Back to HR basics

by 20 Mar 2007

HR needs to get back to basics in order to be effective. Craig Donaldson speaks with Coates Hire CEO Malcolm Jackman about what it takes in order for HR to be an effective business partner

What are your impressions about the business effectiveness of HR in general?

The answer to that is driven to a large degree by how much HR is allowed to do. So if HR is allowed to be part of the strategic imperative of the organisation, then HR tends to be very effective from a business perspective. If they are relegated to a functional activity, then their effectiveness really does get diminished very, very quickly. At the end of the day, it boils down to the CEO’s view of HR and what it adds to the business.

If the CEO thinks HR has an important role to play in the strategic growth of the organisation, then you end up with very effective HR. If they think it’s just in charge of some training, a little bit of safety and paying people on time, then HR will probably be very ineffective.

Does HR need to be an effective business partner as well?

I think that becomes an issue for the CEO. Provided the CEO believes in HR and the strategic imperative that it offers to a business, then it’s up to the CEO to get the right HR person into the job. So if at the end of the day you end up with shitty HR performances, even though the CEO believes in it, then you’ve got the wrong HR manager. It comes down to people, process and structure, so at the end of the day you have to have the right person in charge, build the right team around that person, and then have the right processes with the right structure.

Our philosophy here is to leave most of the day-to-day activity in the business units underneath business unit HR people, and keep the strategy initiatives at corporate level. However, corporate does not actually deliver a lot of this, otherwise it just gets bogged down in bureaucracy.

What do you think holds HR back from working effectively as a business partner?

Jargon, preciousness and a holier than thou attitude –“you don’t understand people as much as I do; without us you won’t succeed; we’re the only ones that actually understand people”– those sort of ivory tower mentalities that create silos. Information belongs to the business, not to HR. People intellectualise HR way, way too much. Almost everybody who works in HR has got a degree, is trying to do another degree in something else. HR is full of bloody jargon.

At the end of the day you’ve got to keep it simple, stupid. It gets down to the basics of people wanting to enjoy the environment in which they work. They want to do a job that is meaningful to them. They want to belong to an organisation that has a purpose and is doing something meaningful in the community and has got a vision about where it’s going.

They want an organisation that is prepared to invest in them, to help them meet their career ambitions, whatever they may be. They want an organisation to help them to reach their full potential. That’s what people actually want out of life. It’s not that bloody complicated. You’ve got to be able to get it down to the basics in the business.

In the same way that technology should be a business enabler, then HR is just a business enabler. It isn’t anything in its own right. It is there to enable the business to be more effective. It’s there to help the line deliver better service to the customers and to make more money for our shareholders, whoever they may be. That’s what HR is all about.

What steps do you think HR needs to take in order to reach that level?

I think HR needs to be professional. I am not a great believer in promoting people out of a business into HR, just because they’re good with people. The main issue is that they have got to connect with the business. The thing that frustrates me about some functional roles is that you can have great people, but they’re just not plugged into the business. They don’t see or understand how the business really works on a day-to-day basis.

HR needs to be absolutely engaged with the business. If it is engaged with the business, then it will be able to assist the business in doing the things it does.

Would you say HR works effectively with you as a business partner within Coates Hire?

Yes, it’s very effective. I changed the general manger of HR to make sure I had the right person in the job. Since then, we have worked on changing a couple of people in different roles, and we’re progressively working on getting the best possible people into the right jobs.

We’ve also been spending a lot of money on processes, particularly through technology. I’m a huge believer in people, but I see other organisations and I’m not sure that they have the same belief in what people can do for them. I’ve always had the view that it’s your people who deliver your service to the customer, so any investment in your people to make them better is an investment in improving your bottom line.

What kinds of intrinsic skills do HR professionals need in order to be effective business partners?

If people get into HR because they’re looking for warm and fuzzy, they should stick with employee assistance programs. HR is about making the people inside the business more effective and consequently making the business more effective. How do you do that? It gets down to all those basics I mentioned –making it a nice place to be, give people good jobs that they want to do, give them development, pay them well, and so on.

It’s all about the basics, but if doesn’t add value and doesn’t add to the bottom line, there’s not a lot of point in doing it.

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