effectiveness is in the hands of more than just HR professionals; it is a critical role for leaders at all levels.

I came away from the conference thinking about the role of HRPS and HR planning in a different light. HRPS is finally moving in an aligned, positive direction to recognize that in a shrinking, “flatter” world (to borrow a term from Thomas Friedman) the single most significant differentiator in competitive advantage is the talent people bring to work. This year’s conference highlighted and reinforced that concept.

Organizations will have to respond to changing demographics, the pressures of globalization and technology. These are issues that will be reported upon and addressed at future conferences

Stay tuned. The future is approaching so fast it’s almost yesterday.

Barry Barnes is SCNetwork's lead commentator on organizational effectiveness. He is executive vice-president of ESOP Builders, a firm that develops employee-share ownership plans for private Canadian enterprises. He is also president of The Crystalpines Group. He can be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].

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Standing at the precipice

Matt Hemmingsen

This year’s HRPS conference was subtitled, “A Whole New Mindset.” For the faint of heart it should have been, “Standing at the Precipice.”

The global landscape painted by the keynote speakers was sobering. Today’s geopolitical, social, environmental, economic and technology variables are complex, intense and uncertain. Significant and dramatic changes on the world stage are occurring at a pace with which we are not familiar. The new economic frontiers of China, India, Russia and Brazil are shaping the world economies and their impact on our own landscape is already being felt.

On the home front, we are also experiencing radical shifts in workplace demographics. Past predictions of labour shortages, skill deficits and the diminishing of our knowledge base are now a reality. We see in our existing workforce a unique blend of boomers, Gen X and millennials, all with differing expectations and viewpoints.

How do companies cope and survive in this new economic disorder? Perhaps, as Albert Einstein observed: “Out of clutter, find simplicity. From ¬discord, find harmony. In the middle of difficulty, lies opportunity.”

The time has never been more opportune. We are moving into new and uncharted territory. We are standing on the precipice of change unlike any other. For HR practitioners, who have seen a transactional function evolve to a transformational one, we now need to prepare for a transcultural focus and orientation. We must view the global marketplace as a diverse interconnected network rather than singular, independent components.

HR leaders should assume a dual role of explorer and navigator, providing the requisite clarity and balance, guiding their organizations as they move beyond traditional boundaries. There are lessons already learned and experiences gained in this new environment. At the conference we heard about organizations, as diverse as John Deere and ING, that have already begun their journey of self-discovery and growth in this new world. They stared down the precipice and seized opportunities.

Standing at this precipice we must ask: Do we see the opportunities and are we prepared for the journey toward successful global competition?

Matt Hemmingsen is SCNetwork's lead commentator on strategic capability. He has held senior HR leadership roles in global corporations. He is a managing partner with Personal Strengths Canada, a member of an international company focused on improving business performance through relationship awareness. For more information, visit or e-mail [email protected].

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