HR in Focus

Episode One - Deborah Blackman

Episode Summary

Professor Deborah Blackman is the Head of School of Business and Professor in Public Sector Management Strategy at the University of New South Wales Canberra and kindly joins us in this episode to talk about how to measure success. She highlights the importance of having conversations early and upfront to enable us to set up what we think success will look like at the end of a project in order to track your success along the way. She shares a few tips on how to make sure everyone is on the same page from the beginning of a project. Deborah also talks to us about movement measures to ensure we can track success along the way and make adjustments as needed to ensure we are heading in the right direction.

Episode Transcription


Voiceover: Hello, and welcome to HR in Focus, a podcast series for HR professionals across the public sector. In this series, we continue to share and highlight HR best practice and innovative ways we are uplifting capability in public sector organisations. This podcast has been recorded remotely during COVID lockdown. 

Craig Moore: Professor Deborah Blackman is the Head of the School of Business and Professor in Public Sector Management Strategy at the University of New South Wales, Canberra. Deborah is a member of the APS HR Professional Streams Working Group, adding a valuable academic perspective to the 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 UNSW, and juggling various research projects through her work with the Public Service Research Group. She's kindly taken some time out of her busy schedule to be with us and share some of those insights with us today on HR in Focus. Welcome, Deborah.

Deborah Blackman: Thanks, Craig. It's great to be here.

Craig: So, when you're working with a group, what do you think are the most important things to think about at the outset for project success?

Deborah: Well, it's easy to say that we know what success looks like, but it's amazing how often we don't actually talk about it at the beginning of a project. And so, what we do is we really try and say to people, OK, what do you think that word means for this group at this time? And more importantly, if we were watching people at the end of whatever this project is, how would we know, how would we be able to identify new behaviours, different things that are happening? And that helps us then work out what we would be measuring. Because if we're not careful, we start out with a preconception and we start to look for the wrong things.

And I'm going to give an example. We've been working with a range of organisations. And one of the ones I've been working with recently is the ATO, hence the invitation to here. And I was very fortunate to be part of the development Professional HR Stream. And so, one of the questions that you'd think about is, well, how will we know if that's actually been effective? And obviously, you might say, well, there'll be more people in the HR area. Well, that's OK. But that's what we might describe as a lag indicator. It's something which we look back on, but it's not telling you if anything thing's actually changed. And so, one of the things you're looking at is, well, why do we want a professional stream? What is it that we think will be different because we have a professional stream? And those were the kind of questions that we were asking ourselves. If we have more profession, then it will be that there will be more trust in the ideas and people will come to them more quickly. So, when we were doing some work on business partnering, we said, what we need to look at is, when do people engage the HR business partners? Are they coming because it's already been a problem and now they're coming because they can't think of anything else to do? Or are they coming right at the beginning because they know that they are a trusted professional human being who will be really helpful, and so, they want their advice right at the start? That's what you want to be seeing, all of those kind of things. Where were they invited to take part? Which committees are they invited to as opposed to, oh, I suppose we'll have to include them? There's a whole different way of thinking about them. And that's what we were talking about. It'll be about seeing how the business reacts with them and interacts with them. And that's how we'll know we're being successful. And once you do that, then you say, OK, what does that mean? Well, obviously it's about the development and the training of the HR profession, but then it's also about how do we develop them and support them that they know how not just do HR, but work with the business. And that's a different set of skills completely. And those are going to need to be important as well. So, I think it's about really thinking upfront, what will it look like when it's working? 

So, my favourite questions are always, what will it look like if it's working and why could it not be other? As in, why should it be done this way, not another way? And asking people to have those conversations, which they often assume. So, one of the things that happens is people go into a room. They have a long conversation. They're very busy on getting things done. And you know what it's like? We all have meetings and we want to make sure that we do the things that need to be done, and do it as efficiently as possible, and get off the zoom call as it is at the moment, and get off the team's call. But actually, it turns out that everybody was having a different conversation. One of the things I love to do when I'm not chairing, obviously it's different if I'm chairing. But if I'm at a meeting and I'm not chairing, I'll sometimes say, can everybody just write down what we are actually talking about? What this would look like if it was working? And they kind of sigh at me. And I go, no, no, let's take knowledge management, or business partnering, or HR profession, or whatever that core thing is we're talking about. Can we all just write down what it means? And they all again sigh at me. And then we write it down and then we share all of those. And we realise that however many people in the room, all very busy having a conversation, but not about the same thing. 

So, it might sound obvious to ask these questions at the beginning, but actually, they're really important questions, and they’re ones we don't ask often enough. And it's about slowing down to speed up. It seems that it's gonna be slower because you're having conversations about why we are here almost, but in the end, it means you only have to have the performance conversations later once, because everybody's on track as to what it's going to be about. So, I don’t know if that makes sense. But hopefully, that's a good place for us to start.

Craig: Now, I know you talk about measuring movement and I've heard this great saying, you should measure what you treasure, but what does it really mean and why does it matter?

Deborah: OK, well, it matters because as you said, measure what you treasure and the other one of course is, you get what you measure. And the situation is if we set measurements and we set targets, that's what people aim for. So, when I was asked to have a look at the implementation plan for the professional group, I was saying, OK, some of these things we can control. So, one of the problems with measurement, and I tend to like indicators as a word, rather than measurement, it shouldn't be about the default setting about numbers, but people tend to get that way. So, you'll see measures, which are things like, well, we should make sure that 80% of a group is trained. At the moment we've got measurements for COVID, x number, now, that's great because we know what that does. So, it's good to have a measurement of 80% or 90% because we know that by having that measurement, it's actually an indicator of something else. It's an indicator of potential safety, potential movement, potential what will happen with the health service, et cetera. But what we've got to think about is that measurement, a useful one. 

And the reason I talk about movement, is there's a tendency to measure what we think is going to be the output. So, how many people we're going to have trained, or it might be about if we do this, we think we'll have greater retention. I mean, our retention measures are big in organisations. And you think, well, that's lovely, but that's quite a long-term goal. How will you know if your system is going in the right direction? And so, one of the things about thinking about movement is about saying, right, we need to see if things are moving in order to be able to say, are they going in the right direction? So we can pull something back sooner if it's not doing what it needs to do. So, I often ask people like, how will you know if there's a shift? Not the endpoint, but how will you know if you're going in the right direction? Because if you don't know that, if you haven't got indicators around that kind of movement, then you can go a long time before you realise there's a problem.

But on the other hand, you don't want to have things where... There's a very well known story about quality improvement in one organisation, and they spent an enormous amount of money on putting in a new quality improvement process. And they said, it will take three years for this to work. But what they didn't say is by the end of year one, you should see x happening. And by the end of year two, you should see this happening. And so, they got a new CEO, the thing, and they said, well, has it worked yet? And they said, well, no, they told us it would take three years. Well, how will we know if it's working? Well, we won't really. So, the whole thing got pulled out and they did another one because nobody knew what was going to be happening on the way, with enough confidence to wait three years in case it will work. So, that's why movement's so important. It's about saying, how will we be confident that if we wait longer, something that we want is going to be the outcome?

Craig: Kind of reminds me of another little liner, if you want it badly, you'll get it badly.

Deborah: Yes, yes. You've really got to be very sure that the way that you're setting up your measurements is the thing that you want. So, one of my colleagues, Professor Sharon O'Neil, does a lot of work in the work, health, and safety areas. And she talks a lot about useful indicators in measurements, and things that are not. So, for example, one that is loved by many, many people is downtime, injury downtime. And she said, Well, that's great, but that only gives you a tiny percentage of things that are going wrong, where actually somethings happen so that people can't work. What about all the things that could actually be creating all sorts of other issues but aren't part of that? And are in fact, probably having a much bigger impact on the organisation. And she asks them to try and think of other indicators. Now, they find that much harder, because of course, downtime is really easy to measure - we couldn't work for this period of time. And that's one of our problems. It's the problem around training and development.

We can easily tell you how many days you've been trained. It's much harder to tell you if it's had any impact on behaviour. And so, that's why if you're not careful, you go, oh, we've done 15 days of training. And you go, that's lovely. Did anything happen, except everybody had a nice lunch? What happened? What is different? And that comes back to movement. How will I know if they're bringing that development, that training, those ideas? How will I be able to see that when they come back? 

And also, when you're thinking about movement, are you giving them space to create movement? One of the things is people come back and they go, oh, they didn't use it. And you go, well, fine. But how did you help them do that? And again, the reason I like the analogy of movement is sometimes you have to give things a bit of a push to get things going. Is it reasonable to always ask the individuals to do that themselves? Or do you need to say the reason why we've asked you to become a professional or we've asked you to do development is because we think it'll be useful.

Now, how do we support you to become part of that ongoing change, that ongoing movement? And so, it's about whose - accountability for these things is a really useful thing to start to think about.

Craig: Great example with the indicators. And, I suspect Deborah, that there's no one size fits all.

Deborah: Absolutely not. And that's part of the difficulty. You can quite understand that even inside an organisation, people would like things to be consistent. But that's assuming that all the parts of an organisation are the same. And yes, one size does not fit all. 

One of the useful things I think is to think about the context that you are in. And we tend to think, for example, people talk about health or government as a context, and that's true, but actually, it's more of a professional in industry. What's for me, a more useful way of thinking about this, is to start to say, well, what kind of activities are we doing? How timebound are we? What type of resources, both financial and human, do we need to be able to do this? Do we have those resources? When we say that people are our most important asset, for example, are we actually treating them that way or not? What are the ways that we can demonstrate that? So, what are the constraints? What's the context that we have in this particular situation and what does that mean for how we can implement something?

One of the things that I advocate very strongly is being very careful as to whether we really need a new policy or structural change, or whether what we need to do is say, we need to think a different way of implementing what we have. And the advantage of implementing what we have differently, is a, it's much less time consuming, but also you are much more likely to be able to build on strength. So, you can start to say, right, what have we got that is working? And then how do we make that stronger? And how do we encourage people to start to behave the way we want to, they're much more likely to do if we build on strength versus continually saying we don't like that, we'd like something else. 

So, if we think that way, if we think about our context, our current situation, we can then implement a new way of working more effectively. And we can see that with what happened last year with COVID. It was amazing how people took what they were good at and made it work in a different context because they were given the freedom to do that.

Craig: Yeah. I was gonna ask you about COVID and in the way how we think. Because it was kind of like out of nowhere left field, we hadn't really kind of, in fairness, prepared for something and yet it's probably made us a bit more innovative and challenged us in our ways of thinking. Have you noticed anything specific?

Deborah: Yes. It's a really interesting one. And the answer I think is yes and no. So, I spent quite a lot of last year being asked, now that things will never be the same again, what will happen instead? And I kept saying, well, I'm not convinced that it will never be the same again, unless we want it to not be the same again. And that might sound like an odd thing to say, but we have heard organisations talking about needing to snap back, or go back to where we were, or get back to things. And the minute you hear those words, you know there are issues. So, there's no doubt that we have the potential at the moment to work very differently. 

I was involved with a project which was looking at new ways of working, which is a really important thing. But people keep defaulting to what I would describe geography - how many days in the office? How many days at home? Should people be in the office? What are those constraints about being flexible? Flexible tends to be end up being about where rather than when. And so, new ways of working, if we're not careful is defaulting to geography, location, as opposed to actually, what have we learned about the nature of work and what would be done better together, and what actually do we really not be together for? So, there's one organisation that we were talking to when we were doing the project, and they've run out of space at the office. And rather than getting a bigger office space, they've said, right, what we're going to do is one team's coming in for two weeks and another team stays at home and then they're going to swap. And so, what they then do is they say, right, what is a really important work that we need to do together as a team for the two weeks when we are in the office? And then what are we going to prep everybody to be able to do when they go back home and get those things done so they can come back together? So, they change the way they talk about their work and the way they plan their work. And they found that it's much more effective for them 'cause the thinking work gets done when people need to go away and think, then they come back and they do the integrating, the discussion. And they've changed the way they measure the outputs. So, coming back to measurement, it's less about how much have you done this week? It's more about, are we ready to do the next thing? What will the output need to look like to be able to move to our next stage? So, a very different way of thinking about how they work. And so, I think what COVID has given us is a huge opportunity to talk about that. 

The ACT government, for example, is looking very much at different ways of supporting flexible working. It's got new knowledge worker focused hubs. How does that work? The Department of Health have gone for activity-based working. But theirs is really different because a lot of people do that and they want to restrict the number of seats. Actually, they've got more than ever, but they want to encourage different ways of coming together. So, I think the answer is we're in this opportunity where we could do things, but it will depend on what people want to do.

Craig: Look, some fabulous insights there, Deborah. And I think the challenge is there particularly for those, for example, who are working from home. So, it's a bit like, well, we change our thinking, we still get to where we need to be, we can see the outcome that we want to achieve. It's a bit like saying, well, I can't go from a to b, but I'll go from a to c, and I'll still get it done.

Deborah: I think for me, one of the things I was thinking about when you were kind of recapping about flexible working, one of the difficulties in all of this is if we're going to have new ways of working, if we're going to have new success factors, all of those things, the people who have to work the hardest, and everybody thinks it's a senior leadership, and they do have to work hard. But I do think we have to really focus on our middle management layers. Because they are the people who are doing the majority of conversations with their teams. They are the people who are trying to change actual practices everyday. And so, they're the people who are actually finding new ways of working, working flexibly. They're the people who are having to not only find their own way of working, but they're having to help their team do the same thing. And a lot of the time, there's an assumption that they can do that without necessarily really talking through what does this mean? What does this look like? And it comes back almost to the beginning. What does success look like? Success for new ways of working, success for the HR professional group, all of those things will be dependent on really supporting the mid-layer of the organisation, to know what you want to be different, why you want it to be different and how are you going to support them to enable that? So, one of the difficulties for many people is that they've often been promoted because they're technically very expert, but they've not necessarily got a lot of experience around managing people. And then suddenly, that's got actually considerably harder. And it's not because people don't do a great job at home, because they do, but it's because we've got to rethink, how do we know they're doing a great job home? And so, there's quite a lot of differences in, again, back to indicators, how are we going to talk about outputs and indicators and all of those sorts of things, when historically we have this lovely assumption that if somebody was in the office doing a lot of work, it was all going well? Maybe, maybe not. But now, we can't make that assumption. And so, what are the conversations that people need to have to be able to work with their team? What are the conversations they've never had? 

The people, when they hear me talk about this, are, oh, you mean the difficult conversation? And it’s not - the people when they hear me talk about this say “oh you mean the difficult conversation” and I say no, I don't mean the difficult conversation. I mean, any conversation that is something that needs to have a clear outcome. Doesn't have to be difficult. But it's about saying, let's talk about this before you do it. What will this be like? Why will it be like that? How are we going to do these things? 

And coming back to the professional stream, it would be about saying, well, what is it that we want from our HR professional stream? And how will middle managers, for example, feel better supported if we have that? What does that look like? How can we support them to then know what to ask for? So, I think that's a really big issue as we move forward.

Craig: Professor Deborah Blackman, thank you very much for your time and your insights. Grateful for being part of our HR in Focus series.

Deborah: Thank you very much.


Voiceover: Thanks for listening to HR in Focus. Remember to join GovTEAMS, to learn more about the APS HR Professional Network. It's a great way to connect and collaborate with your HR colleagues.