How do companies manage across borders?
As an example of a company that has faced challenge of managing staff across national borders, the Clicks Group has had to get its HR ducks in a row.
The human resource (HR) management of the Clicks Group follows a systematic implementation process of its integrated HR strategy and people agenda that filters through to its branches and interconnected links of staff members, technology and policy, says group learning and development manager, Germinah Nyikana. Its mandate is to uphold the highest standards of service towards employees and customers.
The Clicks Group is one of South Africa’s leading retail and supply groups. It specialises in health and beauty products and operates the Clicks, Musica and The Body Shop brands with over 590 stores across southern Africa.
The group also has a growing presence in the healthcare market through the pharmaceutical distributor United Pharmaceutical Distributor and Clicks Direct Medicines.
“To deliver a consistent and compelling customer and employee value proposition, we have clear role delineation between group and operational human resource functions in terms of the development, execution and governance of policies, procedures and practices,” says Nyikana.
This key strategy is implemented by various people at different levels such as the group HR director, Bertina Engelbrecht, who leads the group’s human resource department and is “accountable for the development of strategic objectives, policies, procedures and supporting documentation”, says Nyikana.
Governance is strengthened by having a group of HR thought leaders who are accountable for specific functional policies and procedures, such as resourcing, rewards, and learning and talent development, in consultation with internal approval forums.
The delegation of these highly specialised roles improves the quality of the employee value by focusing on different components that make a good employee, Nyikana says.
Although this might seem like a good HR strategy, it does not necessarily count as effective management of distributed HR.
“The thorny dilemma of how to manage an HR function in a large organisation has more to do with good management principles than merely the practice of HR, as can be seen from the Clicks example,” says Conrad Viedge, a senior lecturer in human resources at the Graduate School of Business Administration at the University of the Witwatersrand.
“The challenge is to deal with the routine operational HR at branch level, the ‘satellites’ while at the same time having your HR ‘stars’, who are your experts in remuneration, selection, learning and development, succession management and organisational development. In this way the day-to-day as well as the strategic HR functions are effectively covered,” says Viedge.
This helps build a culture that best represents the company’s values, which is enforced by management, but it is realised in the practical work that is done by the branches.
Viedge views this model — which is based on a theory developed by the leading expert on the practice of HR in organisations Dave Ulrich, a professor at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan — as a relationship between head office and branches that is anchored by a centralised management.
“Using this approach, the all-important guiding philosophy for people management comes from the centre and in this way the values and the culture of the organisation are reinforced.
“It also means that the various HR ‘stars’ can ensure that in their areas consistency in approach is maintained and also that best practice is updated based on the practical implementation at the branches.”
There are also line managers at Clicks who lead specific people performance metrics at the decentralised levels, such as in the branch offices at the different regions, and there is a talent and succession process that considers and reviews employees for people development.
However, there is still potential for failure in implementation of the strategy given its complexity, resulting in a flawed matrix structure.
“The ‘stars’, being at the centre, also interact and act as partners with line managers on the implementation of strategy. The complication of this approach is that it leads to a type of matrix structure which comes with its own problems if the management does not adopt a mature and collaborative approach to the management of the HR function,” says Viedge.
Effective and coherent
But the HR feature that Clicks has implemented which best displays an acute awareness of the fragility of its HR strategy, is having clear and open lines of communication between employers and employees through a central HR help desk.
“We have implemented a central HR help desk which handles any queries relating to HR policies and practices and is manned by a compliance team that checks and provides assurance to policies and procedures. The final control is embedded in our SAP HCM system which is a repository of our rules and policies,” says Nyikana.
Multiple media platforms, which form part of the company’s integrated approach, maintain this agenda and ensure delivery of support, encouraging a positive morale among employees. These include an in-house radio station, intranet and e-mail network.
“We also have internal communication sessions, monthly and weekly review sessions, road shows, national conferences and site visits by executives,” says Nyikana.
The lesson seems to be that companies should ensure that their “stars” and “satellites” align coherently and work together effectively for a culture that is present at both head office and regional branch offices, grounded by a good HR policy.