April 1, 2014

Update from Down Under!

Dear all,

As you may know, I am currently in Australia for 10 days.  Last summer, the Registrar asked me and Tony Strike, Director of Strategy, to visit the University of Western Australia (UWA) in Perth to augment an ongoing relationship with that institution. I start my meetings at UWA on Monday so will report back later.

Whilst in Australia, I have taken the opportunity to visit the University of Melbourne, the most prestigious and successful HEI in Australia. As you may also know, our very own Rob Baker is currently the HR Manager for their School of Land and Environment.

I have now concluded my few days at Melbourne University. During which time I was invited to present at their HR Managers team meeting (similar to our HRX) and meet with their senior HR staff. I wish to report back some initial thoughts and actions.

1. The HR challenges facing a large research-led institution such Melbourne mirror many of our own issues. For example, global talent acquisition, enabling and supporting both high quality R and T, measuring performance, league table performance etc.

2. Melbourne have undertaken a range of very interesting initiatives and programmes to tackle some of these matters - many of which I think we could learn from. Specifically, I spent some time learning about their academic appraisal systems and particularly their interesting utilisation of technology. We'll develop these relationships further to help us progress our work in this area.

3. Melbourne have also considered carefully the issue of measuring academic performance and have developed some interesting frameworks and toolkits. I've exchanged work with my counterpart at Melbourne on this, and I know that Liz R in Engineering is developing further links with her engineering HR equivalent.

4. For the past 10 months Melbourne have been running an ambitious programme to attract and engage world-class researchers. This is similar to our VC Fellowship programme, although I would think that we can learn further from the Melbourne model. I will be sharing the material with Tracy and the team upon my return.

5. I also spent some time with their equivalent of our OD teams. There are some interesting reflections to share with Gill et al, although their offer isn't perhaps as coherent/integrated as it is in Sheffield.

6. Rob Baker had also arranged for me to meet with their Faculty Operations Director. Many of the above issues were discussed (e.g. academic performance management) but also the issue of rewarding rotating Heads was considered. I'll speak with Steph and Ian about this further.

7. Although there is plenty to learn from a world Top 50 institution like Melbourne, I am pleased to report that their HR and leadership team were genuinely impressed by Talent First and the breadth and creativity of our work at Sheffield, so well done.

On a more personal note, for those of you familiar with twitter will know that I had a free day in Melbourne on Saturday. I now completely understand why Rob chose to relocate here. The outdoors lifestyle, the climate, food, environment and people are fantastic. I should also sincerely thank Rob and his wife Clare for accommodating me so wonderfully well. Please be aware though that should you wish to pay him a visit, the daily early morning run and the evening run/cycle are evidently mandatory in the Baker household.  

I'm now on my way to Perth and will send a note to you all about the aims/purpose on this part of the visit.  

Finally, may I thank Tracy, Ian and his team for so ably managing the ongoing industrial relations issues back home.



December 24, 2013

What's Next?

One of the best things about Christmas is having the time away from work to reflect upon the past 12 months. I admit that I haven’t found much time to properly consider everything that’s gone on throughout 2013. However I have returned to my blog of December 2012. In that blog I posted 10 New Year resolutions. They were a blend of work related and personal goals for the year. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I had accomplished eight out of the ten. My shortcomings are no. 7 (I didn’t do any triathlons in 2013, although I am now a proud owner of a road bike, thank you Cycle to Work scheme) and my best guess is that I also failed to achieve resolution no. 4. (to send fewer emails). Nevertheless, a busy, challenging and fruitful year.        
I was out last Sunday evening at my local pub quiz with a close friend. In between failing miserably to answer the questions, he opined that developing and agreeing a long list of resolutions for 2014 would be foolish, suggesting in the alternative that it would be more productive to determine just one overarching aim. The example given was his personal goal to complete the Great North Run in September 2014. He argued that by achieving this then he would have to by default achieve all the other standard New Year resolutions (e.g. to eat and drink less, to exercise more, to do something new etc). His approach got me thinking as to whether I could equally determine one central goal for the year. It perhaps sounds rather irksome, but the work related goal could be to deliver everything we have said we would in Talent First and our other plans/work agendas. As for one overarching personal goal? Here’s the rub – the family insist it should be “to spend more time at home” with them – a dictomony indeed, not least as I also really want to get those triathlons done. So, it’s a real challenge for us all as we juggle our many commitments, interests and goals.  

For the time being though perhaps we should settle with simply enjoying Christmas – a very well deserved break and hopefully an opportunity for you to slow down and relax.    
May I sincerely thank you for your hard work, commitment and support throughout the year.

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year!

December 5, 2013

Is HR Pointless?

Over the summer you may have read in the press about the demise of Lucy Adams, the Director of People at the BBC. You may also have read the aftermath, most prominently from Louisa Peacock of The Daily Telegraph who opined that Adams had managed to kill off the HR profession once and for all, adding that “HR is a pointless department that does little for the bottom line of the business”.

Although I won’t comment on the Adams case, the criticism directed at HR as a result of the woes at the BBC warrant some further thought. It would appear that most critics argue that HR professionals have sought to serve the interests of their masters rather than the wider business. We’re so often accused of navel gazing, orchestrating endless self-referential debates within the profession on whether HR is strategic and should have a place on the top table.  Moreover, we wrap these insular debates within the language of HR babble. How often do we talk and write in metaphors? For example we love to “drive out” things (only cattle are driven out?) and we’re often “going forwards” (Satnav speak?). We also like to “ring-fence” and “deliver” (surely only pizzas, post and services are delivered). We often slip in “in order to…” or “the fact that…” into sentences, both almost always superfluous statements. It isn’t just HR people that over use or misuse language but whilst I’m here I may as well mention my other pet hate – starting a sentence with a number.  So, perhaps as a profession we don’t always help ourselves.
However, probably the biggest problem the profession faces is that very often HR is not practised well. Too many HR people concentrate on learning and then applying the babble, and over emphasising their mastery of ‘technical’ and/or procedural matters. Thankfully, I believe that we operate differently here at Sheffield. We need to continue to focus on developing and applying those precious organisational skills - pragmatic problem solving, decision-making and being able and willing to reach sound judgements.

Can we communicate in a better way to emphasise our corporate contribution whilst avoiding the type of criticism often directed towards our profession? Here are a few thoughts from me:

1.       You’re an individual and you’ll be communicating with other individuals – so write personably (and professionally).

2.       You don’t therefore always need to adopt a formal standardised approach, consider offering your own judgement and opinion. 

3.       Let’s not be too defensive. We all make mistakes. When we do, apologise and then attempt to remedy the problem.

4.       We’re very busy – but there should always be time to acknowledge a query/question/problem. Providing the answer to that phone call or email may take us longer, but always acknowledge it promptly.      

5.       We adapt our communications to the recipient, but don’t forget that others may read that note. Emails are very leaky! 

6.       Is what we are saying in the best interests of the University? If you’re not sure or don’t know why it is, then ask a colleague?

In that spirit, let me ask you whether there are any top communication tips that you’ve found helpful? If so, please do share.


August 6, 2013

Why bother?

The special Juice timetable for Professional Services starts today, and I encourage you to get involved.

But why bother?

Juice is very much values driven.

First, we consider that health and wellbeing is personal to the individual. It's therefore important that we access the information, activities and support in our own personal way. This may be simply reading the articles on the Knowledge Bank. Should you wish to attend an activity but you're not quite sure where to start, then perhaps book onto a Body Health Check or attend the Posture (Are you sitting comfortably?) seminar. It's not too much bother to read the Juice articles, nor will it take you too long to attend a session. Try to make time.  

Second, Juice isn't necessarily about making us physically and mentally fit and 'resilient' in the workplace. Nor are we explicitly aiming to reduce sickness absence levels and to increase staff productivity. What's more important is that each individual is well, healthy and happy at home and in the workplace. So, how can Juice help support this? Juice aims to provide individuals with opportunities to engage in physical, mental and social activities that enrich our working lives. The activities may enable us to display our multifarious talents and/or harness abilities that we didn't know we had. We may also be able to challenge ourselves and achieve things we thought were impossible. Recently, a member of staff from SCHARR approached me after completing a Juice activity. She told me "I never thought I could do that, but I did, and it's given me a real sense of achievement...working here is great". And this is why we have Juice.

Still not sure? Then let us know what would help you in your everyday health and wellbeing. Any ideas, big or small, please do share them with me or the team. Also, read the feedback reviews that participants have left on the Juice website - they offer a direct and honest opinion. 

So, please do get involved, have a go, have some fun and help us make this a remarkable place to work! 

May 9, 2013

Consistently Different

Many of you know of my prejudice against those HR policies, procedures and practices that proudly endeavour to create “consistency”; consistency in tone, content and moreover in their application. Why are HR practitioners so anxious to engender consistency? In reply, most people talk about the importance of equality and fairness. But if we really wanted to manage people fairly (which we do) then let’s simply say that. Consistency isn’t the same as fairness, because people are different. For example, I want my employer to treat me fairly but it will struggle to do so if it has to treat me the same as everyone else, who are undoubtedly different from me and different from you. 

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have structures, frameworks and guidelines. We do need these, but we also need to enable individuals to be themselves, to be expressive, to be distinct, and to be different.  As an organisation – a collection of people – we need these different perspectives, skills, experiences and behaviours to flourish and then come together to generate positive corporate outcomes; whether it be innovative research, engaging teaching or solving tricky people problems. 

We’re currently working with Simon Fanshawe, co-founder of Stonewall and he recently signposted us to a book called The Difference by Scott Page. Page indicates that progress and innovation may depend less on lone thinkers with enormous IQs than on diverse people working together and capitalising on their individuality. He shows how groups that display a range of perspectives outperform groups of like-minded experts. So don’t “great minds think alike”? Maybe, but let’s not forget that other maxim: “fools seldom differ”.

Simon illustrated how diversity and difference isn’t particuarly prevalent in the corporate world, describing how a large ‘magic circle’ law firm employs fewer women Partners than it does male Partners called “Dave”. But surely we’re not that homogenous here at Sheffield? My HR colleague ended Simon’s story by suggesting that perhaps we are - substitute the word “Partner” with “Pro-Vice-Chancellor” and “Dave” with “Tony”. Indeed, only this week the THE published their Global Gender Index, reporting that “academia is characterised as being cutting-edge, innovative and hypermodern, yet wherever you look it is underpinned by the archaism of male domination”. 

However, the picture is improving. I was recently reading the coverage of Lady Thatcher’s death and was struck by a reproduced image taken of her Cabinet in 1989. The paper caption dwelled on the duplicitous smiles of the Ministers whilst they were secretly preparing to oust their Prime Minister. But what I noticed was that those 22 people that stood behind their leader were all white, middle aged men, none of whom had declared a LGBT orientation nor a disability. This wouldn’t be the case now, regardless of the political party in power. Simon perhaps presented this more eloquently when suggesting that discrimination was still an “everyday event” but no longer an “all-day event”.

As you know we are now playing an important role in supporting the University, its leaders, managers and staff to embrace difference and diversity. Part of this work is for us to guard against slavishly applying our policies, procedures and processes in a ‘consistent’ manner when the result, however unintentional, may be to fetter individuality, diversity and fairness. This isn’t always an easy task for us, but it certainly makes our jobs consistently different from many others.         

March 7, 2013

Being Beautiful

The phrase "beauty is only skin deep" apparently dates back to the early 17th century. And as we appear to rely increasingly on our bespoke typeface, colour graphics, glossy brochures and interactive web pages are we forever compounding this superficiality? In the alternative, should we not concentrate on content, purpose, and values? These of course matter, and as a department we have a revered reputation for high quality content, thoughtful analysis and evidence based and pragmatic decision making. But is this enough?

Almost 2,000 years before Thomas Overbury's observations on the superficiality of beauty, Aristotle said that "beauty is a greater recommendation than any letter of reference". He may well be right. The potential students that we want to teach and the prospective staff that we want to appoint expect the University to be "beautiful"; they demand that our buildings, equipment and physical environment aren't just functional but are interesting, idiosyncratic, challenging and fun. The same applies, perhaps more so, to the virtual world.

Our Director of Corporate Affairs, Nick Agarwal presented to UEB this week on his plans for the University's website, particularly the home page.

Is such a topic worthy of UEB time?

He quickly dispelled this fear held by some, when we were reminded that the UoS website receives 24 million visitors per year. This is significant when you consider that the BBC receives 12 million per month. He shared a new-look home page, which is certainly more "beautiful" than our current offering which hasn't seen an upgrade since 2007. The site will ditch the "tell and do" approach and offer more stories about our research, utilise social media, as well as encourage easier navigation to the 50,000 web pages that currently sit underneath the homepage.

Nick also shares my strong desire to blend together the "staff" landing page with our current HR homepage. Again, does this really matter? I was surprised to hear that around 40% of all the traffic to the UoS website originates "on-campus". Our web pages are, or at least should be, a genuine and powerful tool to communicate and engage with our staff and others.

So, let's make them beautiful!

It's recognised that we are currently fetted by CMS and associated technologies, but watch this space for developments in this area. In the meantime let's focus on the content.

Repeating my plea at HR Exchange, every one of us has a responsibility to keep our web pages as accurate and as informative as possible. Let's also act quickly - if we have something useful to say, let's add to the site straight away. If we have changed a document, policy or form, let's amend the site on it's implementation date. If we are publicising an event, let's give plenty of notice and then remove the post after the event has happened. Simple things really.

"Fast is fine, but accuracy is everything"

I'm not entirely sure this always applies, but let's work together to present ourselves in the virtual world as being fast, accurate and of course beautiful!

December 20, 2012

Time Out

So, we’ve come to the end of the calendar year. If you’re like me, you’ll be tired and really looking forward to a break away from work. Christmas is a great opportunity to catch up with family and friends, but this can itself make for a busy (fraught?) few days. I started the negotiations with my parents, siblings and in-laws back in August as to who was going where, when and for how long over the seasonal period. The latest position is that my parents will be coming over on Christmas Day at either 5.30pm or 6.00pm – agreement has yet to be reached (and we think trade union negotiations are tough, I trust there’s an ACAS Christmas helpline?)

What I am certain about is that I will make the time to properly reflect upon the year just ending and consider the year to come. At the departmental Christmas meal and HR Exchange I shared with you some of our highlights, so I won’t repeat these here. I do however want to say how pleased and proud I am of the whole team. You’ve worked hard and achieved much, so thank you all.

As for next year, then I’ll be making a list of things to achieve in 2013; New Year’s Resolutions if you like. I have a few days left to finalise these, but I thought I would share with you my draft goals (in no particular order):

1. To buy a house (we’ve sold the family home quicker than envisaged, so I really need to crack on before the family becomes homeless, so no pressure then).
2. To launch and enact our new HR Strategy.
3. To attend fewer meetings than I did in 2012.
4. To send fewer emails than I did in 2012.
5. To run the Windermere Marathon quicker than I did in 2012.
6. To successfully deliver upon all my SRDS objectives (I have to say this really).
7. To complete at least two Olympic distance Triathlons (better buy a bike then).
8. To evidence that the University is a remarkable place to work.
9. To achieve a positive work/life balance (this is a standing item).
10. To challenge, to be challenged and to have fun.

A busy 2013 is on the cards then. In the meantime, I really hope you enjoy your time out and manage to relax and refresh. You may also want to prepare your own list of goals for 2013, and perhaps even share them with the team!?

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year.