Designing for Health and Safety

Christina Sutcliffe, Queen’s IRC Research Associate, chats with Prof. Nick Turner of Queen’s School of Business on the link between organizational design and health and safety

“You can’t direct people into perfection; you can only engage them enough so that they want to do perfect work” —Margaret Wheatley, consultant, author, and President of The Berkana Institute

The truth so aptly expressed by Margaret Wheatley was the crux of it. “It” was the epiphany I experienced in understanding the relationship between organization development and occupational safety, between an organization’s culture and people’s want and commitment to work safely.

Where did employees derive this ‘want’ to do their job well? Years ago sitting in my office on the plant floor where I worked as a health and safety specialist, I was visited by employees who wanted to vent about the company’s vacation policy, or the benefits policy, or the non-existent personal days. In the same visit, they would also show me pictures of their grandchildren, or describe the new recipe they found to cut calories because they did not have the time or the energy to go to the gym after working a physically demanding job.

Clearly most of these discussions were about their desire for a well-balanced life, which employees recognized as being heavily influenced by the quality of their work life. The issues they were most anxious to discuss related to the company’s organizational structure, leadership issues, and employee compensation. Even when health and safety was the focus of discussion, the conversation twisted and turned back towards these umbrella issues.

So why wasn’t I in HR creating ingenuous ways to enhance employee safety through strategic HR initiatives? For one, my thinking had not evolved to allow for the possibilities of integrating organizational strategies to benefit health and safety outcomes. For another, the HR manager was already juggling a varied assortment of portfolios: organization design, compensation management, organizational learning, recruitment, union organizing. To add the complexity of health and safety seemed too cruel.

While I am no longer working in health and safety, I am still interested in these issues. For fresh insights, I turned to Nick Turner, an assistant professor of organizational behaviour at Queen’s School of Business who specializes in the effects of work design and leadership on employee health and safety. Turner’s research suggests that employee commitment to the organization is a key marker of health and safety outcomes.

You talk about organization commitment being generated by “the presence of work characteristics and practices that enable employees to recognize and work toward organizational goals.” Based on your research, what have you found is the relationship between an employee’s commitment to the organization and workplace safety?

The research that Sharon Parker (Australian Graduate School of Management), Carolyn Axtell (University of Sheffield, UK), and I did suggests that if want to enhance compliance with safety rules, one way of doing it is to enhance employee commitment to the organization. Commitment seems to be enhanced through increasing job autonomy, providing supportive supervision, and enabling high quality communication. These work characteristics and practices have both an instrumental effect and a symbolic effect: If I have the freedom to choose the timing and methods of my job, a supervisor that cares about me, and I’m kept in the loop, then my employer had generated opportunity, motivation, and knowledge to help me work effectively towards the important organizational goal of safety. This sends an important message: it says we trust you, care about you, and believe you have the brains to get the job done. This is a very different approach than forcing me to work to safety rules just because they’re rules.

If one way of achieving commitment and therefore better safety outcomes can be achieved by the implementation of, say, team-based structures, what is the biggest factor that can prevent a team-based structure from taking hold throughout the organization?

I can think of at least two. The first is lack of sustained commitment on part of management to continue the effort and to involve employees in the process of redesigning work. It is very easy for companies to start [a team-based structure] because of fad or fashion but then run out of steam, move the project champion to another position in the company, or to ask employees for their ideas and then do nothing with them. At the beginning of any work redesign, many companies are all pumped up about it: they transfer people from different areas in the company to help, and there is a lot of energy in asking the workforce how best to redesign the work. But then as key people are moved into different positions and the priorities of the company change with the wind, there is a lot of process loss. Ideas are forgotten and momentum to change diminishes.

A second reason work redesign often doesn’t take hold is that a lot of the time team-based structures are perceived as ‘old wine in new bottles.’ Employees often say, “We’ve been working in teams for years, and now they [management] are labelling it as such and it’s supposed to take on some new special significant meaning for us.” Making the commitment in the longer term to ensure that a work redesign such as the introduction of self-managing teams is carried out effectively, as well making sure there is some substance to the redesign and not just managerial re-labelling, are both important for sustainable change.

Increasingly HR practitioners are taking on a more important role in the organization’s strategy. What would be your advice be to someone who experiences a stall in a strategy that is designed to enhance employee commitment?

Autonomous and challenging work, the presence of high-quality leadership, and encouraging information sharing are just a few organizational practices that help to establish trust and respect between management and employees. It is not surprising that these same practices also enhance and motivate people to perform better. We believe that the same practices also enhance safety.

There are two stumbling blocks that I see in the way that strategic HRM gets translated into practice is. First, it can seem like an overwhelming amount of work for an HR person to do, and second there’s little appreciation of the importance of consistency among HR practices. Imagine someone taking a strategic HRM course and thinking at the end “I have to implement all of Pfeffer’s high performing practices to get the benefit for my organization?”

One way of overcoming this stumbling block is to not be afraid to tackle change in small chunks. There is absolutely no way that you can build a high performing work system overnight. And remember to be consistent. By this I mean look carefully for the consistency among organizational practices that are used. For example, you can’t implement self-managing teams if you aren’t prepared to train those involved. Imagine the safety implications of having employees with high levels of autonomy, but no up-to-date knowledge of the equipment they are using. You’d be amazed how many companies treat these HR practices like they are independent pieces of some big pre-designed puzzle. At the end of the day, all of the practices need to be sending the same message: we care about you and we want to help you do great work.


Pfeffer, J. (1998). The human equation: Building profits by putting people first. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press

The Seven Habits of Successful Mediators

An expert in managing conflict, Dr. John S. Andrew teaches negotiation at Queen’s School of Urban and Regional Planning; provides independent facilitation and mediation services to parties involved inland use, environmental, and transportation disputes; and leads executive seminars on strategic consensus-building in corporate real estate.

Dr. Andrew spoke with us about what makes a good conflict manager. You need to be part problem-solver, part creative thinker, and part loner, undaunted by the prospect of eating lunch by yourself.

What is the role of a mediator?

In conflict resolution we try to find a solution that allows as many of the parties as possible to have their key interests met. Seldom is it all of their interests, but usually a settlement can satisfy their most important ones. That’s really the challenge.

There’s a classic example I use for teaching. There are two sisters fighting over an orange. Both of them want it – those are their positions, and they’re completely incompatible. I ask the students, ‘What’s a possible solution?’ and someone usually says, ‘Get a knife and cut it in half’, which of course meets only 50 percent of each party’s interests.’ That’s not great – if were trying to sell my house for $300,000 and got $150,000 for it, I would be pretty unhappy. The best answer is that you need to get all of the parties to identify and share their real interests underlying their positions. Ask them why they want the orange. It turns out one wants the pulp to make juice, the other wants the rind to make a cake. So it’s possible to meet 100 percent of the interests of both parties.

This is a simple example but it gets people thinking in a new way. Finding the interests is important because there are usually more compatible interests than conflicting ones in a dispute. Once everybody at the table understands the key interests of the other parties, then you can begin to make trade offs and “expand the pie” rather than divide it.

What are the key attributes and skills of a successful mediator?

1. You have to be able to quickly understand the essence of the conflict. You often get just a few days notice of a mediation, and you’re under pressure to come up to speed about the dispute as fast as possible.

2. You have to be able to get the parties to focus on their interests rather than their positions. For months or years they’ve been saying, ‘This is what we want, this is what we want.’ You need to get them to identify what they really care about. I was involved in a railway dispute in British Columbia that was fascinating and complex. It was a good illustration of the need to, and difficulty of, identifying true party interests. For quite a while it appeared to be a fairly straightforward transportation dispute, with many common interests between the parties. However, as we began to unravel the interests it became apparent that for some of the parties it was really more of a land use/real estate conflict, and their interests had little to do with the operation of the railway. The land adjacent to the railway was worth far more than the railway operation itself, and real estate eventually became a whole new set of issues. Only once they were on the table could we begin to make progress toward a solution.

3. It is essential to be completely neutral and impartial, and be able to convey that to the parties. Both perception and reality are important. Some of that is the language you use and how you conduct yourself during mediation, and it can be very simple: if there’s a lunch break, eat by yourself. The parties may be getting together and it’s natural that they invite you, but you can’t unless everyone is together. Disputants are very sensitive to your degree of fairness. If you lose the parties’ trust, it’s almost impossible to get it back.

4. You need to know when to let the parties hash it out, when to step in, and when to suggest possible options. You ask yourself, ‘Are they making progress on their own?’ Sometimes you’re better just sitting back and letting that process happen but it can be uncomfortable. Remember it’s their dispute and they have to craft the solution jointly – you can gently steer them but you can’t hand them any solutions, even if you see them. It sounds terrible to say, but a good mediator doesn’t care about the content of a settlement or whether the parties even reach agreement. You’d love to be able to say, ‘I’m such a good mediator, I’ve done 120 cases and 99 of those have been resolved,’ but that’s not a good measure of success. Lots of agreements are reached that are bad agreements. Sometimes the best thing is for the parties to walk away before that point. I’m there to help the parties to craft their own agreement, and if they reach one, that’s great. But there are lots of legitimate reasons why they might not. This is a voluntary process, and there has to be buy-in from all the parties. They won’t all love the agreement, but the key is that meets their most important needs and they crafted it themselves. If I come in and suggest something, they are less likely to implement it and buy in, and the agreement is more likely to break down later.

5. You need to know when to have a private caucus – when to take the parties aside. And then you do so with all of the parties. This can be very effective – you can give them a sense of what will likely be acceptable to the other side, and what they’re true BATNA is – their “Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement.” For example, if I hear people say, ‘Well, I really don’t want to negotiate because if we go to court we will win,’ I can sit them down and say, ‘Based on my experience you aren’t going to do as well as you think, and it’s going to cost everyone 10 times as much. So even if you don’t get exactly the agreement you want, you’re going to get it months or years earlier, and save a lot of money and anguish.’

6. Shuttle diplomacy – being able to effectively shuttle ideas and offers between the parties – is another skill. Sometimes parties will say, ‘Well, offer this to them,’ and I might suggest modifications that will make it more palatable to the other side. Sometimes they’re subtle changes in the wording or the order in which items are offered. The challenge is that a mediator obviously can’t give away any confidential information, so giving guidance to parties is a delicate business, and you have to keep careful track of where you obtained certain information and what needs to remain confidential to one party.

7. Finally, I think it comes down to your own personality and how you relate to other people. Credentials are nice, but does having a Ph.D. really make me a good mediator? Not really. What makes you a good mediator is doing mediation, and you probably learn more from your mistakes than anything else.

Exploring “The Whole Elephant” and Finding Common Ground

He is a major mover in organization development and, we are proud to say, a Queen’s IRC Facilitator. Marvin Weisbord is also author of the seminal books “Productive Workplaces and Future Search: An Action Guide to Finding Common Ground in Organizations and Communities” (co-authored with Sandra Janoff). A “future search” is a planning meeting that helps people quickly transform their capabilities into actions, bringing together those with resources, expertise, formal authority, and need. Through two-and-a-half days of dialogue, they discover their common ground and make concrete action plans.

Recently we talked to Marvin about the “future search” planning process, its applications in organizations, how it helped Ikea and the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration make massive and rapid transformations. and how managers, policymakers, and consultants can get involved in the international Future Search Network.

What is the overall goal of future search?

It is a way of putting control of the system in the hands of people who have the biggest stake in it. We think of future search as a way to help the system to transform its capability for action. When a future search is successful, people can do things on Monday morning they considered impossible on Friday. People empower themselves when they get the opportunity to do things they’ve always wanted to, but haven’t had the chance.

What are the principles underlying future search?

There are four key principles, which are backed up by years and years of research and experience.

The first is to get the whole system in the room. By “whole system” we mean people with authority, with information, with resources, with expertise, and with need. Get the people with these qualities who are interdependent all in the one place at one time to dialogue with one another.

Number two is to have everyone explore together what we call “the whole elephant” – that’s a reference to the old Sufi story of the blind men and the elephant. Each one has a piece of the puzzle. Collectively, they have the whole puzzle. But no one of them can see the whole thing. So when you have the whole system in the room, you then have the potential to get the whole picture that no one person can assemble. We spend a lot of time in future search doing that before we try to figure out what to do. We are trying to get everybody talking about the same world, and that’s a world that includes all of their perceptions, and all of their experiences.

The third future search principle is to focus on the future and the common ground rather than the problem list or the conflicts. This means to put conflicts and problems into the background and to treat them as information, rather than action agenda items. So nothing is swept under the rug and nothing is considered irrelevant. But the emphasis is on discovering where people are already together and what it is they want to do.

The fourth principle is to have people take responsibility for managing themselves and their perceptions and decisions and action planning. In other words, we strongly invite the participants to be responsible rather than have facilitators take charge of what happens. In future search, the facilitators don’t organize or analyze information for participants. Participants already know how to do that, but don’t always know that they know.

How did future search begin?

In the late 1970s and early 80s I was doing a lot of OD consulting, and it seemed like the wrong people were always in the room, or it was too soon, or it was too late – there were a lot of dilemmas with meetings. In those years I was hanging out with Eric Trist, who was at University of Pennsylvania, and Ron Lippitt, who was at Bethel. Their work really caught my attention and I began applying a lot of their ideas in the corporations and medical schools where I was consulting. I learned a lot from the two of them and I got very stimulated by the things they had done. That was when I began to ask myself, “What would the strategic planning meeting look like that really got people committed, motivated and able to act together without having to ask permission from anyone outside the room?”

I started to think if you can get in one room those people who could act together if they chose to without having to get permission from anyone who wasn’t there, things would really start to happen – or you would at least understand why they weren’t going to.

What are the applications for future search in the workplace?

There are three things you can get out of a future search. One is a shared understanding of where everyone is together, and what it is that everyone in the room wants – that is, the common ground. The second is an action plan. The third is an implementation strategy. You can get all or any of these depending upon your objectives.

In the workplace situation, future search is a very good umbrella for strategic planning of any kind because you not only get a plan, but you get immediate action steps. You have the beginnings of the implementation folded into the meeting, and because all the people are there, you have commitment at all levels where you need commitment – you don’t have to go and sell it to anybody. And that’s a big advantage.

In the last year or so we used future search twice at Ikea to do a complete redesign of global systems, worldwide systems involving thousands of people and products. We made quite a heady discovery. It is rather contradictory to socio-technical thinking and theory, but if you can get the whole system in the room – which means bringing the whole environment together, the organization’s suppliers, customers, etc. – and you have all the people with authority there, you can rethink the whole system and start down a whole new track in 18-20 hours.

(For more information see “The Ikea Story” at )

At the Federal Aviation Administration not so many weeks ago, we had people looking at the whole air traffic control system of the United States and making decisions about how to manage that system in a whole new way. Some have already been implemented. This is a new insight for me: there is a simple, fast way to redesign work systems in cases where nobody really has their arms around the whole thing, and change is happening too fast to “study” it.

Is future search best for large applications, or can it work for departments or smaller work groups?

It has been very effective for departmental issues and problems when the department sponsors of the conference invite interdependent people from surrounding organizations – up, down, and sideways. This is because in order to change a work system – and this isn’t always obvious – it has to change its relations with the larger system of which it is a part. So if the department’s members only meet with one another on their internal problems, they can’t really change their system because it is always subject to the policies, procedures and relationships it is embedded in. Unless the department can influence those other relationships, it can’t get significant change in its own work structures. That’s why team-building tends to drive people deeper into their relationships with each other. It doesn’t give them much leverage on the whole organization.

What you discover when you do this kind of work is that the significant problems are always outside the boundaries of the organization, and even a lot of interpersonal conflicts can be traced to the structural elements outside the unit that the people don’t have much leverage over. Where there is a personal clash it is always an exacerbated by structural issues, meaning who is allowed to do what, the policy by which you are operating, the norms, etc. A lot of times people will personalize goal conflict. In future search, we try to legitimize all of the various objectives and goals that people have. This means putting conflicts and problems into the background and treating them as information. We try to get people to accept their differences as natural and inevitable and something to be lived with, rather than a problem to be solved by one party or another changing his or her mind, personality, or leadership style.

What new discoveries have you made since the 2000 edition of Future Search?

There have been several in terms of the methodology itself. What continues to evolve is all small wrinkles on how to do the common ground and action planning, which have always been the stickiest part of the meeting.

The way we do the common ground exercise now has more focus on what everyone wants – whereas before we used to also make project lists of how we are going to get there. Now we have pretty well given up on the “hows” and we just look at what does everyone want and get that up on the wall chart.

Once we have the common ground, we ask people to write statements so people outside the room could understand what was agreed to. By writing it out and not just having bullet points on flip charts, people really get the nuance, the essence of what people are saying to one another. When there are six or eight or ten of them together you get what sounds like a mission statement and statement of values. From these statements we build the action plans. We then say, ‘Who wants to work on which of these Common Ground issues to translate them into policy, procedure, and programs?”

What desires and wishes do you have for future search?

Sandra Janoff and I see future search as a learning laboratory; we don’t see it as a done deal. People can learn a lot at these meetings that they can transfer to other meetings and other settings. We think the principles have more applications than just our method and we think they have influenced many of the other large group methods. We are just hoping to continue and get more and more people to do this around the world. It is fascinating to me that people in so many different cultures are able to do this, somehow projecting their own cultural stuff onto future search. It’s like a big empty bottle into which they can pour their own practices, beliefs, norms, and meaning. That’s pretty wonderful; so we just want to keep that top spinning.

Is the method spreading internationally through the Future Search Network?

Yes, many managers, consultants, and policymakers are part of the Future Search Network, working to help make a more open, inclusive, and sustainable world. FSN is a voluntary, world-wide network offering public, non-profit, and NGO future search processes and training for whatever people can afford.

It’s a wonderful way to define meaning in work and to give back to the community. As well, you meet and co-operate with like-minded people who might otherwise be seen as competitors. It’s a great network.

For more information about future search, go to:

In Conversation with Dr. Mark Huselid

Dr. Mark Huselid is an authority on return on investment (ROI) for HR practices since long before ROI became a rallying cry. He will be among the top educators leading the Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre (IRC) High–Impact People Practices program this September. Dr. Huselid is Associate Professor of HR Strategy in the School of Management and Labour Relations at Rutgers University, and has for many years been doing original research in the linkages among HR management systems, organizational strategy, and firm performance. He is co–author of the best seller The HR Scorecard: Linking People, Strategy and Performance.

Queen’s Industrial Relations Centre spoke with Dr. Huselid recently about measuring HR’s impact – his topic for this fall’s program – and about highlights of his latest research. His new book, The Workforce Scorecard: Creating a Human Capital Scorecard for the CEO, will be published next year by the Harvard Business School Press.

When you say HR measurement, what do you mean?

Before we can define the term, I think that we need to start with a shared understanding about what we mean when we say HR. In our field, unfortunately, this is not always clear. When we use the term ‘HR,’ for example, we might be referring to the function, to the people in the HR function, to the organization’s workforce, or to the profession – but we use the same word.

When I say measuring HR, I’m thinking about measuring the contribution of the firm’s workforce to business success. For me that’s much broader than measuring the outcomes of the HR function. Historically, most businesses have focused on the latter. You hear questions from senior leaders who say, ‘Well, you spent $20 million on training last year – what are you delivering to the business?’

That’s really a question probing the HR function, and for me, it’s not really possible to answer it unless you really understand what the firm’s business is, its strategy, and how people and their behaviour at different levels and in different categories throughout the business contribute to firm’s success. Only at that point can you sensibly begin to answer the question of what HR delivers to the business.

How do you go about measuring the effectiveness of HR?

There are different roles in any organization, and the contribution of each role will likely be measured differently as well. For example, in a pharmaceutical company, value is created in one way in the R&D function, and in quite another way in the legal function, and in still another way in manufacturing. Each of those three elements is really crucial: if you don’t design better compounds in new drugs, you’ve got nothing to sell; if you can’t move them through the legal process, you’ll ever get them on the market; if you don’t manufacture drugs off lawless quality, you are in deep trouble. The question is, What are the human capabilities and competencies in each one of those three roles – and there certainly may well be others – that really drive firm success?

Once we know that, the hardest part is over. I tell people that coming up with the measures is the easy part of the process, and they always roll their eyes at me. Then once we go through it, it starts to dawn on them that coming up with specific measures once you know exactly what you are trying to measure is not the challenge. The challenge is to really understand what drives the organization’s success, however the organization defines it, and then asking, ‘How are we going to put markers along the road to help people understand where they are in the process?’

The answer to the question, ‘How you go about measuring HR?’ will be different depending on the organization. That’s why I’m so critical of broad–brushed benchmarking efforts. They don’t capture that richness.

Do HR practitioners like to think that everything they do supports strategy?

Yes, but in fact, a lot of behaviours might be counterproductive. The thing is that without measurement, you just don’t know. Lots of organizations have found that things they have done, and thought historically they had to do, just make no difference. And conversely, many weren’t doing things that really were important.

What progress have you seen in the field as a result of research such as yours that demonstrates the value of measuring HR?

I’d say there’s increasing recognition that just measuring the HR function doesn’t answer the key questions that are raised by business leaders. When you think about it, if you are the CEO of a corporation, you don’t care what it costs to hire an employee. You care about having competent, capable, committed employees who stay with the company and are happy and share values and vision, and if you have to pay more to get those folks, my guess is that you will be okay with that.

So if the HR leadership comes to you and says, ‘Well, we’ve just reduced cost per hire,’ your response is going to be, ‘That may be terrific, but I need to know that you’ve maintained or increased quality.’ That’s the distinction: today there’s really a greater focus on the workforce, and even more so on strategy execution, that really drives the business.

What skills and competencies do HR professionals need to implement strategy and to design and implement tools such as the HR Scorecard?

They need critical thinking skills, systems thinking skills, and the ability to understand causal relationships in organizations. I say that because the HR function is really unusual: it’s different than any of the other functional areas in the business in that we’re helping to hire, develop, select, and maintain the organization’s leadership. In most businesses, the senior leadership team, primarily, was hired anywhere from five to 20 years ago, so the decisions that are made in conjunction with HR and line managers really have an enormously long shadow in the organization.

So what you really need to understand are the long-term implications of hiring for the position as opposed to hiring for the firm, for example, or hiring for a certain skill set we need today versus hiring for a skillset we might need sometime in the future. And you need to see how development and training procedures link with that process. There are all those types of questions, so looking over the horizon and thinking about being able to meet challenges we haven’t even identified yet is really one of the key issues here.

Are there other competencies HR practitioners need to develop?

One needs to have a basic understanding of statistics, and one certainly needs to have a broad understanding of the business and its processes. A lot of times I’ll go into a workshop and ask the HR team, ‘Tell me about your most profitable products, what kind of customers does your company want to keep and what kind it would rather transition to competitors,’ – these are the kinds of business-related questions that folks really need to be able to answer, as they are central to the development of a world-class measurement system.

How can HR professionals develop the needed competencies?

I think that executive education is a huge lever here. Somehow, some way, we need to systematically develop these kinds of skills among the HR leadership. They don’t just fall out of the sky. Historically, HR is unusual in that out of all the professions, it’s one of those areas that doesn’t necessarily have a functional or credentials specification before entry. For example, most firms wouldn’t hire a leader in marketing without a degree in marketing, or finance or accounting, but HR has always had people coming from different areas. That’s not bad – it can be great – but what it says to me is that we need to think more carefully about the capabilities we have, and the functions, given that that is the case. We can’t simply assume that the key competencies are there.

Could you give us an example of a company that’s doing a great job in thinking strategically and measuring its HR?

Microsoft and IBM are doing some terrific things. So is SYSCO, a food service company that delivers food to grocery stores and restaurants that operates mainly in the States. You have to have in your mind’s eye what this company is doing; they have people working in warehouses and in trucks delivering foods to grocery stores and restaurants. So for them, the face of the company is these drivers – not a corporate person, but Jane the driver who has been on this route for four years. What SYSCO has been able to do is really clearly articulate what they are trying to do in the business and to begin to estimate the magnitude of the relationships between the key variables in the process – how much is a great driver worth to us as opposed to an average one? And that knowledge has helped them to push and figure out where to spend their limited training and development dollars because they really know where it will pay off.

Some say it’s a waste of time to try and measure the effectiveness of intangible HR activities. How would you respond?

What I would say is this: the market value of intangibles, R&D, brands, patents, and, primarily, HR, has increased dramatically over the last15 years. An example of the most popular bellwether of intangible assets is the market-to-book ratio – this is the book value of assets divided into market value. Right now, for example, on average, for every dollar shareholders have invested in hard assets, the stock market says that investment is worth $6 or $6.5 (for the Standard and Poors 500). What that means in practical terms is that $5.5 out of every $6.5 isn’t captured on organizational balance sheets. This figure is much larger in high tech companies.

What I take from this statistic is that conventional accounting systems, which were really designed over 100 years ago primarily to meet the needs of large industrial companies, are a miserable failure when we’re interested in managing and valuing knowledge-intensive organizations. We’ve got many more Microsofts being created these days than U.S. steels, and in an economy that’s dominated by intangible assets, we’ve got to develop accounting systems that reflect this new reality. To argue that the process is a waste of time is a bit like saying that the value of a university can be captured by the value of the bricks and the mortar. The real harm here is that conventional HR metrics can lead to a misallocation of people in organizations, which can lead managers to do things of that aren’t in the long term interest of either people or shareholders. Widespread layoffs would come to mind, for example. There is a wealth of literature now that shows that knee-jerk layoffs diminish shareholder value over the long term. But we continue to see them.

It doesn’t mean it’s easy to fix the problem, I hasten to add, that but there’s really an opportunity to make a difference.

What exciting developments do you see on the HR horizon?

I think there is a lot of interest in measurement. I see that people are trying to manage systemically as opposed to linearly. By that I mean that traditionally, compensation managers, benefit managers and recruitment managers in big companies all tended to go their own separate ways and optimize what was in front of them. But I think leaders now are starting to say, ‘You know, we have to manage the bundle. Optimizing all of these separate pieces might leave us with a heap instead of a hole, and so we need to think about how the pieces fit together and whether they really do drive strategy.’ And that’s why people get interested in measurement – because they don’t know how they are doing.

Are you saying that strategic HR is the most significant development we are approaching?

Strategy and strategy execution provide a framework for people to begin to think about what they are doing, and that’s new. Perhaps it shouldn’t be new, but for all the different functional areas of the business, things have gotten so competitive that they have to do it. They aren’t just doing this because they’ve always done it this way, they’re doing it because – and then fill in the blank. Most firms are reasonably comfortable with the idea that knowledge is now what makes the difference. Think of the consulting firm versus a type of commodity business. In that kind of world, you really have to think over the horizon and make sure you really know what you are doing, because if you don’t, somebody else will overtake you.

Your new book, The Workforce Scorecard: Creating a Human Capital Scorecard for the CEO, is coming out next year. How does it advance the model you introduced in your previous bestselling book, The HR Scorecard: Linking People, Strategy and Performance?

The basic difference is that The Workforce Scorecard is designed around senior line managers, and focuses on this idea of strategy execution through measurement and metrics. The HR Scorecard was focused more on senior HR leaders, but the new book is focused on the shared accountability fort he workforce – shared accountability between HR and line managers. We have designed the book to ask, ‘OK, what kind of culture do we need, what kind of employee attributes do we need, how will we get them, what’s the optimal investment in people – not the minimal one – and what types of capabilities and behaviours do we need for A players’ – excellent performers in what we call A jobs, or jobs are those that are really mission critical. We’re really focused on making sure we have A performers in A roles – and on designing measurement systems for strategy execution.

Do you have other key findings from your new book you’d like to share?

Here’s one of the interesting things that we found. If you think of a firm’s strategy having a couple of pieces, one piece is, ‘What business are we in?’ That’s the choice variable, and then the second part is, ‘How do we execute? How do we get that done?’ Firms can go wrong or right on either one of these. What we found is that generally, firms get the choice part right because there are not that many choices to make for most businesses. But the difference between firms lies in the extent to which they execute effectively. We found that strategy execution has six times the economic impact of choice.

If you think about it, the choice variable is, ‘We’re going to be an Internet service provider or we’re going to be in paper products,’ or whatever. Managers usually make those discrete choices, and then they execute them. So execution is a relentless part of the process, whereas choice is kind of discrete: you make it and go along and change or don’t change. However, historically we have focused – both academically and as practitioners – on choice. So that’s a very significant finding.

Strategic Human Resources Management: Challenges and Opportunities

In this interview, IRC Senior Research Associate Mary Lou Coates talks to Dr. David Weiss about the challenges and opportunities in strategic human resources management. Dr. David Weiss is a Partner in the international organizational change and human resources consulting firm of Geller, Shedletsky & Weiss and a Senior Fellow of the Queen’s University Industrial Relations Centre.

Business Strategies and Human Resource Policies

In this interview, IRC Senior Research Associate Mary Lou Coates talks to Lee Dyer about business strategies and human resource policies. His teaching and research interests focus on human resource strategy, human resource planning and decision making, and comprehensive employee relations. Professor Dyer has served as a consultant in the development of human resource strategies, policies, and planning processes in several major organizations and has lectured widely on a variety of human resource management topics in the US, Canada, Europe, Venezuela and Australia. He has published numerous articles, book chapters, books and monographs.

During his visit to Queen’s University to give the annual Don Wood Lecture in Industrial Relations, Professor Dyer kindly agreed to an in-depth interview to share his views on the role of human resource management in today’s business climate.

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