Six key takeaways from the 2023 CIPD conference

Authors: Bar Huberman and Robert Shore


The people profession is operating in a "VUCA world on steroids" (VUCA = volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity). So said CEO Peter Cheese as he welcomed around 1,300 delegates - including over 100 from Iceland - to the 2023 CIPD conference in Manchester.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the launch of ChatGPT in November 2022 and its selection as the 2023 "word of the year" by dictionary publisher Collins, a major theme of this year's gathering was AI.

Here we pick out six key takeaways from the programme.

1. AI will bring about mass redeployment rather than mass unemployment

The question is no longer whether a machine can exercise "judgment" or act on "intuition" in the way that a human expert can, said economist Daniel Susskind in the opening session, but whether souped-up contemporary AI can deal with uncertainty better than a mere homo sapiens 1.0. (The answer, by the way, is it can.) Hence change is coming to all professions, including those requiring the highest levels of expertise.

But there is no reason to despair: in the future there will still be jobs, but they will be made up of non-routine tasks that are hard to automate. As such, we need to think of education not just as something that you do at school, but as a continuing commitment throughout your working life. Upskilling and redeployment will be key to the career arc of the workforce of tomorrow.

Microsoft HR director Claire Logan said that at her organisation AI was viewed as a "copilot" and that the most important thing was to retain a growth mindset.

2. Build a culture of continuous learning to keep up with the pace of change in skills needs

The balance between the skills that organisations need and the skills workers have is out of sync and, according to Paul Devoy, CEO of Investors in People, employers need to take matters into their own hands. To add to this, Linda Holbeche, adjunct professor at Imperial College London, said things are moving very quickly so it is vital that organisations have a culture of learning.

St Ann's Hospice is doing just that. Gill Turnpenney, their director of people, said that to ensure people do not forget what they have learned through their Inspire Leadership Programme, they are given toolkits to use and a project to complete afterwards.

At Mersey Internal Audit Agency (NHS), in addition to their annual leadership programme, they have quarterly sessions looking at soft skills.

Hays Travel has developed the 11 characteristics of a great leader, and managers continually learn and are stretched beyond their comfort zone. Twice a year they meet to challenge themselves on where they are with their journey towards being a great leader.

3. More needs to be done to upskill middle managers, who are central to engaging workers

Dame Irene Hays explained that, at Hays Travel, the manager at each store effectively runs their own business, and they have the biggest impact on the organisation's people and customers.

Similarly, at the keynote panel on equity, diversity and inclusion on day two of the conference, Chami Dhillon from Kingfisher said that, in some of their stores, people work only on Saturdays, so the CEO might mean very little to these workers compared with what their line manager means to them.

Pauline Hogg from Arla said that middle managers set the tone of the organisation. What they do and what they don't do really matters. At Arla, managers are asked to show up in a certain way: as a "player", rather than as a "passenger" along for the ride, or even a "prisoner"; and as an "amplifier".

According to the Mersey Internal Audit Agency (NHS), most people they work with have great technical skills, so the organisation works on improving relationship skills, and they set expectations for managers in their PDPs on managing well.

4. If your organisation's current recruitment methods are failing to achieve the desired results, think about tapping into new talent pools

Speakers from St Giles Trust and engineering and construction firm J Murphy & Sons offered an inspirational portrait of the benefits of investing in the UK's prison population.

Ex-offenders represent a comparatively untapped source of talent for employers, and prison offers chances to gain useful qualifications if organisations go into prisons to alert inmates to future employment opportunities at an early point in their incarceration. Lack of confidence rather than the fact they have a previous conviction is often the biggest barrier to getting into work for many former prisoners, so potential employers need to demonstrate that applications from them will be welcome.

Speakers said employers should try to see beyond the conviction - a simple DBS check gives no context to explain why people have ended up in prison (eg poverty, family breakdown, trauma), often for very short periods of time. To integrate ex-offenders into the workforce successfully, Mindy from St Giles Trust said organisations need to create a culture where people can talk about their situations without fear of being judged.

The New Futures Network website and Working Chance's Hiring with Conviction guide are useful starting points in an organisation's journey to recruiting and supporting people with convictions.

5. Trust is now a key building block to unlocking employee engagement

Sarah Blake, HR director at TalkTalk, reminded us that we trusted our people to keep running businesses from home during COVID, so if you are telling them to come back to the workplace full time, they're hearing that you don't trust them.

People's expectations around how they are managed have also changed. They will no longer accept a "command and control" style of leadership, so we need to create a positive culture based on trust.

Trust is important when it comes to the HR department too. Rick Lee from Wilmott Dixon said that there are three elements when it comes to building people's trust in the HR department: competence - do we know what we're talking about?; credibility - do we do what we say we're going to do?; and chemistry - it helps if you like the people you work with.

And, even if HR believes it has built effective systems and initiatives to engage people, what if people don't trust them? Pauline Hogg at Arla said that sometimes employees trust their peers more than leaders, so you need to think differently about how to engage people in these initiatives. Timothy Craddock from Network Rail said that leaders need to be sincere and do what they say.

6. Listening to employees is essential to future success

In the Making "Work" Work session, panellists discussed that businesses have options to support people through the cost-of-living crisis, even if money is tight, but the key to making a success of this support is to give people what they want by asking them, and not take a paternalistic approach.

The challenges of supporting a multi-generational workforce came up a number of times during the conference, but a key takeaway for employers is not to assume what people want because of the age bracket into which they fall - many people do in fact want the same things. Again, the key is to involve people in how to engage them.

This approach is also true for managing AI. In the panel session on the responsible approach to AI and automation, Rob McCargow, technology impact leader at PwC, acknowledged that, when technology implementation hasn't been successful in the past, it came down to a lack of co-creation with the workforce. PwC has collaborated with the workforce by crowdsourcing use cases for AI. The panellists also discussed the importance of involving diverse teams in the governance of AI - this will help to navigate challenges around equality.

Related resources

Approaches to recruitment and retention: XpertHR survey 2023

Safeguards for using ChatGPT and other bots for HR 

Designing and conducting effective employee engagement surveys

How COOK is helping people overcome barriers to employment and get back into work