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Developing an HR strategy. By John Pope

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John Pope

Ever wondered what the term ‘strategic’ really means, in an HR context? And once you have an HR strategy in mind, how do you ensure it works and you get the end result you were hoping for? Management consultant John Pope provides some answers.


‘Strategic’ seems to be a new label to stick onto any and every aspect of HR. It seems a bit of a jumble – strategic HR systems, strategic recruiting, strategic incentivisation. And there are strategic workshops and seminars. I suppose it is something to do with planning, a word it seems to have replaced, and when I look at the topics to be discussed they appear to be short-term issues, rather than of strategic importance.

What does ‘strategy’ really mean?

Your strategy is your chosen route from where you are now, to where you aim to be. For an organisation that means that first it has to be clear where it is now – and it probably doesn’t know clearly enough – and where it aims to be – and that too may be less clear. Because it takes time to make big changes, it often means looking five to ten years ahead.

Why an HR strategy?

Well, you have people now. You might want to trade them in and get newer models. hey might want to trade you in and get a better employer – a model employer. The changes in the organisation and the work it does will affect the sort of people it needs to have over five or more years. You may want more or fewer of them.

You might want people with different skills. The people might be different too. They may – probably will – want to be managed better. If they are really skilled they may be in demand – you might have to find ways of retaining them in a happy, motivated highly productive state.

I suppose you could ‘bin’ those whom you don’t feel are up to the new work and go and buy new ones, but that can be expensive. And that applies to people at all levels. The higher up the management ladder they are, the more you will have to pay the slave traders – sorry, recruitment specialists.

“You could bring in some ‘change management specialists’ and a bag of magic change management tools, or you could develop your existing good managers and turn them into the sort you need.”

That itself could cost you a fortune. It might even cost you your job if the new ‘high maintenance’ managers let your other people, the humble, loyal servants, know how much more they are being paid. It will certainly bring trouble.

You are going to need people to get you from where you are now, to where you want to be. Yes, tough managers who can make new things happen, to specification, and on time. You could bring in some ‘change management specialists’ and a bag of magic change management tools, or you could develop your existing good managers and turn them into the sort you need. Your choice, and it has implications on your retention and remuneration policies.

And while all this is going on, the HR department will be making changes, not all of which will be the result of the government ‘guidelines’. They will – for the best of reasons – put in temporary expedients (means sticking plaster) – over some self-inflicted wounds. Cynical? Perhaps, but a VP of a mid-sized pharmaceutical company told me recently that the job of his HR department seems to be to clean-up problems the HR department created.

So there is a lot to do to make sure HR, as well as the other functions, help the organisation along its strategic route to a better, more effective and profitable future. Work with the organisation’s strategy – not in isolation, or against it.

What can be done?

Talking about it in general terms is the easy bit. Doing it is much tougher. So where do we start?

The key issues are:

  • Where does the business want to be, what will it be doing, what form of organization will be needed, how different will this be from the way in which the organization is currently set up?
  • What sort of workforce will be needed then to support the organization’s aims, what will their needs and expectations be, what skills and expertise will be needed, where will you get the right people?
  • What will the employment scene look like, what qualitative and quantitative differences will there be, how different might the HR scene be?

It can be useful to look back to the past. For example, employment culture was much discussed in the early 1960’s, then neglected, and is now of concern. Much the same is true of the attention being paid now to developing and retaining talent. Some trends are already clear, the demographic situation over the next ten years is almost certain, and the size of the pool of well-educated and skilled new workers in five years’ time is also pretty clear.

Clarify what the top management want

Get the statement of the organisation’s long-term views, aims and policy. Identify what the organisation’s long-term picture means to HR. Don’t expect the top managers to know exactly what they want from HR – you have to probe their thinking, suggest ideas, and work with and influence those who are developing the aim and new strategy. Your early input can make the strategy realistic.

You may well get a statement of what they want along the lines of: “We need a stable workforce of well-trained, flexible employees at all levels, with appropriate skills, who are committed to the success of our organization.” You will need more than this. Better test out views or specific issues, with precise questions on:

  • What the core business is and what might be out-sourced or even off-shored.
  • What step-changes will be needed as a result of new business initiatives.
  • The skills which will be needed and how these may change.
  • How short-term changes or development in level of activity will be handled.
  • What recruitment will be needed to ensure that there is a sufficient talent pool in each function.
  • How people will be remunerated and the balance between basic pay and incentives.

There are also ‘softer’ issues which are important, such as the relationship between employer and employees, employee engagement, and the culture and attitudes essential to business success.

Be sure of the existing position

Go through the existing plans and policies, the surveys, the way people are remunerated and the other benefits, the skills inventory, and so on, always distinguishing between what is supposed to happen and what really does happen. Look for the anomalies, the contradictions, the self-inflicted problems and the results of earlier ‘quick-fixes’.

Identify what really will be needed

This may not be so clear and a thorough debate with the top management team is essential. They will probably have different views on the role of HR, what the organisation will need by way of people, how HR can best contribute.

Many of the top team may not have thought of the human implications of the new strategy and the changes which will be needed. This is where HR can make its biggest contribution by showing it has considered the implications of what is proposed, even if there are no clear answers. HR is certainly in a good position to test out the top team’s thinking and identify contradictions between the different aspects of the organisation’s strategy.

Priorities and timescale

The strategy will have a timescale, and if it has been well thought out and developed there will be a series of statements on where the organisation will be, stage-by-stage.

“HR is certainly in a good position to test out the top team’s thinking and identify contradictions between the different aspects of the organisation’s strategy.”

Some of these may include quantified objectives. Where there are such objectives it helps HR identify the priorities for making such changes that are needed; a timescale is essential for the HR programme of change since there are important fixed points in the calendar. Where it does not, HR can help by putting forward alternative sequences of changes to the current way of doing things.

Timing of some changes may be influenced by the need to make evident progress, including resolving long-standing difficult issues, at an early stage. HR should know which changes will be likely to cause the most resistance and which ones will be welcomed by the workforce, and which can be one of those steps that make other changes easier.

A change of emphasis

Many HR managers are unhappy at the way HR is increasingly a matter of transactions, of resolving short-term problems, producing temporary fixes, or engaging in defensive HR to keep the organisation out of employment tribunals. While all this is still needed it is essential that the creative, progressive aspects are not neglected.

Many organisations state proudly that their most important assets are their people. This can only be true if the HR implications are considered properly when decisions are made. The HR function has a very important contribution to make to the organisation’s every day business, but this is not enough. It is essential that it contributes to top level policy issues of which strategy is one of the most important. Only then can it justify that coveted, but uncomfortable position – a seat on the board.

John Pope has been a management consultant for 40 years and has worked to improve the development and performance of managers and management teams at all levels for most of his career. He can be contacted at [email protected]

3 Responses

  1. Good article
    I enjoyed reading this. The only point I would add is the need to keep the strategic “thinking” at a couple of conceptual levels above the normal operating level at which we think day to day. Some businesses, and their people, find it very uncomfortable when moving out of their short term cycle – but to envisage what we want an organisation to become in, say 5 years time, does require some personal and team time away from the daily grind of the urgent. Also, try to think about future scenarios/possibilities, rather than trying to predict the future!

  2. Great article
    Thanks for a really interesting article. As someone who is moving jobs into a more senior role a straightforward article on what it is an how to do it is very refreshing.

    Really just common sense

  3. Great article
    Loved the article – there’s such a lot of nonsense talked about what ‘strategic’ means and not just in HR. It’s often used as a label to aggrandize what should be basic business common sense or to justify a lot of dull meetings, big pay rises and spend on ill briefed consultants!

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