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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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James Purvis, CERN, on human resources at the world-famous nuclear physics lab


This is the second interview in a two-part series – the first looked at talent acquisition at CERN.

1) Tell us a little about the structure of the HR function at CERN e.g. is there a strategic business partnering focus? Is there a VP that sits on the board?

Our HR department has a frontline with the HR Business Partners (HR Advisors in CERN language) and three Centres of Excellence which are Learning & Development, Compensation & Benefits and Talent Acquisition. HR at CERN covers some functions not found elsewhere because CERN as an international organisation acts in a role of state (e.g. providing social security coverage). The Head of HR at CERN sits on the Extended Directorate together with the other eight department heads, directors and director general.

James Purvis in 15 seconds

James Purvis is Head of Talent Acquisition at CERN.

He is fully responsible for all recruitment & selection processes, and recruitment programmes from interns through to graduates and permanent positions.

He has been at CERN since 1989 in a variety of positions including as a Technical Student and Software Engineer before moving into HR.

He speaks English, French and Spanish and has a first-class honours degree in computer science from Brunel University.

2) What HR technology do you use at CERN e.g. vendors/types of technology?

We have been early adopters of technology so took a best-in-class approach.

We have a core ERP from Oracle, an e-recruitment system from Hireserve, payroll from HRAccess, reporting from SAP (Business Objects) and state-of-the-art in-house developed workflow, approval and reporting systems covering HR process from absence authorisation to annual appraisals and claims.

In recruitment we use a few SaaS solutions such as Sonru for asynchronous videoscreening, Broadbean for multiposting and TextKernel for CV-parsing and searching.

3) What’s the next big goal for the HR function?

We are currently in a five-yearly review period and amongst other items a major item on the agenda there is a review of our career structure and performance management system

4) Where are you on the Big Data journey and what are you doing to increase the utility of Big Data in HR at CERN?

CERN experiments produce 30 petabytes a year and CERN has already broken the 100 Petabyte data recording barrier (that’s equivalent to about 700 years of full HD-quality movies) – so we are not afraid of big data.

However the journey in using big-data in HR starts with just the introduction of ‘small data’ or ‘any data’ to make decisions. Historically we find ‘HIPPOS’ (Highest Important Paid Person’s Opinion) taking key decision roles – but CERN being a scientific environment embraces decisions made on data. Workforce planning, scenarios and ‘what-if’ simulation tools in HR are starting to play key roles in decision-making around proposals for HR policy changes (from compensation and benefits to recruitment).

Before focussing on ‘big data’ try to focus on the ‘right data’ – even small amounts of data can be very telling and play a key role in your HR decision-making processes!

5) What do you think are the main HR challenges facing CERN at the moment?

The laboratory has increased in size, number of experiments, number of scientists it hosts and number of member states – yet the core workforce has reduced. Doing more with less is a constant challenge at CERN, so gaining efficiencies, attracting and retaining critical staff, internal mobility, succession planning, knowledge-transfer, performance management and leadership development are all items on the CERN HR agenda.

6) If you had unlimited budget, what would be the first HR initiative/project you’d implement?

Change the ERP and surrounding processes around personnel record management. When installed in 1996 our ERP was probably quite leading edge, but each ‘upgrade’ seems to have resulted in a reduction of functionality – an absence of online data validation, duplicate data-entry, paper-based storage of personnel files – you would be surprised that at one of the most hi-tech places in the world, some of our back-office software (and dependent processes) are quite dated. CERN is funded by tax-payers money and the majority of funding goes direct to projects like the LHC. A consultant would have a field-day with our ERP setup… but unfortunately we wouldn’t be able to afford the consultancy!

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence