Top of the HR mountain

by 13 Dec 2006

Blue Mountains City Council won The Vurv Award for Best HR Strategic Plan at the 2006 Australian HR Awards. Melissa Yen looks at the councils award winning strategies

The Blue Mountains is one of the top three tourist destinations in Australia. Blue MountainsCity Council is also one of the largest local governments in the state of NSW, with more than 75,000 residents across 26 towns. Based in Katoomba, the council manages assets worth $500 million, has an annual budget of $80 million and employs 550 people.

In July 2004, the council started work on a four-year HR strategy as part of a broader plan to manage the sustainability of the council. The HR strategy was a key organisational priority in the council’s ability to service the Blue Mountains community. As such, the strategy encompassed the council’s business goals of enhancing the delivery of services to the community and improving social, environmental and economic sustainability.

Looking from the bottom up

The first broader step in the plan was an organisational restructure, designed to address a “schizophrenic” culture, according to Robert Bentley, manager of corporate human resources for Blue Mountains City Council. In this restructure, the council had to move from a traditional local government council structure to a more business-focused model.

In addition to becoming more businesslike, Bentley said the council also wanted to become more financially sustainable over the long term. “Having a new organisational structure and not a lot of funds or being in a strong financial position meant that we had to do something in regard to managing our employment costs more effectively” he says.

In the process, the council’s employment demographics needed revision. “We were an organisation with an ageing population so we needed to develop ways for providing things like career and succession planning and identifying opportunities for people to move through the organisation. We needed to also provide job satisfaction and retain people in the organisation,” he says.

In effect, the aim of the HR strategy was to assist the council in achieving outcomes that would lead to a more flexible, affordable and sustainable staff structure in the long term. This strategy was developed in conjunction with the council’s long-term financial strategy, a 25-year-old strategy for the city combined with four-year management and business plans.

Alignment between the HR and business strategy was fundamental; the HR department was restructured and HR business unit partners were established. The primary role of the HR business partner is to provide specialist HR service and advice to specific business units, ensuring effective alignment. The partners have an intimate knowledge and understanding of each of their business unit objectives, goals and outcomes, and advise, monitor and report on business performance.

A course of action

Workforce planning was a key platform in the HR strategy. “When we introduced the strategy there were a couple of important things that we needed to know about our organisation,” says Bentley. “One was knowing a bit more about our people and developing workforce plans. This enabled us to identify the sorts of skills that we currently had in the organisation, and those that we didn’t.”

This allowed the council to examine each of the various business groups and align them to its own management and business plans and identify gaps through training needs. Workforce planning became a critical tool in making sound decisions about employment mix, demographics and employment costs in staff planning for the future. “Those workforce plans were able to help me identify where the gaps were in the organisation and primarily they came back to three main areas. The organisation needed more project management skills, more business planning skills and they needed more management development skills,” Bentley adds.

Looking to the future through a collaborative work and consultation process was the next step. “We looked through all the information that we currently had at our fingertips in terms of the organisation and we identified a number of HR-related activities or issues that arose from that.” These activities and issues included succession planning, job satisfaction, performance management, recognition and reward, recruitment, training, and information communication. An analysis of the key performance trends in the organisation was then conducted. In addition to a staff survey, the council ran a series of eight employee focus groups, with external facilitators from the Universityof Western Sydney to validate the data. “We even did some gender-based work in terms of male and female issues and we also did some service groups which included people who were here for within only five years, or with ten years’ service or more, as well as employees that were under the age of 25.”

The feedback identified key priorities in the strategy. The inclusive process also enabled HR to gain buy-in from employees and leaders, as it provided them with a sense of ownership.

In order to address the council’s increasing financial pressures, the strategy included five key steps: living within the means of the organisation in terms of employment costs; changing employment demographics to meet future needs of the council; reducing skill and knowledge gaps; ensuring a ‘better place to work’; and focus on the council’s organisational priorities towards sustainability.

These key steps are supported by 15 operational actions that each has quantifiable performance measures to track progress, fulfilment of outcomes, responsibility, timeframes and budget – all of which are reported to the executive management team quarterly. “Your strategy needs to underpin the high-level outcomes with some key operational ones,” Bentley says. “Those 15 operational areas support the high-level strategies and they’re the things that the ground staff will see differences in.” The operational actions come under, for example, workforce planning, health and safety, recruitment and selection, training and development, human resource information systems, workplace reform, location of work, and policy development.

Reaching the peak

Twelve months into the HR strategy, the council has seen significant improvements in staff satisfaction. Results from its annual staff survey showed that the overall satisfaction rate for 2006 was 67.5 per cent – an improvement on the 2005 result of 63.1 per cent.

There were about eight different categories in the survey, and the most improved areas from last year to this year were in staff confidence about their future, the council being well managed and led, staff feeling valued, management providing the leadership needed for success, and staff satisfaction with current pay levels. “I can directly position those within the HR strategy in terms of where they fit,” Bentley says.

Looking back

While the HR strategy is tracking well, one of the major challenges for the HR team was to make sure it fully delivered on initiatives it started. “If you’re going to develop trust with your workforce you need to commit to a conclusion and finish what you said you were going to and not leave it in abeyance,”Bentley says.

In hindsight, he would have committed to providing more validation and feedback to the workgroups that HR consulted with. While this may have been time consuming, it would have been worthwhile. “Improving the communication loop to the staff is essential, so they are completely aware of the steps necessary to move forward and what progress is being made,” Bentley says.

The key to the success of any HR strategy is in ensuring it is linked to the business, he adds. “If you’re working on your marketing plan, your sales plan, your business strategy, or your overall direction then that’s the time to work on your HR strategy or at least realign it or revisit it,” he says.

“If you do your HR strategy in isolation it’s not going to work, because there’s no momentum and there’s no commitment or motivation to do it. While there might be motivation from the person driving it, you must gather the whole organisation and get them on board to help make it easier when you’ve got all these other strategies and activities happening at the same time.”

View from the top

Michael Willis, general manager of Blue Mountains City Council, says the council's award-winning HR strategy is successful because it is supported by comprehensive HR reporting and the active role of HR in senior management decision making. Willis holds regular weekly meetings with Robert Bentley, the council's manager of corporate human resources, to discuss HR issues. The council's executive management team, which includes Bentley, has a monthly informal report from HR on how the council is tracking against its corporate HR strategy. This is supplemented on a quarterly basis by a formal comprehensive review of organisational HR facts and trends, including an external environmental scan.

"This ensures senior management takes an active and proactive approach to its corporate HR responsibilities. These meetings provide invaluable feedback on how our HR approaches are working on the ground, and give us the opportunity to review and alter course," says Willis.

The business partner philosophy of corporate HR provides an effective way for HR to understand the business strategy. "This approach means that HR has an understanding of the 'on the ground' HR issues from the bottom up. The top down understanding is achieved by having the corporate HR manager as a full member of the executive management team, and through that person's close working relationship with me."


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