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Annie Hayes

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HR: The easy solution to staff development?

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Don't go down the wrong 'staff development' path
Leaning towards a ‘David Brent’ style of staff development is not exactly a recipe for success, so how can HR ensure that line managers play out their part effectively? Annie Hayes reports.


According to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) around two-fifths of organisations say that their line managers are not very effective in supporting learning and development (L&D). This is despite 74 per cent of respondents saying that their line managers have taken on greater responsibility for learning and development activities during the past two years, and overwhelming agreement that line managers are critical to supporting learning and developing in general.

A lack of training for line managers, competing business pressures and a need to align learning and development objectives with the wider organisational strategy, are all reasons cited for this gap between theory and practice.

So what can HR do to ensure the path between A and B is a smooth one?

Support and influence

Richard Gartside, HR director for accounting powerhouse Ernst and Young, says that much of HR’s role in supporting the line manager is about providing them with the right armoury: “HR can provide a range of formal procedures, such as the performance management process, to encourage line managers to develop their staff.”

“HR can provide a range of formal procedures, such as the performance management process, to encourage line managers to develop their staff.”

Richard Gartside, HR director, Ernst and Young

This is all very well, but dangers can appear when the line manager sees this as a simple box-ticking exercise. Petra Wilton, head of public affairs for the Chartered Management Institute, remarks that the role goes deeper than this, and where HR plays its part is in helping the line understand the link between staff development and attaining business goals.

Wayne Mullen, head of learning and development for the Standard Bank, agrees: “HR/L&D need to ensure that employee development is positioned as both an integral part of how we manage performance and do business, rather than another set of activities that managers must do.”

One way of ensuring that the line digs deeper is to dangle the carrot. Gartside says that incentivising them under the reward model can help achieve this.

Training management

But it is no good giving management a set of tools without them understanding or knowing how to use them; sadly this is exactly what is happening. According to the CIPD, half of UK organisations only train a minority of line managers to support learning and development.

Mullen says that coaching should include how to recruit, setting performance targets and giving feedback. “[Managers] need to understand that they have several responsibilities in development: to connect employees with the right development activities and to help them build the right networks. Finally they need to help the employee reflect on their development activities and consider what they will do with what they have learned.”

DSTI Output, a communication business, is a shining example of what to do; they nurture potential staff from the outset with the skills required to become effective managers.

Their ‘Fast-Track’ programme, the brain child of forward thinking chief executive officer, Tim Delahay, is a course designed to provide selected employees with an overview of the essential elements of a business as well as in-depth personal development – aimed at helping them become managers of the future. Sounds like the perfect solution and one that does work where time can be invested in home-grown management, but it’s not always practical. One universal management skill is communication, often a thorny issue. Without the right messages in place, HR and the line manager are stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Communication and understanding

Gartside says that HR’s role here is to make it very clear that effective communication with staff is valued by the organisation and facilitated under the culture of the firm.

Both Mullen and Wilton agree that the use of 360 degree feedback methods is a great way for HR to help the line manager develop but, warns Mullen, it’s not something HR should police.

Part of the communication role is cascading down objectives. Peter Hunter, author of Breaking the Mould, says that HR has a huge role to play in taking things a step further.

“The difference that HR can make involves them being the agents for a change of attitude throughout the whole organisation which, in the first instance, is their job to initiate and, in time, to simply oversee the process as it is adopted throughout the organisation.”

Peter Hunter, author of Breaking the Mould

“The difference that HR can make involves them being the agents for a change of attitude throughout the whole organisation which, in the first instance, is their job to initiate and, in time, to simply oversee the process as it is adopted throughout the organisation.”

In this role, Hunter says HR can transform the organisation: “HR can help their line managers by taking the initiative with a different management strategy; one that, instead of telling the workforce what they should be doing, actively asks the workforce what they need to do their jobs, and seeks ways to give it to them.

“The strategy is very simple and can be implemented with minimal disturbance or outlay but HR have to first understand what they are doing and why. When that happens they can transform the organisation.”

A partnering role

Wilton says that, in essence, HR should be looking at moving towards a partnering role with the line manager. She says that one doesn’t do very well without the other when it comes to developing staff. If HR is left to go solo she warns that ‘sheep dip’ training becomes a real possibility whereby HR does training for training’s sake.

Partnering, it would seem, is crucial when you take into account how far things have moved along. Mullen says that employees are much more clued up now about what they can expect in terms of development.

“To ensure that learning and development is effective, organisations need ‘buy in’ from all employees regardless of level. Line managers are key to delivering this and thus need to be supported in meeting their employees’ needs.”

Victoria Winkler, learning and development adviser, CIPD

“Increasing emphasis on employees owning their development is important as is training managers to coach. Not just as a discrete activity but an integral part of how they lead. All employees should have a development plan – ideally aligned to their performance management process, and managers should be rated on how well they develop their employees as part of their own performance appraisal.”

And organisations can no longer ignore the important role that learning and development plays either. Sadly, says Victoria Winkler, learning and development advisor at the CIPD, many line managers just don’t take it seriously. “To ensure that learning and development is effective, organisations need ‘buy in’ from all employees regardless of level. Line managers are key to delivering this and thus need to be supported in meeting their employees’ needs.”

HR, it seems, has a crucial role to play in supporting, influencing and helping line managers develop staff by providing essential tools and by partnering with the line manager to develop programmes.

There is also an important role to play in getting the line manager up to the mark – in developing them as managers with the right skills and, importantly, getting them to a point of understanding on why developing staff is essential in helping the organisation meet its strategic goals.


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Annie Hayes

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