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Strategic thinking


Demands on HR these days is more business driven requiring real strategic thinking and a demonstrable contribution to strategic business priorities. The increasing strategic role of HR at Board level is well illustrated at the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), responsible for building better services and outcomes for young people and their families. The Department is pushing through radical organisational transformation, part of the government’s modernisation agenda, with greater focus on end user needs, accountability and tangible delivery. Achieving its ambitious objectives for the nation’s education system requires a considerable shift in the organisations culture and traditional ways of working. This has led to a change strategy and a number of resulting key priorities for HR.

The organisation looked to its new HR director, Anne Copeland, to deliver a human resources strategy to drive and support the organisational transformation agenda. Copeland’s background as HR director at the Cabinet Office equipped her well for her current role, having already been close to the central government modernisation agenda. Berkshire Consultancy Limited, an Organisation Development consultancy, and partner organisation to the DCSF, has provided external support to Copeland and her senior HR team in the transformation of the HR function.

HR has provided direction and support on a number of areas regarded as central to achieving key strategic business objectives.  The first of these was to ensure availability of focused and practical information to inform strategic business decisions. For example, in assessing business impact the Employee Engagement Survey has become an important tool to gather information about attitudes and perceptions. This has resulted in identification of priority HR actions which has led to improved perceptions of behaviour and values. Examples of impact to date include more widespread realisation of the need for greater individual recognition, moving away from traditional hierarchical thinking, more positive attitudes around diversity, and improved perceptions of the Board and directors’ behaviour. The results have been particularly helpful in acting as a reminder of progress being made along with highlighting areas needing attention. 

A second area where HR looked to improve business impact was in the evaluation of people development. Rather than relying alone on the usual ‘happy sheets’ assessment of training and development programmes, HR has introduced a more cohesive holistic approach that looks to assess impact on the business. In learning and development, evaluation starts with individual participants taking responsibility for defining their learning objectives linked to priorities in their role. Particularly in leadership development, the learning and evaluation process is carried out in a six month time frame. Participants have the opportunity to set learning goals related to current business priorities, plan and implement actions, and then review progress and learning with a group of peers. Berkshire has worked closely with Learning and Development staff in the design and implementation of evaluation approaches integral to the learning process.

Sue Young, principal consultant, Berkshire and project manager for the DCSF Strategic Leadership Programme said, “We encourage self evaluation by participants as part of the development process to help develop their abilities to manage their own development in the day to day context of their role.  This is a core management skill, especially important in times of continuous change. The ability to make quick judgements, often with limited information, reflect more objectively on the resulting learning and then taking appropriate corrective actions are critical success factors for today’s leaders and managers.”

Another area the department identified as a business critical priority is that of succession planning and talent management. HR works with partner organisations like Berkshire to provide strategic direction and support that will better enable line management to carry out this vital role. Each Directorate in the DCFS has a Talent Management Group – a group of senior managers, charged with identifying performance and potential, ensuring that individuals receive the next stage of job experience and ‘stretch’ in capabilities that they and the business need at a unit and corporate level. The organisation is still in relatively early stages in its experience of taking a more structured approach to talent identification and development. HR provides support to the Talent Management Groups through its HR Business Partners and support for dissemination of best practice. Additional HR support for talent development is being provided through line management with a framework of guidelines to help individuals plan their development at each stage of their career.

While HR has a central role, ultimately, the business has to own the changes required if change is to be sustainable. Overall the transformation is focused on creating an organisational climate that supports continuous change. Copeland concludes: “Never again will HR in DCSF design people policy and process in isolation.”






Sue Young, principlal consultant, Berkshire Consultancy Ltd

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