CIPD chief executive opens Annual Conference by emphasising professionalism and the power of L&D

The rise of populism and the ongoing scandals surrounding sexual harassment in the workplace mean it has never been more important for HR professionals to have a voice in high-level discussions inside organisations, CIPD chief executive Peter Cheese told delegates as he opened the organisation’s Annual Conference and Exhibition today.

As the curtain rose on the 70th Annual Conference in Manchester, Cheese drew a parallel between the desire for nationalised industries to become better employers that first led to the development of modern HR, and the ongoing need to promote what he called ‘good work’ in the modern world.

“Good work is not a new thing – we’ve been talking about it for a long time – but the debate now needs to become central to the national agenda,” said Cheese. Populist politics was partly a response, he said, to individuals feeling disempowered at work, while sexual harassment scandals in Westminster and beyond show we still have not embedded the concept of respect into our organisations.

“HR has to have the confidence to challenge and engage,” said Cheese. “With all this technology and all this change that is happening, how can we make sure we’re getting the best out of our people? HR has to be part of these debates.”

He unveiled several core themes that form part of the CIPD’s ongoing Professional Standards Framework, including the idea that HR should be principles-led, evidence-based and outcomes-driven. Using evidence, he said, was a particularly crucial aspect of being an HR professional: “There’s a whole movement around evidence-based management, not just in HR. If we’re honest about it, we have all tended to follow fads and trends at work, and we need to ask where the evidence is… and whether we understand what we want to achieve and how the interventions we’re making are helping drive them.”

Cheese also said he expected learning and development to become increasingly vital over the next few years, given rapid advances in technology that may displace workers and change the skills landscape. “If we can’t predict all the jobs [of tomorrow] we know we’re going to have to reskill and develop people. L&D is going to be a strategic capability for businesses, and we will need a real understanding of the science of learning.”

Cheese was followed onto the stage by Baroness Martha Lane Fox, the founder of lastminute.com and former government digital champion. She made an impassioned plea to make technology more accessible across society, and criticised the lack of diversity in the technology sector on both sides of the Atlantic.

“I believe we made a huge error in gender balance in the tech sector – it is astoundingly awful,” said the peer, who pointed out that there were currently 600,000 tech vacancies in the UK that could not be filled without a commitment to inclusion. “It’s incredible that we have replicated the hierarchies of industries of the past in an industry that we started from scratch.

“Part of digital understanding is challenging people from more diverse backgrounds to be part of the sector.”

Lane Fox also recounted lessons she had learned from her career, including early hiring mistakes when she first started her hugely popular travel website. “One of the dangers of being a founder is that you tend to recruit people who are a bit like you,” she said.

“It’s quite dangerous to build a company just with people you like. You should look for people who are spikier than that.”