Interview with Wilson Wong – Head of Research @CIPD – looking into the future of HR!

There are some amazing people working on the future of HR, and I the distinct pleasure of getting to know one of the amazing individuals – Wilson Wong. I could write paragraphs showering true accolades on him, but let me get you straight to the interview – and you can come to your own conclusions! 

 1. First of all, tell us a bit about yourself and what you do at CIPD
At CIPD, my official title is Head of Insight & Futures. In short, I head the Institute’s strategic research function.
I’m an economic psychologist (some would say behavioural economist) by training – although I also have degrees in law, finance and critical theory. My interest is the way data can provide insights that support strategic thinking.  At the CIPD, we are building our capability to work with Big data, as well as Small data (data from tightly designed studies answering a clear research question or testing a hypothesis) in order to better understand our members’ needs, the needs of the marketplace and more broadly the drivers shaping the world of work. 
That brings me to the ‘futures’ bit of my job title. I’ve dabbled in futures methodologies in my research career and had the privilege of facilitating a series of scenario planning workshops by Shell with senior civil servants in Malaysia. The aim was to use the methodology for nation building – looking at workforce planning on a grand scale for instance. More recently, I ran a Delphi study on the drivers shaping the employment relationship. You can have a look at the report here – . I believe that by paying attention to potential drivers that are shaping our futures, we can put some shape to possible futures and consequently act where these possible futures highlight potential blind spots in our strategic thinking or opportunities for the organisation to re-imagine its raison d’être.
Just to put the challenge for CEOs in perspective, in 1958, a S&P500 organisation had a lifespan of 61 years. Today it’s about 18 years and if the trends are to be believed, this will continue to shorten ( ).  I can understand the urgency of quarterlies, but if the longview is important for sustainability, long-term value for all of society, I am a strong advocate of using research methodologies to better frame possible futures; futures which short-sighted strategy could preclude for that organisation.
In addition to these strands, I also head the CIPD’s work on HR standards and maintain research active in organisational culture and the psychological contract.  It was though my involvement in the ISO/TC260 HR standards work that I got to know Franz and all the fun, dedicated people who are shaping the future of HR.
2. What are the HR challenges you see coming in 2014 & 2015 that HR professionals should be prepared for? 
It’s difficult to be precise about timescales. Some things you think more pressing can slip and some things I think less important come to the fore because of some crisis or political/ regulatory intervention. This is my purely my opinion based on numerous conversations (and probably personal professional bias in the OD space).
Employee engagement – I think organisations will find it increasingly difficult to engage with their employees and not for want of trying. That is not to say employees won’t turn in sterling work but this is due to their professionalism and commitment to the people they work with.  My argument for this is based on a. organisational inattention to the expectation for individual deals by a wider cross-section of the workforce; b. More diffused sources of knowledge and affiliations available to your knowledge-workers and c. growing mis-trust of leaders (not just those in business)  stemming from the steady feed of reports about executive pay, financial scandals,  failures of governance/ regulatory oversight and a sense that the pain of the leaders’ poor judgment falls unfairly on those below them. The impact of the financial crisis is still not over. In the UK, the Royal Bank of Scotland is still majority owned by the taxpayer. At the peak of the crisis, the UK government provided £1,161 billion in support. As at March 2013, that’s now £141 billion ( ) or approximately £2.2 million for every man, woman and child in the UK. With quantitative easing likely to be withdrawn, imminent interest rate rises in the next few years, little hope of falls in the real tax rate, salaries failing to match rises in inflation and continued visibility of executive rewards, I think organisational engagement will be affected.
Learning and Development – with a global crisis in unemployment in those trying to join the workforce for the first time, much focus has been placed on getting these younger workers ‘job ready’. Everywhere, I see the emphasis on skills, training, apprenticeships ( )etc. I don’t think this re-emphasis on continued learning and development will affect just the younger entrants. As business models evolve, get cannibalised by new technologies and sector boundaries blur and blend, employees need want to stay employable. Employers in their own interests will  pay more attention to the up-skilling of their workforce but will also want to establish that these investments in L & D are paying off in some tangible way. The Valuing your talent programme ( ) is one initiative to create the eco-system conducive to investing in L & D. For HR, this ties in with more attention to your workforce, and building a skills and talent pipeline that will support your business strategy. Measuring the return will be an issue HR will have to grapple with, which brings me to..
Human capital – This is strong on the agenda and I suspect will continue to challenge HR. Linked to the issues above, the definition, management and measurement of your organisation’s human capital will be considered key to continued organisational success. HR will have to acquire the technologies to do these and I feel 2014 and 2015 will signal to the profession the need to deliver the strategies and the people backed up with data.
Technology will, as ever, continue to be an important driver and I am keenly watching how people adapt social media to suit their lifestyles. HR will have to move beyond BYOD policies to understand that social media is changing the manner people access information and interact. I said earlier that diffused knowledge networks affect organisational engagement. Well, just reflect on the way you stay informed in your areas of interest – do you rely on customised feeds, the people you follow on twitter etc.?  I think the technology has still some way to go and HR should view these as cues of how their workforce may view work and working in quite different ways in future.  How will HR policies and procedures cope? Maybe it’s time to re-imagine these in the light of the way people are using social media in their private lives.
3. You always are doing amazing research, so can you share some of what you are working on now?  
You can tell my passion for research on the psychological contract and organisation culture. My current research in this area is on ‘fairness’. ‘The contours of organisational fairness’ is a 3 year research programme between the CIPD and Lancaster University that seeks to map the different fairness lenses available in the academic literature. The synthesis of this multi-disciplinary literature review into fairness ‘lenses’ is available here ( ). In Year 2, we are developing a fairness instrument to try to locate, identify and interpret those contours of (un)fairness in organisational life.  It is hoped that in Year 3, we’ll have the opportunity to study some of the touchstones of unfairness as perceived by employees in a sample of organisations. This will test our original conceptual ‘lenses’ against the experience and perceptions of those employees. It will, I hope, allowing us to develop a framework of organisational (un)fairness to aid a more constructive conversation between manager and their staff. By first establishing differences and distinctions in the ‘lenses’ applied to the ‘unfair’ issue at hand, the conversation can move from recognising this difference, agreeing to a common frame so that the details of the decision can be re-examined using that frame or agreeing to disagree on the lens applied but now knowing why there is a discrepancy in the perceptions of (un)fairness. It’s a very subtle framework to apply and doubtless will require skill but I believe this approach can help strengthen the relationship between employer and employee. It provides a near level playing field for both parties to address tensions in that relationship, taking the conversation to one of discussing the framing of decisions and the choice of supporting considerations rather than being locked in the emotive and personal.
It probably sounds all too geeky but I think those of you in HR who are grappling with organisational culture and change will recognise that such research are fundamental to better understanding the evolving psychological contract and the impact this has on engagement, performance, intention to stay and business continuity.

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