Hostage situation

Being locked away in a meeting room for three days may sound like a modern form of torture, but for Ed Hoskin, it was an invaluable first step in making the process of change management as painless and successful as possible.

Hoskin is vice-president of HR at Chiron Vaccines, the world’s fifth largest vaccines company. It was formed two years ago after the £543m merger of US biotech company Chiron and Oxford-based Powderject Pharmaceuticals, well-known for its development of needleless injections.

The old Chiron employed 2,000 people, almost exclusively based in Italy and Germany, and Powderject was made up of 1,000 people, based in Oxford, UK. “There was very little overlap between the two and, in fact, Powderject was already integrating a previously acquired Liverpool-based vaccines company,” Hoskin recalls.

While recognising real cultural change takes a long time, the first thing Hoskin did was to gather the change management team – made up of representatives from each company – and look very closely at what ‘quick wins’ could be achieved in the first 90 days of the process.

“We called it the hostage room,” he jokes. “No-one left the room until we had hammered down our core operating principles. It was a three-day meeting.”

Hoskin, in many ways, was lucky. Not only was he, as an HR professional, given a lead in the process, but there was a 1bn budget to work with and an extra four people drafted on to the HR team.

Not many are so fortunate. Indeed, if recent research from Roffey Park and the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) is anything to go by, HR is more likely to have its face pressed up against the glass, looking in, rather than be at the heart of the change management process.

Too passive?

The Roffey Park Management Agenda report, published in January, portrays HR as a function firmly marginalised on the periphery of many organisations. Of the more than 600 managers polled, nearly half (47%) said HR lacked credibility in their organisation, 53% felt HR practitioners were too reactive, while 27% criticised the function as being out of touch.

The CIPD research, HR: Making Change Happen, published in March, found many companies do not get what they want from change. According to the research, more than four in 10 organisations fail to meet their objectives when it comes to pushing through change.

Hoskin, for one, cannot disagree with these damning findings. He says: “HR is often too passive. There is something about this profession that makes people sit back and wait for someone else to take the lead.”

Claire McCartney, co-author of the Roffey report, agrees. “HR is often too reactive and lacks influence,” she says.

But she concedes the picture varies from company to company and board to board, with some organisations giving HR the strategic lead and others confining it to the transactional back room.

Where HR can really make a difference with change management, McCartney argues, is in giving the leaders of the organisation, at every level, the skills to facilitate the process.

If HR can act as a catalyst for good practice and drive forward good coaching, communication, decision-making and meeting of promises, for example, it can help head off many of the pitfalls that come with the change process.

“HR needs to be working in partnership with senior management to make sure people’s needs are being met. You have to get into the whole area of trust and the psychological contract,” McCartney says.

A clean start

At Chiron Vaccines, one of the first changes was putting in place a completely new company-wide performance management system, linking performance management to rewards. This is common enough in the UK, but much more unusual in Germany and Italy.

“The easy option was to impose the practices of the dominant business, but my feeling was that would create resistance. We wanted to wipe the slate clean and start afresh,” Hoskin explains.

One useful tactic was to bring the new, combined middle management together as much as possible to break down barriers. This included getting managers away from the office environment, and making full use of one of its factories, which was in a picturesque part of Tuscany. This helped to ease mistrust and start to create a sense of shared identity.

“In the early days, you need to capture the hearts and minds of people. If you do this from the top down, it will look like you are forcing it through, but if you do it bottom up, it becomes too consensus driven,” Hoskin suggests.

“You have succeeded only when people’s hearts, and not just their minds, recognise that they no longer work for the old organisation,” he says.
Other immediate areas looked at in-cluded key performance indicators, branding and compensation and benefits.

A marketing vehicle – essentially a road show – was created to go around the business, and the office intranet and in-house magazines were used to inform employees of the details of the merger. One message the new company was keen to get across was that senior management on both sides were behind the deal.

Organisations that are prepared to let HR be closely involved in the change management process, or at the very least on the change team, generally find they get improvements in performance because people management is given a priority throughout the process, says Vanessa Robinson, CIPD organisation and resourcing adviser and author of the CIPD report.

“HR needs to be involved from the beginning. It should not be a case of HR having to pick up the pieces once redundancies have been announced,” she argues.

But Robinson agrees with McCartney that the perception of HR and its role within organisations is still very mixed.

The main difficulty for HR is that if, for whatever reason, it does not have the credibility it needs within an organisation, it is unlikely to be given the responsibility that will allow it, in turn, to build credibility. “It is a chicken and egg situation,” says Robinson.

Nevertheless, if you do get the approach to change right, what eventually happens, explains Hoskin, is that you reach a ‘critical mass’ or ‘tipping point’ where the process develops a momentum of its own.

“A lot of it is just about getting people to spend quality time together, building a shared vision and starting to behave as a new functioning unit,” he explains.

If HR wants to take the credit for getting an organisation to that point, it needs to grab the process with both hands and take control.

“The HR profession often fails to inter-connect with all the different aspects of the business. It will often see change management as an isolated event or will just follow textbook ways of tackling it, which are not joined up with the culture or practices of the company,” explains Hoskin.

“What we had was a real opportunity for the combined HR team to make a visible contribution to the business and we took it,” he adds.

Ten things HR should be doing when it comes to change

  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate – keep explaining what is happening and why, address people’s fears and insecurities head on
  2. Make use of existing communication tools (for example, the office intranet), and consider new ones, such as a roadshow
  3. If integrating businesses, try to get managers together, away from the day-to-day office environment to help build relationships and trust
  4. Make full use of HR’s coaching and training expertise to give managers the skills they need to implement change
  5. Recognise that changing a company’s culture will probably take some time, so look at what ‘quick wins’ you can achieve, then address medium and long-term goals
  6. Find champions at all levels who can take the message out to employees across the organisation
  7. Ensure you have the full backing of the senior management team, and let it be seen that they are behind the process
  8. Make sure that if you promise something, you can deliver on it – so, again build trust and engagement
  9. If you have to impose cuts or implement redundancies, be straight with people and be constructive. Look at bringing in outplacement specialists and look to help those left behind to ensure they are not working in an atmosphere of resentment or fear
  10. Aim to reach a tipping point, where the process takes on its own momentum


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