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What next for the IPA Best Practice Network?

What next for the IPA Best Practice Network?

26th February 2010

The IPA’s Best Practice Network is going from strength to strength. In this article, Derek Luckhurst looks back at the reasons for establishing the Network and the challenges it will be addressing in the coming year

For those working in the employment relations area, the question is always ‘why aren’t more people doing the right thing?’ Why aren’t more people making the most of their representatives, engaging their employees, working in partnership?

There are many answers to that question, but one is that those who are instrumental in developing, advocating and driving forward best practice rarely have the opportunity to meet to share ideas and gain support from their peers.

It was this belief that encouraged the IPA to set up the Best Practice Network: A network for representatives – union and non union – to share what worked and what didn’t in information & consultation and workplace partnership. We knew that representatives felt they needed their own network – for non-union representatives no such networking opportunity existed, and the union representatives who initially attended felt just as strongly that they needed an opportunity to network with like-minded people.

When the Network was set up in 2005 the employment relations framework for UK workplaces was about to go through a significant change with the introduction of the information and consultation regulations. At the IPA, we weren’t sure what this would look like in practice, or how workplaces and employees would adapt. For us, the BPN was an opportunity not just to share best practice, but to innovate, and develop it.

Over a period of time, the Network has started to deliver on these objectives. Regular attendees from United Welsh, Standard Life, Citi/Egg, Bank of Ireland, Prudential, Steria, Accenture, Forensic Science Services, Avon, Skandia, Kellogg and Anchor Homes have provided an entirely different perspective on the importance of good consultation arrangements to studies such as WERS and others which, quite understandably, have drawn attention on the mediocre.

The importance of the IPA’s Best Practice Network is that it has shown three things: That consultation is directly linked to workforce engagement; that even the most basic communication-based forums can successfully develop into the “one in twenty” – the ratio of good practice to the average; and that elected employee representatives can learn from trade union representatives and, to the surprise of some, vice versa.

The Network aims to meet three times a year and hosting privileges are shared amongst the participating organisations. Agendas are developed between the IPA and the regular participants and always cover relevant topics relating to the world of work generally and specific issues that have been identified. Representatives face a huge range of challenges, and the forum’s discussions reflect this. Over the last few years, for example, a great deal of information has been shared about pensions consultations as well as developing tools such as the 15 Strategic Questions, used by representatives in their interactions with senior managers to produce the high-quality communication that enhances workforce engagement.

From this year, the Network will extend an invitation to one of the three meetings to employee relations, human resources and line managers who aspire to improve their consultation and partnership arrangements. Although other networks exist for this group, the IPA’s Best Practice Network is unique in the way in which it brings together the union and non-union participants to look at the key issues facing everyone in the UK workplace – this will be particularly important post-election.

What next for the Network?

In the face of increasing disillusionment with the information & consultation regulations and a move away from partnership, one of the key questions facing practitioners on all sides is; what is the future of these ways of working?

At the last meeting of the BPN the attendees addressed this question reaching the, perhaps obvious, conclusion that it still matters and it is still needed. This was evidenced by their own experience but also by the recently published MacLeod Report which highlighted the real cost of disengaged staff and showed how representative structures can play a vital role in re-engaging them. It is no coincidence that several of the Network’s organisations were specifically mentioned in that report.    

Although it is quite clear that a “one size fits all” approach will not meet the specific challenges that face forums, unions and their representatives, the Network is growing in confidence that it can make a major contribution to resolving them. Looking forward, the group have identified four such challenges that need to be addressed; dealing with conflict, changing how representatives are perceived, the relationship between the Network and trade unions and building relationships with managers. As it turned out, more opportunities than barriers were identified while addressing these issues and it is worth outlining some of the discussions and conclusions that transpired.

Future challenges for the Best Practice Network

Dealing with conflict appears, on the surface, to be inexorably linked to the behaviours of the participants during consultation and negotiating meetings. Good behaviours are, of course, very important. However, as the Network discussed this in more detail, it became increasingly apparent that establishing shared understanding around the issue that causes the conflict is also of major importance. For example, one issue that seems to cause more conflict than any other is the question of time-off for representatives to perform the role effectively. If the representative and their manager can establish a shared understanding, the behaviours tend to take care of themselves. Endorsement of the importance of the role from senior managers is vital but it is not enough – line managers need to see evidence of the value of the role. A command and control instruction from senior managers will not fix the problem as it leads to lip-service and a build up of resentment which, in turn, leads to more conflict. A solution is to recognise the contribution line managers can make to the effectiveness of any employee representatives on their team, and to adjust line managers appraisal objectives and targets to include supporting the employee representative in their role.

This issue is linked to the next – that of how representatives are perceived. For some time, the IPA has argued that representatives need leadership skills in order to become role models. Many of the representatives who regularly attend the Best Practice Network meetings have received comprehensive training by the IPA in order to develop those skills. The meetings themselves then help the attendees to gain the knowledge that breeds the confidence to actually use and display those skills. This is in direct contrast to the majority of representatives who might receive an initial days worth of training – which is valuable in itself – but do not receive any follow-up training or up-skilling. The problem with this lack of follow-up training is that expectations of the representative may be unreasonably high from both staff and managers. If those expectations are not managed and subsequently met, the perception of the value of the representative is going to suffer accordingly.
Currently, only a few trade union representatives attend the Best Practice Network meetings. In the IPA’s experience, trade union representatives can benefit from greater training on how their role can link to the workforce engagement agenda or, indeed, how to ask the difficult strategic questions before moving into the detail. This is not a criticism but there is no doubt that the regular attendees feel strongly that the Network has a great deal to offer union representatives and that an increase in their attendance would be very welcome.   

Building relationships with managers is, arguably, the key to keeping the whole subject of information, consultation and partnership relevant to organisations. It sounds straightforward to do this but, if it were, it would not be such a recurring theme during training sessions or discussions about how to embed high quality information, consultation and partnership working. Essentially, it is about building trust. As with so many issues, a shared understanding of each other's role is important. For example, the IPA has received a great deal of feedback that managers perceive that representatives are there to “catch them out” or “get people off” – many representatives similarly report that managers are there to “get one over on them”. There are some relationships that are built on this mutual suspicion and it is easy to see how this might develop. How to overcome it is not so easy but the Network believes that it can develop ways of helping to do so.

In order to meet this challenging agenda, there are a number of plans being discussed by the Network. One is to provide IPA member organisations’ representatives with a series of “How To Do” documents which, in conjunction with training and the on-going exchange of ideas will help to ensure these issues are addressed rather than left on the “too difficult to deal with” pile. To help this happen, the IPA is developing a member’s only area of its website which will include an on-line forum for representatives and other practitioners to problem solve and refine ideas. In turn, this will inform further innovation which can be shared with a wider audience. In short, the IPA’s Best Practice Network has a great deal to say on the future of information, consultation and partnership. It is already one of the most informed voices in the employee relations area – the challenge is to make sure more people hear it.       

For more information on the Best Practice Network, contact IPA training and development director, Derek Luckhurst on derek.luckhurst@ipa-involve.com