The HR function of popular mythology is staffed by short-sighted bureaucrats bogged down in inventing ever more labyrinthine rules: more Stasi than strategy. As in any myth, there is an element of truth in this. While publicly upholding the view that ‘people are our greatest asset', it is a rare organization that puts its HR function on equal footing with operations, sales or marketing. Like IT managers, HR managers typically find themselves falling between two stools. These two groups are guardians of an organization's most important assets - its people or technology - but they are also under constant pressure to minimize the costs of that asset. HR managers are responsible for overseeing compliance to an increasingly heavy burden of regulation, but they are also expected to be flexible and responsive. While they are in the forefront when it comes to reshaping organizations through mergers, acquisitions, outsourcing and offshoring, budget cuts often force them on to the defensive when it comes to developing and motivating individuals.
Squaring these circles is not easy but it is critical to success, as the case studies in this chapter demonstrate. The Apache Corporation characterizes itself as having a sense of urgency: ‘We get things done.' That attribute was tested to the limit when the oil company acquired BP's interest in the Forties oilfield in the North Sea. Cultural differences between the two oil companies, as well as a host of regulatory issues, could have lengthened the integration process and threatened Apache's aim of increasing efficiency. Instead, the whole process was completed in just six weeks.
Evotec OAI is a newly formed drug discovery company, formed from the merger of two other companies. Losing staff almost as fast as it was recruiting them, the company needed to look beyond conventional thinking on retention. At the UK's Ministry of Defence (MoD), scale was the biggest potential stumbling block - how to set up a service capable of preparing around 14,000 service men and women annually for new careers in civilian life.
While vastly different in focus, these projects show just how hard HR managers are working to change people's perceptions of their role.
All of the projects in these case studies illustrate the importance of good project management disciplines. Without clear planning and a real sense of energy and momentum, the cultural differences between the BP and Apache organizations might have delayed the integration of the Forties operation and eroded the expected benefits - a common failure when it comes to mergers and acquisitions more generally. Similarly, the MoD's resettlement programme was just the kind of initiative to get bogged down in red tape, but was up and running within a very short space of time. Moreover, it was not enough for the department to offer counselling: the service men and women needed a network of offices and resources, backed up by slick administration, if they were to be able to compete effectively in the job market. As Apache's and the MoD's experience demonstrates, HR work is shifting from the continuous maintenance of an organization's ‘steady state' to project-based work. Getting things done - to use Apache's words - and getting them done fast is one of the most important ways in which the HR function has been reinventing itself.
Momentum has to be balanced with flexibility, and none of the projects in this chapter were designed to a pre-determined formula. Clearly, there are always constraints, but the ability to accommodate change at short notice was a theme emerging from all the entries for the HR award. As one client put it: ‘The need for increased flexibility to manage projects of this size and scale was fundamental to success.' Indeed, it is harder to think of a process more grounded in rules and regulations than that of transferring a group of people from one organization to another. Yet Apache sought to cut through potential bureaucracy by ensuring that its staff were briefed. It also used a dedicated Internet site to keep people fully informed and to give them the information to make decisions for themselves as much as possible.
The stereotypical HR manager is stuck behind the desk of an organizational backwater: nothing could be further from the case here. The only way Evotec could understand the roots of its high turnover of staff was to go and talk to those staff. Apache's HR team took its messages out to North Sea oil rigs. The MoD's Career Transition Partnership could not expect busy service people to come to it, but established a network of offices at nine regional centres, supplemented by local support in places as far apart as Germany and Nepal.
Empowerment is a much misused word, reminiscent of Dilbert cartoons in which some petty bureaucrat ‘orders' a humble worker to take charge of his life. Moreover, cynics might attribute the idea of selfservice HR to tighter budgets: companies are, in effect, asking their employees to do some of the work which HR administrators did for them in the past. Yet each of these projects shares the belief that the best way to help employees is to give them the information, resources and expert support - to help themselves. The projects are indicative of a significant shift away from the paternalistic approach to HR in favour of a more facilitative model.
HR is often regarded as one of the woollier areas of management, yet all these cases indicate that information - hard facts - plays an increasingly important role. Misconceptions and assumptions were clouding Evotec's understanding of why employee turnover was so high: although the workshops and questionnaire yielded some uncomfortable - but incontestable - messages. ‘A certain amount of heart-searching went on,' says the company's HR director. ‘But you couldn't ignore data like this.'