Are you an ostrich or a magpie?

Let me ask you a question. Are you an ostrich or a magpie?

ostrich magpie

I know what you’re thinking. But this isn’t some kind of wacky management training exercise, it’s a serious question about how open your business is to trying out new and different technologies and techniques.

In a recent report, the CBI suggests that low take-up of readily available technologies and management best practices is what’s behind the UK’s poor performance on productivity. And it’s not just about how UK plc shapes up on the global stage. Willingness – or not – to embrace leading edge thinking also explains the striking variations in productivity that exist between UK firms.

So what is it that makes businesses ostriches or magpies? As you might expect, magpies have a keen eye for the sparkly new ideas and shiny bits of kit that will take their business to the next level. They look at what’s working well in other companies and are quick to embrace it. Ostriches, on the other hand, stick to what they know. They find it hard to seek out leading edge practices – and even if they do unearth them, they have difficulty embedding them within their businesses.

Encouraging more firms to behave like magpies is important, says the CBI. It would move the needle on the UK’s sluggish productivity growth and act as a catalyst for growth and innovation. Put plainly, if the UK’s least productive firms raised their productivity to their German equivalent, it would be worth over £100bn to the UK economy.

So if you suspect your firm may be a bit of an ostrich, what can you as an HR professional do to help it seek out the ‘jewels’ that will raise the bar on performance?

1. Embrace the latest technologies

There’s now a wealth of sophisticated technology available to help businesses streamline everything from customer relationship to financial management processes, not to mention specialist software catering for industries from building to banking. But despite the game-changing potential of some of the latest software solutions, companies are still slow to embrace them. Latest figures show, for example, that the proportion of UK firms adopting Cloud computing is nearly 30 percentage points below Europe’s best performers. Some of this reluctance is down to fear. Companies are worried that solutions will be costly and complicated to implement (or have been put off by stories of high profile tech failures) and are quite happy to maintain the status quo. Some of it is down to lack of knowledge of what’s out there and an inward focus, which encourages people to stay in their comfort zone. There’s a real opportunity here for HR to lead the way by embracing the latest HR software systems and demonstrating how automated processes and up-to-the-minute, easily accessible data can save time, improve efficiency and support better quality decision-making.

2. Tap into new talent

We are in a highly flexible labour market, where people move rapidly between roles and the average job tenure for a Millennial employee is just two years. One of the best ways of learning about what’s working well in other organisations is to tap into the knowledge of new employees coming into the business. Sadly, that’s often not how we see it. Recruitment and induction processes are typically geared around finding people who will ‘fit’ with the current culture and in educating them in ‘the way we do things around here’. HR can help to support a more open, innovative culture by looking closely at talent acquisition processes and making subtle changes that will shift the business away from ‘carbon copy’ recruitment. This means looking closely at everything from the way candidates are sourced and the wording on job advertisements to the way managers interview and select people for their teams.

3. Encourage collaboration

The CBI report, ‘From Ostrich to Magpie: Increasing business take-up of proven ideas and technologies’, acknowledges that competition can sometimes be a barrier to the spreading of innovation. We are worried that if we tell everyone what we’re doing, they will head off into the sunset with our best ideas. The truth, however, is that collaboration helps us share knowledge and best practice and can often lead to the discovery of synergies, potential partnerships and the breeding of new ideas. As a profession, HR is naturally collaborative – witness the many networks, forums and high-quality conferences that are available to help practitioners learn, develop and pick up on the latest thinking. The challenge for HR people is to help the rest of the business develop that mindset. Setting up internal social portals which allow people to collaborate on projects across departments is one way to spark a more collaborative approach, as is making an outward-looking focus and participation in external networks a competence which employees are recognised and rewarded for.

4. Build leadership skills

Openness to new ideas and willingness to embrace new technologies needs to start from the top. Leaders need to show not just that they are aware of technological developments, but that they also understand how technology will fundamentally change the way people work and the way the organisation carries out its work going forward. As a recent article in Harvard Business Review points out, it’s not just about paying attention to big picture trends and patterns – leaders also need to look at the implications of these trends in more detail and pinpoint the ones that will really help the business raise its game.  This more outward facing, ‘magpie’ type approach can be a challenge for some leaders, who will need to make significant shifts in their own mindset, as well as adopt management practices more suitable for a fast-paced, digital world. HR’s role is to design and deliver the kind of management development that will equip leaders for success in today’s turbulent and ambiguous world.

5. Focus on performance

It’s also important to recognise that cutting-edge technology and new-style management practices won’t deliver the goods alone. There needs to be an equal emphasis on managing performance and helping people be the best they can possibly be. HR needs to help the organisation move away from old-style performance management processes into more flexible, fluid approaches that allow for on-going feedback, just-in-time development and regular reviews of goals and objectives. The technology is available to support this process – but managers also need help in understanding the best way to maximise the potential of their people.

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