Thought leadership - Business Works

Thought leadership

Charles Elwin, Director CPLD

We may no be able to predict the next few months will bring, but Charles Elvin of The Open University considers how to make the most of your human resources with examples from the public and private sectors.

Cuts are coming. That much is certain. The public sector knows that over the next few years it will be faced with the conflicting demands of maintaining quality services while reducing budgets; and that almost always means reduced staff numbers. Leaders and managers will be faced with the grim reality of deciding who, what and how to cut - and then how to manage going forward.

Inevitably, tough decisions will have to be made regarding who is retained and who goes. In order to do this, managers must have a clear picture of what needs to be done and the skills, capabilities and competencies required (and at what level) in order to achieve the service delivery. Needless to say, it is essential to invest time in really understanding what skills you need and what work is done by your top performers – this will give you the vital information you need to ensure service levels can be maintained as high a possible.

To maintain service levels, or at least have them as high as is possible with the resources available, it is essential not to just focus on the number of people you have, but the effectiveness of those people. You need to retain your core skills and keep those with them up-to-date and performing at the highest level. It is frequently better, in service delivery terms, to have fewer, better people operating at a higher and more effective level (and focusing on maintaining their skills and performance) than to have more people operating at less-effective levels and being unable to maintain and support them sufficiently.

©Andy Pini

Isn’t the learning and development budget the obvious place to cut – perhaps, saving one of two jobs that might otherwise go? No, this would be a false economy. In terms of maintaining service quality, as well as minimising the impact of staff reduction on those remaining, you need to keep the training, learning and development activity very much in place - you are going to need it. Cutting it actually makes the situation worse and will compound the negative impact on service quality. What is needed, is careful re-focusing of learning and training activities to address the different issues that teams are now going to face.

Losing people also means that you have to make those remaining more effective and demands focus on their motivation and enthusiasm. The consequences of the reduction in staff numbers impacts those remaining as well as those leaving, although obviously in different ways. If they are to deliver high-quality services, organisations must support and develop those that remain, as well as help them through what will be challenging times.

Management skills aimed at getting the most out of your people are essential. If your managers can’t prioritise effectively, motivate, guide and lead then, your teams will suffer. Leading in relatively good times is very different from leading in times of reduced resources. If your managers have not done this before, and many managers may not have, then you need to give them the appropriate skills, training and support. The effectiveness of the teams will depend a great deal on the effectiveness of their managers. I would also strongly recommend having management teams refresh their core people-management skills, team development skills and understanding of stress and how to identify it and manage it.

©Richard Learoyd

For the teams delivering services, investment in personal capability skills (such as creative problem solving, systems thinking, project management, time management, communications skills and effective team working) can both empower and drive effective and efficient working practices. This will contribute to increased service levels and quality. I would also suggest investing in core financial understanding, even for those with essentially non-financial roles, as this can contribute to broader understanding of how to operate and work within restrictive budgets and how to make the most of them.

Staff development at this time is not “wasted money” nor is it investment just in morale building (although it usually has a positive effect on morale). It is an essential activity to equip managers and teams for what will be a very different world and working environment. Post rationalisation, if you cannot make your remaining staff as good and effective as they possibly can be, you will only increase the impact of any staff cuts by failing to ensure those remaining are operating at their best.

An additional challenge for local government is how to deliver the training that these groups need in a cost-effective manner. The case study below shows how Thomson Reuters achieved a highly-effective learning intervention for particular management groups at a price considerably lower than traditional face-to-face training.

Case study: Thomson Reuters

©Richard Learoyd

Reuters is the world’s leading source of intelligent information for businesses and professionals. It merged with the Thomson Corporation in 2008 to form Thomson Reuters. The new business group serves customers in the legal, financial, tax and accounting, scientific and healthcare markets and has approximately 50,000 employees in 93 countries.

New line managers are often confronted with a number of issues and challenges for the first time, and expected to be able to deal promptly and effectively with them. But the challenges posed by issues such as absence management, performance management, operational targets being missed and budgets being exceeded are often compounded by the fear of getting things wrong and causing the organisation a problem.

The OU was commissioned to deliver The Management Challenge to cohorts of 30 Reuters employees. Once a 3.5-day in-house residential had been completed, the OU then delivered a week-by-week course that took delegates through a variety of management skills, such as team-working, leadership and delegation, over a 10 week period. By rooting the management theory in work-based practices and issues, delegates could post problems and share solutions online concerning management issues they dealt with in their day-to-day roles.

Since the online version of the course was established in 2005, over 1200 Thomson Reuters managers have participated in cohorts of 30. During their online discussions, and as part of their end-of-course assignments, they have universally praised the immediate and practical application of their learning in the workplace, as well as highly valued the sharing of good practice and development of a more supportive, learning culture in the organisation.

Charles Elvin is Director of the Open University’s Centre for Professional Learning and Development (CPLD). The CPLD is the specialist unit within the Open University dedicated to creating and delivering learning solutions into the learning and development market place.

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