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Optimising HR to maximise success – Roundtable Report

08 September 2015     London
Hosted by theHRDIRECTOR.
Chaired by Jason Spiller.

Annette Capper, Head of HR Services – Veolia Environmental Services Plc
Jeremy Colman, HR Director – Bright Horizons
Morna Dason-Barber, HR Director EMEA – British Standards Institute
Liz Dean, HR Director – Shepherd Building Group Ltd
Ian Dowd, Marketing Director – NGA HR
Sonia Cochet, Director of HR – Amnesty International
Ian Fraser, Group HR Directorv – Relx Group
Andrew Kinder, Chief Psychologist – Oh Assist
Stuart Mcpherson, Learning & Development Manager – Interserve Plc
Will Meehan, Senior HR Business Partner – Home Office
Brian Newman, Vice President, Human Resources – Live Nation Entertainment
Dan Wilson, Account Director – NGA HR

Businesses are operating differently and this is forcing change at a rate never before experienced. Not one sector is immune, nor department that is not subject to immediate and mandatory change, as the significances play out in businesses across sectors. Today, HR stands astride the business, occupying a pivotal position where only competent, confident and well-advised direction and operation can cut it. HR must be at the top of its game.

The rigid policies, procedures and operational frameworks designed by Baby Boomers for Generation X are irrelevant antiquities. Now is the time for HR to be the architect of the future, but in order to enable that, it needs to acknowledge that the perception of HR at the Board table, one of justification, is a relic of the past. The future of HR at the table is one of coach and leader, changer and facilitator, but this is not a birth-right, it can only be achieved with the fundamental components. Moreover, what is needed is the complete confidence in HR of peers at Board level, as well as leaders and managers across departments, right down to shop floor. The changing workplace is all-encompassing and forcing change at a rate never before experienced. Not one sector is immune, nor department that is not subject to immediate and mandatory change, as the significances play out in businesses across sectors.

The many workplace changes are impacting on how HR operates, but is HR correctly positioned in businesses and is it capable of meeting future needs and expectations, or is it prone to being disengaged from the workforce and the business? HR is the catalyst and enabler of change, but is this a position of strength or vulnerability? How must HR maintain the trust of peers with a clear unbroken line to the CEO, and use this to its advantage and just what are CEOs expecting from HR and ultimately their HRD?

How are the many workplace changes impacting on how hr operates? Is HR correctly positioned in businesses and is it capable of meeting future needs and expectations?

Brian Newman: My experience has been primarily that speed and pace of change is the thing that’s most affected us as a function. I think leaders can struggle with that pace of change, and the dynamics of the workforce. Access to data is completely different so there’s an expectation that data is readily available to provide to our leaders. Businesses are taking a while to catch up with that because it’s not necessarily as simple as just because you want data, there’s a repository you can go to, to collect it and the type of data that’s wanted I find changes week by week.

Stuart Mcpherson: The initial challenges are often around getting complete and accurate data into our HR systems, often the focus is in this area and engagement activity gets missed in the early stages. At board level it’s important to make new contracts profitable from year one, however, at what price? The tide will turn once people at the top start to understand the investment that’s needed.

Morna Dason-Barber: In organisations whereby the pace of change is less intense, I believe our role is to be much more provocative at the top and invite thinking and readiness for the changes that actually are not too far up ahead. It’s crucial to start to get the senior teams to think about the impact of points such as changing demographics, changing work expectations and changing technology.

Annette Capper: We need to move away from being reactive to change and focus on being much more proactive. That really does mean working much more in collaboration with the business, to be involved with the big team when they put tenders together, to be involved right at the outset rather than at the end of a process when you need to get people onto payroll.

Liz Dean: It’s essential that HR is at the table is not working in a silo, you’re not just a HRD, you’re a Board Director working across the business; you must understand the business objectives, the strategy and how HR strategy dovetails with that.

William Meehan: In my experience with the Civil Service, we absolutely do partner the business and have a seat at the table. It is important to have a deep understanding of the business, be expert, be professional, the challenge is bringing middle managers and leaders with you.

Andrew Kinder: It’s about the gap between HR and the line manager – in the past many could rely on HR for the advice but as HR has become centralised, I certainly speak to many line managers who feel they are being left in the lurch. HR needs to think about what support line managers need, because they are the people who drive the culture.

Sonia Cochet: HR can’t be the only change agents/change leaders anymore because there is so much change, you have to develop, coach and support your line managers to be change leaders. For the line manager, being an effective change leader requires a different skillset to general line management, they need to support people going through the change curve.

Ian Fraser: The function has struggled to keep up, leaving some with the impression we have been ‘caught in the headlights’. The pace of globalisation, the changes in work, the speed with which technology and analytics has moved, I don’t think the HR function has moved fast enough.

Laura Dixey: It is important for us to change the nature of the conversation that HR is driving when we are at the table. The profession needs to gain further credibility for possessing an analytical approach and for demonstrating the insight to continue to drive the agenda forward. To move from a position of reactive problem solvers to those who will challenge the discussion. I think this is something that we need to work on to demonstrate we have the skills to identify that future state and work collaboratively with the Board to progress the solutions.

HR has been sort of mooting this for years the nirvana of being able to plan ahead, strategise rather than fighting fires.

Jeremy Colman: HR being nimble, curious, trusted and responsive gives us the opportunity to influence at the top table. It’s these qualities along with sound commercial experience, knowledge and judgement that will hopefully see more HR professionals becoming CEOs of the future.

Brian Newman: Is HR paranoid and needing to justify its position? HR needs to be staring right into the headlights to help their organisations navigate what’s about to happen. The right kind of data is important of course, but it’s about understanding culture, and being able to contextualise the data.

Dan Wilson: When I was in HR, I was critical of line managers, and in turn they wondered what HR’s role was. This disconnect is an issue that needs addressing, where it is an issue. Rapid and constant change keeps coming up, and HR is the vanguard of that, and it needs to be the translator of that change, to make sense of it for the business and stakeholders, so that they can carry out their role in context with the business needs.

Ian Dowd: Agreed and a significant part of that is getting people engaged and understanding the analytics, which can deliver so much if utilised well, especially in terms of context and strategy, business basics, how are we competing in the marketplace, and central to forming decisions of course. That is where HR’s position is sound, because it is rooted in the business operation and objectives.

Morna Dason Barber: Our focus has been moving away from specialisms to true generalist business partners, understanding the needs and the drivers of the organisation, and line managers need to feel that HR is working alongside. My organisation is 100 percent knowledge based, our products are our people, so that is really compelling. I don’t think HR needs to be questioned about “relevance” at all.

Will Meehan: I’ve seen lots of evidence of great leadership and engagement. But leaders need to be authentic and genuine, not paying lip service to it. You have to guide people through change, build capability and cultivate involvement, and collaboration at all levels is essential.

Andrew Kinder: An example is Atos, a global IT organisation – their Chief Executive and Chairman challenged the whole organisation to transform and set up a wellbeing@work programme. But instead of going to the senior people he went to employees from Generation Y, and linked them up with HR.

Stuart Mcpherson: The hearts and minds of the line manager population is really important in times of change, they need to be engaged and upskilled with a view to being change champions, so we started off on a journey to build an internal change model. HR as a function is starting to understand the learning and development required within the business for particular groups at the outset of a change programme and is creating a new agenda. The traditional hierarchical linear organisational structures are not conducive to effectively managing change. You need a fluid workforce.

Andrew Kinder: Sometimes you have to take away the comfort blanket in order to get change. Those who work globally have always had to look at collaborative working and there are excellent examples where they use IT tools to share information and also include a social element, but in a secure format.

Annette Capper: The danger is that there is that comfort zone where HR is traditionally seen as ‘doing the admin’, and it can be easy for a HRBP to do this type of input for managers, when they really should be doing it themselves. By providing the right toolbox for them to do it, with the right technology supporting it, then HRBPs can focus on the value added support and that’s a development journey.

HR is now seen as the catalyst enabler of change. Is it a position of strength or vulnerability?

Morna Dason-Barber: If we are not prepared to be provocative and ask the right questions around the leadership table, then actually we could go back to being a function that is very process orientated. We clearly have a role to play but there is still work to be done to be considered as an equal business leader. We have an opportunity in our role as Thought Leader.

Ian Fraser: HR should stop obsessing about having a ‘seat at the table. It’s important we support and influence those at the table, but we can do this without being an Executive Director. Indeed, by not sitting at the table we can think more freely about the long term strategy.

Brian Newman: What was relevant in HR 20 years ago in terms of how you look at data and numbers is now unrecognisable. I just wonder if our own professional body, CIPD, has kept pace with the actual contextual environment that we’re working in.

Morna Dason-Barber: It comes back to the point about not just being there as a functional head but about having the confidence that the senior team, which runs and sets the agenda for the organisation have people at the heart of it and we’re all probably at different stages with that.

Liz Dean: The issue of HR not having the financial acumen that some of the other functions have and CIPD not building the capability, I actually don’t think it’s the CIPD’s responsibility, I think it’s our responsibility, to support development. If you take individuals in sales, commercial and the other functions around the business, they don’t necessarily get their financial skills from their professional qualifications, and that should apply to HR too.

Brian Newman: I would like to feel that as you come off their programme with your qualification you are then in a position to start to develop your own professional career, but at no point is, for example financial acumen challenged as part of the content of the CIPD learnings. By contrast, when you qualify on a CIMA programme you can work numbers clearly.

It’s part and parcel of hr maintaining trust with peers and what ceos expect from HR.

Ian Fraser: Over the last 22 years or so as a HR Director, I’ve worked in many sectors and have worked for many great CEOs, Chairmen, and Remuneration Committee Chairmen. I have seen lots of changes at the table in all the companies I have worked for but somehow the organisations have not only survived these changes but all of them prospered. If we all sat at the table we may succumb to many of the short term pressures placed on Boards and lose our ability to help those deep in the organisation create real value for our shareholders over the long term. We are in a very privileged position as HR Directors and we have a major role to play both in supporting those at the table and in ensuring we have the skills, capabilities, engagement, culture and organisation to help our employees and our other stakeholders succeed.

Jeremy Colman: We must be the guardian of the culture, but in an understanding and pragmatic way. Hiding behind policies is oldhat, CEOs are more interested in how their HRDs are able to think through implications of decisions and making things happen rather than controlling and avoiding any risk.

Dan Wilson: What is clear is that the role of HR is changing – it has to change, and why it needs to strive for credibility is a mystery – particularly in the UK economy – which is primarily service based, where the people aspect of what the business needs to operate is inextricable from productivity.

Andrew Kinder: An HRD that spots a business need gains credibility and I believe the key thing is ownership.

In a multi-generational workplace increasingly working remotely, how can HR best maintain the consistent information across the generations and via multiple platforms? With the changing landscape forcing new approaches and strategies for future planning; what are the necessary components to ensure capability, to meet the needs of the business?

William Meehan: HR has been too rigid around policies and processes, but it has also been a key architect in developing business agility, flexibility and adaptability which are absolutely key to the future. If you’re looking for credibility, look no further than that.

Sonia Cochet: We’re going through a decentralisation programme and becoming a truly internationally-based organisation. In such circumstances, HR needs to support managers moving away from the traditional model of managing the people they see. It’s an operational and cultural shift, things like holding meetings at times convenient for international staff, but also it’s the bigger things like performance management based on output not presenteeism.

Stuart Mcpherson: We are living in a world of abbreviations so messages sent from Smart phones quickly are often misunderstood, so we’ve had to respond to the growing mobile workforce. Adapting the messages to be effectively delivered is absolutely key.

Morna Dason-Barber: Agreed, and we’ve got to remember we’re managing a diverse group of people, often remotely, which is a huge challenge for our leaders, trust being key. Remote working, the blurring of lines – human beings are social by nature, so it’s about creating those opportunities for social connection, as we move increasingly towards remote working and de-centralisation models.

Annette Capper: People say there’s concerns about the generational gap here but there are grandparents that only ever see their grandchildren via Skype or Facetime and I think we do them a dis-service by saying that different generations can’t cope with the technology.

Liz Dean: The expectation of trust and accountability with remote working is key, but there is conflict with older workers not as attuned and used to the traditional parameters of work, so HR needs to provide support for line managers to understand the conflict that this potentially generates. The issue multiplies for multi-national companies and different time zones, where people feel the need to interact and respond at all hours.

Andrew Kinder: IT is firmly in the HR arena. It’s so important because it touches every part of the business, and big data companies such as Google have transformed their own culture using IT. So there’s something to learn fromthat industry.

Liz Dean: The risks is that if you have backward policy and procedure that is not attuned to today’s working culture and patterns. Those in the workforce that are sceptical, then refer back to those, and that can cause conflict.

Brian Newman: It’s easy to get bogged down with the process of managing flexible working. People are either working, or they’re not working – in many respects, it finds people out much quicker. The analytics can show that the business case is hugely compelling, and is potentially the best route to buy in for HR.

Dan Wilson: In the wake of change, there are so many new policies coming out, end users get policy fatigue. Consequently, even with a myriad of platforms that technology can provide, communicating the message is not guaranteed and whilst some employees will more naturally receive and absorb information that way, others will view the lack of face-to-face reassurance disturbing. So it cannot be taken as read that technology is a panacea to communication.

What is the role of data in HR now and in the future and is HR really optimising the information at its disposal, plus how can hr tell the story better?

Stuart Mcpherson: The way that HR data has been used previously has sometimes sought to confuse rather than confirm strategy, but if you start gathering engagement data early enough, then you start to build a picture, justify some of your decisions, creating your training and development strategy against a backdrop of employee engagement.

Morna Dason-Barber: We need to have clear, measurable KPI’s and the data to support all of that. I think the opportunity is to actually start to understand how data can help us think further ahead, to start to look at analysing and spotting trends and being able to tell a future story as much as a current or past story.

Jeremy Colman: I think in terms of a People P&L, we agree what we want to measure and then report on it regularly. All designed to help people make decisions, focus activity and celebrate success. Tactically it helps us address short term issues and strategically it helps us identify trends, correlations and patterns.

Brian Newman: HR people will say “yes we need loads more data”, but loads more data with no specific purpose can be more damaging than no data at all, because if you don’t actually know what you’re gathering it for and what you are doing with it, you’re at risk of presenting the Board with a whole load of numbers that could start to inform bad decision making, if it isn’t analysed and understood. I think we as a generation of HR have the chance to avoid going down the route where data is the be all and end all.

With analytics it’s a case of, do you have the confidence to redefine what is actually being analysed?

Andrew Kinder: How much data do we need? It’s not so much about collecting the data, it’s about what it means and crucially what you are going to do about it.

Will Meehan: The challenge is that we do have loads of data and analysis, but what is it telling us? It’s insight that leads to action. A good example I use is engagement because lots ofpeople/engagement surveys tell you what people think, at that moment in time, but not why they think that. You need to understand how you can influence behaviours. Absence too can be misleading. Your data might show you trends, but if you drill down and steer where the business needs to focus, you start to see some shift. presenting the Board with a whole load of numbers that could start to inform bad decision making, if it isn’t analysed and understood. I think we as a generation of HR have the chance to avoid going down the route where data is the be all and end all.

With analytics it’s a case of, do you have the confidence to redefine what is actually being analysed?

Andrew Kinder: How much data do we need? It’s not so much about collecting the data, it’s about what it means and crucially what you are going to do about it.

Will Meehan: The challenge is that we do have loads of data and analysis, but what is it telling us? It’s insight that leads to action. A good example I use is engagement because lots of people/engagement surveys tell you what people think, at that moment in time, but not why they think that. You need to understand how you can influence behaviours. Absence too can be misleading. Your data might show you trends, but if you drill down and steer where the business needs to focus, you start to see some shift. attrition problems in two or three years’ time, based on the parameters that you submit. This is impressive and compelling capability for the future.

Ian Fraser: Most of what HR does today will be done by specialists supported by technology in the future, it will mean HR Directors will be able to concentrate on areas where they can add most value; for me this is all about managing talent and using analytics effectively. The real power of Big Data analytics has yet to be seen in HR, but it is coming and it is very exciting.

Brian Newman: I have some concerns about how predictive analytics may be used, with data at your fingertips that tells you who is likely to stay in the organisation, who’s likely to be a great performer. It’s powerful but is it ethical?

Ian Dowd: One of the points about data is not using it in isolation. Marketing data is never used in isolation, it’s usually industry data, marketing data, internal sales data, and costs data, and it’s all different areas of the organisation. I would imagine if you just try and take one particular strand and look at it in isolation it probably does become quite dangerous, if you don’t work in context or can’t link it through to other areas.

Morna Dason-Barber: People are complex, there are many different facets that drive individuals’ behaviours. There are many other factors that influence outcomes, such as; the environment we work in, leadership, that’s where it becomes quite challenging for us to measure in a black and white way.

Annette Capper: When we started to look at our data as three business areas coming together, we quickly realised that actually it wasn’t all collected in the same way. We quickly identified that HR data needs to be married up with P&L data. Although it all sits in SAP, it’s on different platforms. So we’ve gone back to basics with a complete HR data cleanse, working with the MI team to ensure that the reporting to the business is meaningful and gives real key business intelligence.

Stuart Mcpherson: We’ve released a kind of productivity and social capital data stream so that when we’re faced with the conversations on what should we do because the KPIs and SLAs don’t look right, then we can present some people data alongside that, and that is changing people’s opinion on putting data in isolation.

External awareness of your competitors is key too, how are you competing as an employer is critical intelligence?

Stuart Mcpherson: Very much so, because often you can even lose employees to your client if you don’t offer them sufficient opportunities within your own organisation.

Brian Newman: There’s also the wonderful gift of data on social media, from a talent management perspective, we suck up as much as we can from sites like Glassdoor, to understand what people are telling us about ourselves as an organisation, people who have left the organisation, because that’s very difficult sometimes to get at formally, as they are leaving.

How can HR drive the business forward by anticipating trends and changes in workforce dynamics?

Andrew Kinder: So there’s formal data and then there’s informal data. Then the other element is that mood piece, which measures the mood in a team especially as employee opinion surveys are often out-of-date by the time they report. The mood gives you more instant feedback, and organisations that embrace positive psychology are likely to succeed where you are talking about success and ideas and solutions, and that moves away from problem based management systems.

Dan Wilson: With all the data that gets crunched and analysed, it’s fundamentally about, how do we create an organisation with a valued proposition that attracts and retains the right kind of employee?

Jeremy Colman: Being able to identify trends helps us attract people and focus on what‘s important in the employment proposition for current and potential employees. Using social media to start a conversation with passive candidates, and using flexible benefits to support out-of-work community based activity springs to mind.

Ian Fraser: I think it is very exciting to see how people outside HR are using data to completely transform their business. They aren’t only using their own data, but data from every conceivable public source. It won’t be long until HR is doing this with Big Data too. We are only scratching the surface at the moment.

Dan Wilson: Most HR people don’t require a super computer, they need to move to a point where they are using analytics better and using that data in a more strategic way. The challenge for us is keeping pace, so the investment to develop and administrate HR databases is a real challenge but it is happening. Much of it will be automated, because it sucks so much resource and time. You can hit something with a hammer time and time again until you realise there’s a more sophisticated way.

Morna Dason-Barber: Agreed, take employee engagement surveys, always arduous. But if we applied what our marketing colleagues do in measuring say, customer satisfaction, we would begin to find out more than what traditional engagement survey questions yield. Because it sucks so much resource and time. You can hit something with a hammer time and time again until you realise there’s a more sophisticated way.

Ian Dowd: I think the nature of the automation piece is that the collection and the systemisation data is freeing up some of the admin, but then the output of that was better decision making. But I think automation can take you so far, particularly around HR, but it’s really freeing up some of the basics, so you can become more strategic and do more people based work.

Annette Capper: I think the danger here is that we can over-engineer some of the analytics. We get too excited by the technology, we see what it can offer, but can easily get sidetracked away from what the business actually wants. It’s a different journey for every company and it depends on your culture, on your people base, on what your business wants from its HR analytics at that moment in time.

How can data strategy be more clearly defined, what is making data inaccessible to business decision makers and why is hr struggling to showcase the importance of data to their companies and actually demonstrate financial value?

Ian Dowd: I’m not sure necessarily you have a data strategy – you have a strategy and then data feeds into it. You can have a programme that involves data, but having a data strategy, it almost starts to assume a picture of you putting lots of data together and having to look at patterns to see what comes out. Whereas actually, you should have a direction in what you wanted your data to support the decision making.

Morna Dason-Barber: It’s more an IT strategy, as we are becoming more reliant on effective systems to enable our business and respond to questions our Leaders expect us to provide. So this high dependency on the IT function means HR is working much more closely. They should not be seen as separate disparate support functions.

Andrew Kinder: Who’s the advocate for the employee? A simple thing like how easy it is to get your expenses paid can irritate employees as what they really want is a user friendly system. Interacting with your company’s IT department is key here and understanding the blockers such as security concerns.

Brian Newman: Different systems are owned by the respective functions, which creates some disparity. I think there perhaps is an opening in terms of the supplier market for something that is a little more integrated on all levels.

Annette Capper: I think in HR that’s the ‘Holy Grail’, information that comes from only one true source of data. It may not always come from one system and we need to have the right HR system strategy in place to achieve it.

Ian Fraser: When we think of data we normally think of structured data such as financial information, but the advancement in unstructured data analytics is probably going to have an even more dramatic impact on HR than structured data analytics. We essentially have been trying to structure our unstructured data in order to better analyse it. New technologies are being built to analyse unstructured data and this will revolutionise the way we interact, analyse, and interpret.

Annette Capper: We have to tell that story so that we can go to the top table and ask for the budget to create those systems and so we have to know what the end point is to show this vision of the future.

Stuart Mcpherson: Much of the current HR functions in the future will be outsourced or automated, that’s pretty much a given. The skill-set of an HR practitioner needs to be one of a change manager and facilitator.

Sonia Cochet: Also to look outside of your own organisation a little more, we’ve been trying to do that because our business leaders want to know where they sit in relation to similar organisations. It’s another way of getting traction at the top table and I think that’s another important topic for HR to grasp.

Annette Capper: I agree with that. I think systems and technology will be the enabler and if we can get that right we change the face of HR and the value it provides in supporting the business.

Dan Wilson: I’m a big advocate for technology, I think it’s there, and it has to be used. You have to embrace it and take it on yourselves and drive the data and the information from it.

Ian Dowd: The big positives in this discussion have been about the need for HR to change. As a supplier it’s about helping people to harness that change and make the most of the opportunity.

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