HR in practice: Arts Council England

The organisation

Arts Council England is the national development agency for the arts. Its role is to make art accessible to everyone by investing in and promoting a wide range of artistic experiences including theatre, music, literature, dance, photography, digital art, carnival and crafts.

Arts Council England employs around 850 people, and between 2008 and 2011 it will invest more than £1.6bn of public money from the government and the National Lottery to create these experiences for as many people as possible across all regions of England.

The challenge

With responsibility for distributing public money, the Arts Council has a clear obligation to keep operating costs to a minimum to ensure that as much of that money as possible finds its way to supporting the arts. To that end, the Arts Council England identified opportunities to streamline its infrastructure by reviewing its regional structure, with shared services across finance, IT, HR and grants processing, basing the main central support functions in a new Manchester office.

For the Arts Council’s HR director Katy Dent, these changes also created an opportunity to build an entirely new HR team, boosting the level of HR support to the regions with a more proactive HR partnering service to take the organisation forward into 2011 and beyond. She decided to seek external help to ensure that the selection processes were robust and would promote diversity and equality, two key tenets of the organisation’s employment policy.

The solution

Orion Partners was initially employed to design and run assessment centres for the candidates who had come through the screening stage. This was the first face-to-face stage of the selection process for the priority roles in the new team: the head of HR service centre and the assistant HR director, who would be managing the HR partnering team (the Arts Council, as a not-for-profit organisation, omits ‘business’ from the title). The detailed reports produced about each candidate from the results of the assessment centre would then be used to help Dent and the management team probe candidates further during the final, panel interview stage of selection.

Once the value of these comprehensive reports had been experienced by the panel, Orion was asked to extend the centres for the selection of the head of talent development, head of employee engagement, and a team of HR partners for the four regional groupings. “The selection panels found the depth and accuracy of the assessment for each candidate for senior HR roles so helpful, we extended Orion’s input into recruiting the whole HR team,” says Dent.

Orion began by interviewing key stakeholders from the executive team, regional management teams and trade union, as well as members of the HR team in London whose roles were changing. From this the team developed a clear understanding of the implications of moving to a shared services structure in the Arts Council and the challenges it would present for HR. It became clearer that a major shift from support and administration activities to more of a proactive partnering HR would be a new experience for many, and therefore the new team would need to have some strong competencies, including relationship-building skills.

Having analysed all the information from the stakeholder interviews, Orion agreed with Dent a detailed outline of the proposed HR roles and the key competencies required and started work on developing an appropriate methodology to assess the candidates. This resulted in a five-part structure for the assessment day to enable us to build a well-rounded picture of the candidates’ competencies:

  • A career and technical knowledge interview with some scenario-based questioning

  • A competence-based interview

  • A tailor-made meeting simulation exercise using realistic situations from within the organisation

  • A written business case scenario

  • A full psychometric profile feedback session using SHL’s OPQ32i

Each exercise focused on at least four of the behavioural competence areas, ensuring enough overlap to pick up comprehensive evidence. Dent reviewed candidates from the detailed online applications they submitted, and provided shortlisted candidates with information packs on the organisation, the new HR function and the roles. The assessment team was selected and fully briefed and the assessment centres were run in Manchester and London, with the panel interviews scheduled within a week.

Although Orion usually trains internal assessors to take over the running of assessment centres, the Arts Council decided to keep the assessments entirely independent. However, Dent and assistant HR director Louise Searle were involved in kicking off the day and had one-to-one time with each individual to present the challenges of the new roles at the Arts Council and to answer any questions.

“It was important that the assessments were carried out by specialist assessors independent of Arts Council staff,” says Dent. “This impartiality helped to support the equality of opportunity in the process and when assessing internal candidates who were known to selection panel members.”

The assessments were intense – Orion worked with a 1:2 ratio of assessors to candidates, with each assessor observing each candidate twice, so that they could challenge and explore their different perspectives fully before consolidating their views for the final reports.

“The combination of exercises really let us see what candidates could do in practice, and understand their drivers in more detail, rather than just what they said they could do in theory,” says Lynda Magee, the Orion engagement lead on the project. “Having more than one way of evidencing their behaviour by more than one person was particularly beneficial. Our focus was on bringing the panel as accurate and comprehensive information as possible, so that they could rely on as an aid to their final decision-making.

“I think as time has gone on, the accuracy has been proven through seeing the content of the reports come to life in the individuals in the organisation, post-appointment. We’ve created not only a highly predictive selection tool, but also useful information for the ongoing management of the team.”

Orion has continued to work with the Arts Council since the implementation of the new organisation, providing coaching to the newly appointed team members, both one-to-one and as a team: taking a deeper look at their OPQ profiles, and the implications of them, individually and collectively; exploring how Dent and Searle are managing the team; talking with them about how they market themselves internally; and generating ideas with them about how they can develop further as a team going forward.

The outcome

Dent describes the impact since the new organisation went live: “Our new HR service has transformed the way we work and how we provide services and guidance to managers and staff throughout the Arts Council. A key element in its success is the high calibre of our new recruits – without Orion’s significant role in the selection process, we may not have brought together such a high-performing team.”

There is further change under way at the Arts Council England as the organisation rationalises its staffing structure in line with public sector efficiency savings targets, and the year 2010 will be an exciting and challenging one.

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