A company will only achieve greatness via the quality of its staff

Firms will reach a level playing field with IT in future and it will be the
way they manage their people that counts

It has been a roller-coaster year for business, with many feeling the impact
of the economic slowdown post 11 September.

Work-life balance, equal pay, e-HR, outsourcing, staff shortages and, more
recently, redundancies, have all been dominant themes.

But is there any real difference as we approach the end of 2001 in these
familiar chestnuts?

I suspect that there is, and that changes ahead will impact on people
management more fundamentally than ever before. Many of the world’s largest and
smartest firms are quietly using the opportunity of flat revenue and weak
demand to get on with implementing new technology to transform their businesses.

When the economy turns many will be able to meet growth with infrastructure
that doesn’t increase costs in parallel. While this may be good news for them
and bad news for their competitors, what will be the impact on people, and what
does it mean for those of us leading the HR function?

I think it may actually put people management at the heart of businesses.
Pretty soon this technology will become a commodity, there won’t be a business
that doesn’t run an e-business software suite, sell over the Web and through
call centres, that hasn’t implemented shared services or outsourced something.
And they will all say that people are their greatest asset even though more
money is spent on software, systems and consulting than on "head
count".

When everyone’s got the same technology, how do you differentiate? It’s like
a game of snap where every card is matched by your opponent, except for one.
The "people" card cannot be bought, copied or imitated at will.

 The best companies will
differentiate themselves through their people. They will have to be the best
trained, best skilled and best managed staff. It will be the people who beat
the competition, not better websites or computers.

Companies that want to be the best will need to hire the best and make the
best out of them. So how will companies differentiate themselves to ensure they
are the employer of choice?

Some believe in paying top dollar, while others feel that a cappuccino maker,
a ping-pong table and the freedom to come to work looking scruffy will do the
trick.

Maybe, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Instead it will be the things that
companies do that aren’t so easy to replicate. Employers will need a
sympathetic and flexible attitude towards work patterns and locations, offer
flexible benefits, pay competitive salaries and share success with staff.

But that’s just for starters and those things are actually pretty easy to
replicate if you’ve a pocketful of money and the desire to spend it quickly. It
is the things that aren’t so easy to replicate that will differentiate, like
the company’s culture, excellent career development, commitment to ongoing
learning, excellence in product development and quality management and customer
service.

The importance of HR could change fast. Either the chief executive will need
to be an outstanding manager of both people and businesses, or he or she will
need someone who can provide the insight and ideas they will need to
differentiate their business – and that person could be the HR director.

Last week, I met the chief executive of a large and well-respected liquid
consumer goods company. His products are not that different from his arch
rivals and he intends to succeed through developing better people, giving
better service to his customers and building better brands as a result.

He used to be its head of HR and the company couldn’t think of anyone better
qualified to run their business. Maybe, it is a sign of things to come.

By Vance Kearney a vice-president of HR for Europe, Middle East and
Africa at Oracle

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