PM pushes HR to centre stage

CBI Conference: Susan Anderson, director of HR policy at the CBI, welcomes
Tony Blair’s focus on improving the UK’s skills base

The importance of HR to the future of business and the UK economy moved up
the corporate agenda again after taking centre stage at this year’s CBI annual
conference.

Increasing employee skills, improving workforce development and raising
productivity were all headline messages delivered at this year’s conference by
some of the country’s biggest political figures.

It’s little wonder that Susan Anderson, the director of HR policy at the
CBI, openly punched the air with delight as many of the key issues affecting
the profession were cited by the Prime Minister.

Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown told delegates that the UK must
increase its skills base and promised the Government would ease the regulatory
burden, especially from Europe.

HR can often be overlooked at the major business conferences, but this time
skills, pensions, workplace legislation and European red tape – all major HR
issues – came to the forefront.

"People issues are completely central to business and that’s the
message that Tony Blair gave us. HR should be playing a role in ensuring people
are being managed properly and that the right people are in the business,"
Anderson told Personnel Today.

Anderson said the conference could herald a new awareness of the importance
of good people management and hopes the Government will get more involved in
some areas.

"It was interesting that the Prime Minster talked about employers
working with the Government and coming up with genuine solutions – not just
problems. I think the focus now is partnership to get these issues resolved.

"Last year we were all talking about skills and now 12 months later,
we’ve heard Tony Blair put it at the top of his business agenda," she
said.

Skills message

Anderson believes that Blair’s skills message is something that employers
must heed and that starts with looking at their own organisation at a grass
roots level.

"The real challenge is working out what competencies employers need so
they can always have the right people in the right jobs.

"I think there’s been some complacency and there are definitely
performance and skills issues. Some companies need to get back to basics and
think about the competencies they need and how they can get them," she
said.

Employers must also start to improve the quality of line management and look
at the way business deals with its poor performers.

"There are some examples of best practice, but there has also been some
sloppy management thinking within companies," she said.

Regulation was, and always will be, one of the main gripes brought up at the
conference and, although Anderson admits it seems to be a perennial complaint,
she was pleased to hear Blair mention some of the red tape that is problematic
for HR.

"It was good to hear Blair list some of the directives that the HR
profession has to deal with. It’s important to look at EU regulations because
they’re often too rigid and inflexible for employers to work with."

Enforcement issue

Anderson said the argument was not with regulation itself, more the way it
is enforced. She said domestic regulations were often disliked by business in
principle, but were much less damaging than EU laws because business is at
least fully consulted.

"The stuff from Europe always seems the most difficult to deal with,
it’s always so black and white. Each country should have more flexibility
around implementation because every market is unique," she added.

HR will also play a major role in designing the future of pensions, with
Anderson predicting that ‘crunch time’ is just around the corner.

Her message to HR was not to get too bogged down in the process side of the
role and try to influence at a macro level.

"HR people can sometimes be a little too introspective. Business
doesn’t look at HR, it looks at its people. Everybody should be improving their
skills and HR is the facilitator of this."

In 12 months’ time, she jokes, most members will still be talking about too
much red tape, but between the complaints, the delegates might have a different
view of HR.

"We need to be at a stage where people issues are not just HR issues
but are embedded into the business. I want to see HR more integrated because
all this is now mainstream business thinking so it should be treated as such.
Managers and employees should not be thinking ‘that’s just an HR issue’."

By Ross Wigham

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