We’re all encouraged to see problems and challenges as opportunities. The only thing is, though, that sometimes there are insoluble opportunities.


After more than 20 years, the HRD conference and exhibition – held, this year, at Olympia in London at the end of April – appears to be presenting its organisers, CIPD Enterprises, a division of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), with some of these insoluble opportunities.


Next year’s event is rumoured to be being re-named – a sure sign of the need for a ‘re-launch’ and ‘re-branding’. Judging by the lack of visitor numbers and the accompanying lack of ‘buzz’ at this year’s exhibition, combined with an exhibitor presence that was much smaller than in previous years, all is not as it used to be in the HRD world.

Compare this with the constant hustle and bustle in the incessant rugby scrum taking place, simultaneously with HRD, in the capacious halls of nearby Earl’s Court that signified InfoSecurity Europe. There was even a sister exhibition on the upper floor which was attracting far more attention than was HRD. There were even TV camera crews on the steps of Earl’s Court!


On this evidence, the HR world and its increasingly poor relation, the learning & development (L&D) sector, have lost out big time – yet again – to the IT world. Information security – notably protecting your organisation’s data from electronic attack and the sophisticated misuse of computer systems – is attracting a lot more interest and investment than is the development of the people who use these systems.


This trend is nothing new. For years, HR and L&D professionals have complained that they were second class citizens in terms of Board level interest and engagement. Accountancy and IT issues have always had a higher priority than HR with ‘C’ level executives. However, the growth of online learning and its bottom line benefits for user organisations appeared to have been going some way to redress the balance – until, that is, the current economic downturn.


Rising unemployment, along with other changing economic conditions, is prompting employers to retreat to their position before the Industrial Training Boards (ITBs) began operating in the late 1960s. Employers disliked the ITBs because they had statutory powers to make them train their staff or pay for not training but poaching skilled staff as required.


Without any moral or statutory need to develop their staff, employers can – in the current labour market conditions – recruit staff with the skills they want. They can then spend their money investing not in people skills through L&D but in the latest exciting technology, which promises to give their business an edge or at least safeguard the competitive edge they feel they already have.


Yet, as we keep being told, ‘people buy people, not products’. If employers – ‘UK plc’ – want to compete effectively, especially in the increasingly competitive world markets, they’ll need employees with world class skills. That’ll mean having to help them develop those world class skills – via L&D – because world class skills don’t just ‘mysterious appear’. They must be developed. Technology is both attractive and doesn’t answer back but not investing in UK plc workforce skills may be more of an insoluble opportunity than merely having to re-think and re-market HRD.