This week’s letters

Exorcise doubt and embrace strategy

I read Stephen Overell’s column (‘Dancing to the devil’s tune’, Off Message,
9 December 2003) with absolute dismay and have to say he has vividly outlined
the reasons why we need strategic HR rather than the personnel departments of
pre-1994 (his date, not mine).

His arguments against the concept of human resources being a strategic
rather than tactical body within organisations sum up the dilemmas that face
many in the profession.

My position on this is simple: too many professional colleagues have failed
to make the transition from being personnel manager to HR director. They have
become locked in the minutiae of personnel matters and cannot, or will not make
the transformation to being strategic leader and thinker. I have found this to
be true in all aspects of HR and training and development enterprises. The
ambivalence that many chief executives feel towards HR is due to its inability
to – in the words of a well know furniture company – ‘chuck out the chintz’.

Too many senior colleagues feel safe and happy dealing with employment law
and welfare issues while not addressing the business imperatives of the
organisation that HR can deliver. Far too many HR professionals do not see HR
as a function that can ensure that the organisation has ‘the right people,
doing the right things, in the right way, at the right time and in the right

Ulrich is not the devil. In fact, if followed, he could be the saviour of
HR. For too long colleagues have been seen to be the ‘blockers’ to
organisational progression, the people who say ‘no’ or ‘maybe’, who always see
difficulties where none exist. HR exists to deliver the people element of the
corporate plan. Its strategy must be demonstrably and inextricably linked to
the organisation’s business plan and targets. I fear that too often HR has been
cast, deservedly in many cases, as the luddites of modern organisations. But
for what, other than delivering organisational performance, could it, or should
it, exist?

Most organisations want to be an employer of choice, and most realise that
in a competitive market they need to be able to offer better terms than their
competitors. By adopting a strategic approach to HR there is no need to abandon
the personnel functional issues of welfare, grievances, and so on. What has to
be found is a balance. Why employ a whole department to provide employment law
advice, when one person with access to an IT system and appropriate software
can deal with an organisation’s needs?

If we wish to live in a world where organisations still look after employees
from the cradle to the grave and offer jobs for life, we can forget any element
of UK plc being a competitive business.

Organisations will always need to provide personnel functions, but the
majority of these back office roles can be provided through an outsourced call
centre. Too frequently those who cry for a return to the old days of highly
staffed personnel units are the same people who do not acknowledge that line
managers are, in fact, their direct report’s personnel manager. An
organisation’s HR department is a port of call when all else fails or high-level
advice is required.

Overell needs to understand the difference in the role of an HR department
and the trade unions or staff associations. HR is about representing staff
interests, but unlike unions – whose role it is to represent the actual people
and their individual needs – HR has to ensure that people issues (such as
motivation and performance) are included at the strategic level. HR goes wrong
when it tries to supplant the unions’ role.

HR managers should be ensuring that ‘our people’ deliver the people element
of the organisation’s business plan. The Accounting for People taskforce’s
report really sets out once and for all the clear shift senior HR professionals
and HR departments have to make if we are to remain competitive, and if HR is
to retain a place at the strategic board.

Richard Cullen
Chartered FCIPD, FCMI, Trustee of the Strategic Planning Society

Do not forget that ‘people’ are the key

I enjoyed Stephen Overell’s piece, (‘Dancing to the devil’s tune’, Off
Message, 9 December). He need not feel lonely.

I often feel that HR is indeed obsessed with its own importance, worrying
about ‘a seat at the table’ and ‘being all business partners now’, and so on.
Such concerns reflect both the insecurity of the function and a somewhat lost

It is, of course, ‘people’ that are important, not the HR function. Some
organisations have renamed their functions simply that – which is a step
forward (or is it backward?).

I believe, unhesitatingly, that HR initiatives should support the business
goals, that they should have a real measurable return (which may not be purely
financial), and that HR has a lot of professional help to offer to people
processes. But disciples of Ulrich should read him properly. He didn’t say
everyone should be strategic – it is but one role. Another of his four roles
was ’employee champion’. Many have, I fear, forgotten that. It is sad when you
overhear (as I have) people in difficulty say: ‘HR? They are the last people
I’d go to’.

There will always be a job to be done in the more effective management and
motivation of people. And that means caring about the needs of the board, the
needs of managers and the needs of the employees.

Andrew Mayo
Director, Mayo Learning International

Learning culture is key to stressbusting

While I agree with Bill Esterson’s statement that communication
is vital to handling stress (Letters, 6 January), it’s a mistake to imagine
that stress is caused by poor management and that by educating management, the
problem may be solved.

Stress is an individual’s response to a stimulus and the
response varies greatly from person to person, day to day. Moreover, we all
adapt to stress as part of our lives. Some people take avoidance measures in
sickness, complicity or unexpected absence. Others deploy defence mechanisms,
such as truculence, quitting or dishonesty.

If we perceive management to be the cause of stress, and only
focus on this, the employee has no opportunity to develop coping skills.
Employees who are taught effective ways to deal with stress are more likely to
remain with an organisation, which will then be better placed to address
critical issues without interference.

As a small company established in 1986, employing 250 people,
we can ill afford bad management. We have developed a learning culture where
inter-personal skills are the key and managers are trained to expect socratic
debate as part of the employee learning cycle. We have sustained attrition
rates of less than 2 per cent, in an industry notorious for attrition rates of
80 per cent per annum. What’s more, our sickness absence rates remain less than
three days per person.

Del Hunter
Director HR and development, SSR Personnel Services

Education requires long-term planning

Why is it that so many corporate universities have failed to
achieve their full potential in the UK?

An effective corporate university must be aligned to business
and organisational objectives and must help deliver quantifiable benefit to the
business by improving the organisation’s capability and capacity to deliver
increasing value to its customers. This requires a high level of commitment
from senior management and must be viewed as a long-term investment rather than
a rebranding exercise for training and development.

Designing and implementing a sustainable way of addressing the
requirement to constantly learn, harness and use knowledge and bring people
into collaborative relationships to seek and solve problems although
challenging, is a far more effective solution than a succession of change

Having been one of the team of founding directors of the
corporate university at Unipart and as current director of the DTI’s corporate
university for small business professionals (BLU), my experience has been that
addressing organisational and personal development needs can be an effective
competitive weapon in the knowledge economy. It really can help deliver
breakthrough levels of performance improvement. Environments that encourage the
sharing of learning and knowledge will help create real competitive advantage
in UK enterprise.

However, this requires strong leadership and a long-term
commitment. There are no silver bullets or quick fixes.  

Ian Campbell
Director, DTI Corporate university

Writing can unlock hidden potential

People at work have two kinds of contract these days, and both
should be of vital concern to HR managers. The first one is obvious – it’s
legal, it’s written down and it’s about terms and conditions. The second is
less obvious, as it’s not even written down, but is understood between employer
and employee.

The fact is, employee expectations have risen. Although the
‘job for life’ went some time ago, people now expect their job to add to the
quality of their life. This means they want to pursue more of their individual
interests at work, putting their own personality into the contracted hours.

The changing structure of employment reinforces this. More and
more of us work in the ‘service’ industry, which means we’re in the business of
providing service. So employers are looking for real service skills that come
from inside rather than being imposed. This means giving people the
encouragement and permission to bring more of their humanity into the workplace.

This automatically implies enabling people to be more creative.
Our creativity – our ability to think, generate ideas and express them – is
what distinguishes us as human beings. The ‘human resources’ we seek are surely
creative resources because we’re not after automatons at work. All organisations
want thinking, expressive individuals able to provide ideas and solutions. This
applies just as much to, say, a lawyer as it does to an advertising executive.

The surest way to unlock this creativity is through writing. We
all have to write at work. We can all benefit ourselves and our organisations
if we become more creative in our business writing. Let’s recognise writing not
just as a competency to develop, but as a means to liberate people at work to
express more of their innate creativity.

John Simmons
Director of training & development, Thewriter.co.uk

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