HR is reinventing itself to foster more innovative businesses.
History is being re-written. HR departments are changing the perception they have held through the industrial age of being obstructive and power-hungry.
Leading companies are demanding changes in the integral role that HR plays to meet new demands brought about by the information age.
Probably the biggest challenge HR departments now have is to deal with the complexity of a multi-generation workforce with varying attitudes towards policy, authority and the application of information and communication technology in their daily work place.
Policy is a particularly significant issue companies are addressing because they need to become as lithe and customer-orientated as possible.
Vodacom’s position as a leading South African company can be substantiated by the huge work put into cutting the amount of red-tape it created as it went through exponential growth since its founding in 1994.
Vodacom’s chief HR officer, Mpho Nkeli, says: “In HR alone we have reduced policies from 80 to 30. This trend runs through every department. We grew so quickly that we had to introduce controls.
“Maybe we were a little heavy-handed to the right to ensure legal and governance compliance, but we recognised that policies are stifling and that’s why we went all out to remedy the situation.
Through our Red Card Programme, every employee that has an issue with any policy can raise their hands and flag their concerns so that we can remedy accordingly.”
Nkeli says that Vodacom’s ability to manage and implement policies comes down to applying its company-wide motto of speed, simplicity and trust.
It recently implemented new systems that mean there are fewer checks and balances and more trust placed on managers to work within budgets. These also help monitor employee-manager relationships.
“There are obviously non-negotiable areas we have to comply with, such as corporate and financial governance, and health and safety. However, we need to have a balance between empowering more and policing less,” says Nkeli.
“Policies must meet the needs of our customers without sacrificing the vital rules and regulations,” says Mark van Antwerp, Siemens South Africa’s head of HR.
“Our policy review board meets on a quarterly basis and our factors behind every policy begin with the labour laws and corporate rules of a country, followed by Siemens’ rules worldwide and finally the interests of our people.”
Van Antwerp says: “We get it right 90% of the time. It is extremely rare that we have to formally discipline someone and generally it is not for something life-threatening, but rather a misguided or inappropriate action. We place huge emphasis on avoiding fostering a ‘cover your arse’ attitude.”
He emphasises the concerns over managing the disparities between the baby boomers and generations X and Y, and now that Siemens South Africa is the hub for Africa, the company has to factor in multi-cultural concerns.
“Working on policies for Africa, we need to apply the best blend of all countries.”
Van Antwerp says the historical perceptions of HR are correct, but no longer hold true. It has lost its ability to closet itself in an ivory tower.
“HR as a discipline has undergone significant changes. For example, in today’s business environment, listening skills have become absolutely critical,” he says. “They provide us with the knowledge we need to manage a multi-cultural, multi-generational environment.”
Golden skills transfer
“We are feeling the pinch in sourcing and retaining the number and level of skills we need — particularly for our projects where we are working to meet the burgeoning demand for much-needed infrastructure across Africa.
“The lack of investment in developing project and engineering specialist skills over the past 30 years is coming around to haunt us, because these specialists are now preparing to retire and there are simply insufficent people to take their place.
“Once found, value lies in the retention of skills so it is imperitive to ensure that our offering is attractive to our workforce.
“It is vital also that HR creates a ‘golden skills’ transfer to the younger generation.”
Vodacom does not seem to share the same issues sourcing skills. “We are in five markets [in Africa] and also part of the larger Vodafone family under the vodacom brand. We don’t have a problem accessing talent,” she says.
“All our vacancies are on our system and advertised worldwide. Anyone in any country can apply to work in available positions in any of the 23 markets that Vodafone operates in. We also place a high focus on attracting women into this industry sector.”
Van Antwerp says HR departments face ongoing challenges to maintain motivation and not squashing innovation and enthusiasm due to the differences as well as disparities in attitude across generations.
“Generation X wishes to be chief executives without going through the layers involved.
“They also lack insight into a company’s bigger picture, unlike baby boomers with careers grounded through going through the ranks,” he says.
“Another problem is that while some baby boomers are open to skills transfer, there are others finding it difficult to retire and are stretching out their careers.
“We have to provide coaching — in effect a reality check on the path the existing chief executive took before being appointed to the position.
“My advice to any HR department would be to listen to what the business needs are, what the company wants to achieve, its goals and drivers and apply a people strategy to reach these goals.
“Look at how everything fits together, apply fair labour practice, get the whole picture and find a balance. This is the only way to achieve harmony.”
Both Siemens and Vodacom have incentive programmes in place, based on the particular function a person holds. Vodacom has its yearly short-term incentive plan for all permanent, non-commission-based employees and Siemens rewards individuals through achieving job-specific targets.
HR departments have actually become quite creative about personal recognition, which can be extremely difficult in a multi-national entity with thousands of employees.
For example, Siemens has its “CEO of the moment” campaign, which recognises any employee who acts on their own initiative in a way the chief executive would.
Across its head quarters are life-sized cardboard statues of the organisation’s founder, Werner von Siemens, with the facial area cut out — a novel approach to keep customer satisfaction in mind.
It has become standard business practice in larger companies to have annual people surveys to get feedback on every aspect of the business.
While these surveys used to be perceived as HR paying lip service to employees, their popularity has grown and both Siemens and Vodacom have experienced “excellent returns”.
Vodacom’s most recent annual people survey was completed by 6 054 respondents across the group, a participation rate of 89%.
Subsequently the Tanzanian operations improved by five percentage points and Lesotho by 10% in the engagement score that comes out of the survey, which Nkeli says is clear evidence of the company listening to issues raised in the survey and taking action to fix the issues highlighted.
“People surveys help keep managers grounded because they provide employees the opportunity to raise concerns about their superiors,” says van Antwerp.
It appears that big business is not yet welcoming an attitude of “it is easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission”, they are acknowledging the importance that policies be as unrestrictive as possible and the value of encouraging innovation.
As HR departments hack the red tape around them and empower employees, attitudes towards authority and particularly HR have evolved to become far more objective and healthy.