Devonshire House Network is a new organisation, set up in 2013. But it is a new organisation with a difference. DHN seeks to inherit everything that was good about the Devonshire House Management Club. It also seeks to overlay this magnificent legacy with a creative approach to those competitive and changing forces that have gained ascendancy over the recent years.
For it was about forty years ago, that the Devonshire House Management Club was set up. It was set up by a senior group of Personnel Directors at a time of great and unprecedented industrial strife. Memories of Red Robbo, flaming braziers by factory gates, beer and sandwiches at No 10 all seem distant now – and even the Industrial Relations skills that existed then may not be easy to find now.
That first event – on a Saturday evening in 1967 – when more than thirty senior Personnel Professionals gathered at the Royal Albion in Brighton is seen as the time when the Devonshire House Management Club started. The organisers had been able to persuade the Rt Hon Ray Gunter MP, the then Minister of Labour, to come down on a Saturday evening. He chose as his subject ‘The Government and Industry – some problems in the future of British industrial relations’ and amongst the assembled group were names that were to become well known in the field of personnel management over the coming years.
That weekend in 1967 became the cornerstone of Devonshire House. A winning formula was discovered. From that weekend onwards, experienced speakers were invited to come and talk – including Sir George Pollock, Lord Carron, Sir John Cassell, and Sir Geoffrey Howe. In the early days, the specific focus was on industrial relations and in this slipstream came other areas for debate and scrutiny – including, it has to be assumed, changing the profession from Personnel to Human Resources! Top HR Directors were keen to join as it brought them face to face with the best HR strategic brains in the land and in a convivial and very confidential environment.
The next three decades and a bit were the glory years for the DHMC. Only anecdotal evidence is now available but the professional value of interpersonal relationships established is legend. Probably every senior HR Director wanted to join DHMC. They knew that some of the best HR thinking took place there – some formalised but much spontaneous. They also knew that the relationships that were formed within its Chatham House Rule environment were special and privileged.
But, moving into the new millennium, change came. Some of this change was obvious, some inevitable, some was avoidable but most of it was fairly slow. Probably the major change was that the Manufacturing/Engineering component of GDP was about 30% in the DHMC early days – now it’s about 10%. Industrial Relations were no longer front of stage. HR Directors had to learn new skills, be more flexible and nimble and face up to new issues, with the more astute ones recognising that the fundamentals never change.
HR Professionals had to shift in to the areas of empowerment and supportive roles to Line Managers who had to be taught many of the people management skills and legislation. Line Managers were now the leaders and they had to enthuse, inspire and solve problems with the support of their HR resource. Areas such as Talent Management, Learning & Development, Comp & Bens and advisory roles moved centre stage. Importantly, more HR Directors were not staying HR Directors as long as they used to with average age coming down and the gender balance shifting more to female. Developing new skills, very often as part of portfolio careers was the line of travel. It still is the line of travel. And there’s more supply than demand – and likely to be for some time.
What was also happening within DHMC was that the proportion of members who were HR Directors was getting smaller – as well as getting older. Service Providers and Independent Consultants were also becoming a more substantial part of the membership. Not necessarily a bad thing but, certainly not what was intended, nor what DHMC was comfortable in handling.
This is the challenge of change that the Devonshire House Network is going to be seriously exercised with. Networking- apart from the impact of online activity and other technology impacts – has become a bit like speed-dating. Information is available from everywhere – mostly at nil cost – and time is precious. Indeed, for professional couple with children even the most expert jugglers find themselves not able to do all the things they want to. The facelifted DHN model seeks to address all this.