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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Interview: Brian Bowden, Director of HR Operations at Aer Lingus


1. On your LinkedIn you mention part of your role has been ‘re-positioning the HR function.’ Can you elaborate on this? Where was it before and where do you want it to be?

Our transformation has sought to reposition the HR function so as to focus on strategic HR activity and standardise and systemise our HR admin processes.

In 2009 our new senior leadership team developed a new business strategy that re-positioned Aer Lingus as a Value Carrier – in the market space between low cost carriers and full-service legacy carriers.  We benchmarked HR activity across the business and found that less than 10% of our effort was directed at the type of activity needed to support this strategy – areas such as talent identification, leadership development, aligned performance management and employee engagement.  At the same time we recognised that our administrative HR activity was comprised of disparate undocumented manual processes that did not meaningfully utilise shared service, self-service or technology based opportunities.

We engaged a Company called Debunk HR and together developed a transformation plan with two focuses – building a strategic HR capability and framework whilst simultaneously reforming, standardising and systemising our HR processes and services.

2. Airlines have to be – by industry – high reliability organisations. How does HR differ in high reliability organisations than in ‘normal’ organisations?

The culture of reliability and quality that underpin our Flight, Maintenance and Ground Operations give rise to interesting specific and general HR challenges.

An example of a specific challenge is Cadet pilot recruitment.  So crucial are these choices that we have sophisticated multi-dimensional recruitment processes that generally mean 6 months from ad to offer.  This means both planning and execution have to be spot on.

On a more general note – Aer Lingus needs to be agile as well as reliable, to allow us respond to a fast-moving operational and competitive environment.

An aim of our HR transformation is to replicate the rigour that underpins our operational quality whilst maintaining the flexibility of attitude (and indeed process) needed to respond effectively to business needs.

3. Flight crews must be able to work together – for the safety of passengers and to ensure a cordial atmosphere on flights. What HR practices do you use to ensure team fit?

Initial training plays an important part – as does consistency in communication.  Clearly, Crew are an extremely mobile part of the workforce which adds to the communication challenge.  We have recently re-structured our cabin leadership structure so that every member of Cabin staff has a specified team leader.  We believe this will enhance not just consistency of message but will also enhance our understanding of issues on the ground (or in this case in the air!). 

4. What HR trends have you seen over the last year?

At a high level it is probably the same trend that faces all HR functions – how to deliver more value for less cost!  For us this has involved an increased emphasis on measurement.  We are increasingly seeking to measure our effectiveness across more and more activities from delivery of HR services, to effectiveness of development programmes to employee engagement.  This is beginning to evolve into co-relating these measurements.

5. What do you think the HR function will look like in five years?

We will be a future-focussed predictive function. By combining our focuses on talent and measurement we can seek to reliably predict what and who is likely to succeed as opposed to simply measuring what has happened in the past.  Qualitative and quantitative assessment of the linkages between performance, competencies and leadership development initiatives will be key to this.

6. Can you let us know a bit about how Aer Lingus uses technology in the HR function?

We are still very much in the early stages of our technology journey. When we benchmarked in 2010, we uncovered over 100 different HR processes.  Of these 80% had the potential to utilise technology whilst only 18% actually did (and mainly in a non-connected way).  So we have begun with the basics. We have implemented a back-end HR system that is fully integrated (Payroll, HR Admin, Recruitment, Training, Performance, Talent).  The integrated system is important in providing us with the data to enable us to realise our aspiration of being predictive. We are now rolling out an employee and manager self-service front end for our system.  The next step for us will be to make the self-service offering fully mobile – a key consideration for us given the composition of our workforce. We have partnered with NGA HR who are providing our HR admin services and integrated technology solution.

7. How does performance management work at Aer Lingus?

We utilise somewhat different approaches across different groups within the business, with the approach generally determined by the nature of the staff group or function in question.

With performance management for our top 500 (where discretionary effort is vital) our approach is based on assessing not just what people have achieved but how they have achieved it.  In doing this we are seeking to encourage sustainable performance.  We do not force distribute ratings but over the last 18 months we have placed increased emphasis on embedding a more rigorous approach to calibrating performance outcomes.  This involves an iterative process, with HR business partners working with each Executive area to ensure consistency of approach and measurement across the business.

8. How does Aer Lingus define and measure talent?

The definition is quite simple – the potential to succeed at higher levels within Aer Lingus – the measurement challenge is about how we put reliable consistent parameters on what would otherwise be a very subjective judgement.  To address this we have tried to ensure that directors and managers who are asked to assess talent are provided with a common language and approach.

To do this Debunk HR helped us to develop a competency framework covering levels of leadership, business and functional competence to provide a common point of reference.  As an example, demonstrated ability to learn is a good guide to identifying talent. We also apply a “9-box” approach as the standard basis of assessment.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence