Should HR focus more on prioritisation?

Blog posts

6 Mar 2017

Peter ReillyPeter Reilly, Principal Associate

In writing our recent chapter on HR in a post-Ulrich world for the IES annual Perspectives on HR report, another theme we could have considered in more detail was that of the function’s work prioritisation. Increasingly, HR organisations report the challenge of having too much demanded of them given their resources. Perhaps, this is a case of ‘twas ever thus, but the squeeze on HR numbers, whether because of public sector austerity or post-recession efficiency, is certainly real enough. Moreover, the data explosion and associated technological innovations mean that organisations have the opportunity to do much more investigation and analysis than previously, but as yet do not have the robotic management systems (let alone the people) to do the work.

So, one way of containing costs is by ensuring that scarce resources are concentrated on the most important things – hence prioritisation. We have seen this approach used explicitly in HR analytics to separate the strategic and critical from the urgent but less consequential, but also used to recognise organisational politics and resource constraints [1].

Based on our research, typical prioritisation criteria include:

  • Fit with strategic objectives (business or functional)
  • Applies to more than one business unit/function
  • Seniority of the customer
  • Need for the specialist skills (beyond the customer’s capability)
  • Skills and resources to do the work (internal or external)
  • Will deliver a useable result

At IES, we have also recently considered prioritisation in the higher education and health sectors when discussing workforce planning. Rather than trying to plan in detail for the whole workforce, organisations may understandably give precedence to those employment groups which are hardest to attract and retain: detailed planning on the sufficiency of supply for these staff makes sense if it is difficult to whistle up replacements to cover losses. Wendy Hirsh makes this point in relation to ‘key professionals’ in her Perspectives article, Talent management: responding to uncertainty.

One sees organisations segmenting their staff groups to provide tailored offers, services and ‘products’, especially in the areas of reward and development. At its most general, this might mean differentiated propositions being made in recognition of the varied workforce characteristics. But again, there is a natural wish to focus scarce resources on those most critical to the business or most in demand. Limited pay budgets often force organisations to choose between a small amount for a lot of people or a moderate sized payment for a limited number of marketable staff. Similarly, training can be spread thinly or concentrated on those with most potential or those in need of a skills uplift.

Finally, prioritisation can underpin the work of the HR department as a whole. Companies like British Airways, Coca Cola and SAP have at various times used a built-in prioritisation mechanism [2] not too dissimilar in operation from the HR analytics one. Here is the ‘sieve’ Coca-Cola Enterprises [3] used to select out HR projects that:

  1. contribute to business performance
  2. promote early delivery of business benefits
  3. maximize employee engagement
  4. improve or simplify people management activities
  5. support legal or regulatory compliance

The Kent County Council example below is an interesting example of how the concept of commissioning can be used to manage HR on a tight budget.

Under the continuing local government pressure to cut costs, Kent County Council (KCC) sought opportunities to partner with an external organisation for the provision of transactional services. This, however, did not materialise due to the centralisation, improvements and efficiencies already delivered, giving less scope for both parties to benefit. KCC decided to retain its transactional services following open competition because the internal offer was better - external vendors could not offer a cheaper or improved solution. HR was nevertheless expected to reduce in numbers in anticipation and underwent a review of its corporate HR function. The council has reorganised the rest of HR, which now includes:

  • 2 HR and 2 OD commissioning and strategy managers
  • 3 business partners
  • 3 HR managers
  • 27 HR staff responsible for delivery of the commissioned activity

The system that the Council initiated in 2016 is for Strategy & Commissioning managers to commission the HR managers to undertake work based either on the business needs as reported by the business partners or on their own understanding of corporate or externally generated requirements. The HR managers can then call off work from their pool made up of former HR specialists and generalists.

The commissions include several ‘themes’ such as continuous improvement, behaviours, self-sufficiency, equality and diversity, functional integration and employee engagement. Also, the commissions must have clear organisational and HR measures of success against the key deliverables. The HR managers follow the ‘plan, do, review’ method so that the outcome of the commission can be assessed.

Currently, there are some 50 OD/HR commissions detailed in a single spreadsheet with a priority rating and a RAG status such that progress can be tracked and resources allocated as needed.

So, whether it be prioritising the work of the whole department (as with Kent County Council) or particular types of project, or varying the degree of planning intensity and time and effort expended depending on the nature of the employment group, we suggest HR functions will increasingly have to focus their efforts. And generally, this prioritisation is best done in an open and transparent manner, on some sort of logical basis and well communicated within the HR team. The only possible exception to the overt discrimination in resource deployment may be in the favouring of certain groups. Discrimination may be obvious (and will need to be defensible) when differential rewards are given, but may be trickier in talent management if organisations claim that everyone has ‘talent’. That though would be the subject of another blog…..!

[1] Reilly P (2016), The path towards predictive analytics, Member Paper 126, Institute for Employment Studies

[2] Reilly and Williams (2012), Global HR: Challenges Facing the Function, Gower

[3] Reilly and Williams (2006), Strategic HR: building the capability to deliver, Gower

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.