Strategic thinking and planning has long been considered the holy grail of
effective HR. Most HR professionals claim it to be a core part of their
function, and not open to discussion as a distinct specialism.
Those working in a pure strategic role are few and far between. However, a
growing number of organisations are demanding a more commercial and strategic
outlook from their HR departments.
Strategy and planning, suggests Debs Oldroyd, HR manager since July at
Witwood Food Products in Banbury, Oxfordshire, should go hand in hand. In many
organisations, HR is still perceived as little more than welfare and
Having a strategic remit gives the HR function greater credibility, benefits
the business, and makes HR integral to the success of the organisation, she
"There are always going to be ad hoc issues that are going to come up,
grievances and discipline and so on. Strategic thinking is about setting
systems and procedures so you are not just waiting for things to happen,"
According to Fiona Sellers of HR consultancy Courtenay, people often use the
phrase "strategy" when they simply mean planning. Effective strategy
is about pushing back the boundaries of the business – looking at core
objectives and business drivers – and only then seeing what the HR function can
do to help.
If strategic or planning specialists are not already on the board, then they
should at least be advising the board closely, she suggests.
"They will have a very, very good relationship with the chief executive
and their opinions will be sought on the strategic direction of the
business," she says.
The type of people who fit the bill as HR planning or strategy specialists
tend to be those who can show evidence of possessing a broader vision, a
facility for evaluation and – often – an holistic approach, argues Mark
Knapper, managing director of the recruitment consultancy Astralis Group.
Strategic specialists will often use a "drilling down" technique
to illustrate a wider strategic argument using HR best practice. Yet they must
also be well grounded in the basics of effective HR so they can see the
practical implications of any change, adds Sellers.
Knapper estimates such people should command a minimum of £50,000. Sellers
goes even higher, arguing the case for £80,000 rising to as much as £250,000.
Even if the war for talent is less of an issue than it once was, people who
bring an added dimension to a function will be at a premium, and salary levels
tend to reflect that.
"You are talking about the crème de la crème," she says. They will
most likely be graduates with a postgraduate qualification such as an MBA or
business degree. They will often be able to show experience of working in a
variety of sectors, giving them valuable exposure to a range of business models
and ways of thinking, argues Knapper.
When it comes to job prospects, the sky can be the limit. A successful
strategist/planner can move into general management, be on the board and become
the key third player in the business alongside the chief executive and finance
A strategic specialist will also inevitably end up sticking his or head out
more than an HR functionary. Working at a more senior level also means greater
stress, accountability and 24-hour availability than in a conventional HR role.
"It can be very different from being part of a support function. It
should be where all good, very senior HR people are operating," says
Since joining Witwood Food Products, for instance, Oldroyd has put a raft of
new policies in place, including sickness absence, induction, recruitment and
selection and has redrafted the corporate handbook.
Yet the key benefit of good strategic planning – changing your organisation
for the better – can also become a central frustration, she warns. It is vital
to remember change does not happen overnight. "I have to fight my corner
to be recognised, although I do have a lot of support from the managing
director. It is no good jumping in with two flat feet," she says.
"You have to recognise that sometimes there are things that are more
important to the business than my concerns."
Case study: Kim Parish
The Northampton head office of Scottish & Newcastle Retail
– the pubs division of Britain’s biggest brewer – used to be called "the
prison" by its staff.
Notorious for its poor design, lack of fresh air, vending
machines that didn’t work and infestation of fleas, staff were not sorry to see
the back of it when the company decided it was time to move to new premises.
But, unlike most such moves which are chiefly about unpacking
boxes and berating the IT department when nothing works, HR director Kim Parish
ensured that strategic thinking played a key part in the changeover.
"Rather than it just being a physical move, I wanted to
make it a move in behaviours and attitudes," she says.
Various metaphors were drawn up, designed around the idea of a
journey overseas. For the first half day of the move staff were not allowed
near their desks, and had to attend a three hour workshop designed to build
team morale and interaction.
The idea was to encourage people to rid themselves of cultural
baggage and think afresh about where the company was going and their role
within it, she suggests.
It is this kind of strategic thinking and planning that can
help take HR to another dimension, and finally move it out of the welfare and
A good strategic HR specialist will, Parish says, ensure first
off that they have the nuts and bolts of the function in place and working
efficiently. After all, no one is going to listen to your ideas if you can’t
get your own backyard right.
Once this is done, it’s a case of looking at the organisation
as a whole, where the HR function fits within it, and where the HR strategy can
mesh with the business or corporate strategy, she asserts.
Scottish & Newcastle used to be like many blue-chips and
develop its corporate strategy looking at the numbers, business growth, revenue
growth and key markets, adding in areas such as HR and IT later. Now, says
Parish, HR has been put at the centre of the corporate strategy.
This year’s strategy will focus on people issues, particularly
areas such as inspiring service and centres of excellence, she says. "The
big bit is going to be about culture," she adds.
Parish has been at S&N for 10 years and in the HRD post
since April. She puts down a key part of her progress to attaining an MBA
which, she says, "gave me a good theoretical understanding of strategic
It also gave her the confidence and facility, to speak to, say,
the marketing director, managing director or the finance director in a language
that they understood.
On top of the board meetings, HR plays a central part in the
monthly strategic reviews, allowing her to ensure that the HR strategy is
moving hand-in-hand with the larger corporate picture.
In the past, boards have often been notoriously short-sighted.
But at a recent S&N review, half a day was spent discussing succession
planning. "It is about making sure you look at the long-term agenda,"