HR is about delivery, not about doing
Part of the solution to South Africa’s skills shortage is for companies to retain key staff. Or, as Kumba Iron Ore’s HR head puts it, “You don’t want to get into a situation where skills recycling is constantly taking place, with companies poaching each other’s skilled staff”
This was the key message delivered by Kumba Iron Ore general manager of HR, Fergus Marupen, at last month’s 28th Annual Assessment Centre Study Group Conference held in Stellenbosch.
Speaking at the opening session, he said : “Too often in the past HR has been relegated to a department that reports to the financial manager and not to the head of the organisation, and this has hindered its ability to attract talented people and keep them.”
Marupen said that HR was no longer about simply managing processes – it needed to be about improving employees’ production and work experience and not about how many performance evaluation forms were filled in by a department.
It takes a special type of person to work in the HR department of today, he said.
“You don’t become an HR practitioner if you are a people’s person; then you should become a social worker,” Marupen quipped, pointing out that modern HR departments need to drive performance efficiency and add value. “You have to keep the two facets balanced, otherwise you end up with a skewed outcome.”
In growing a successful HR strategy it’s also vitally important to remember that you can’t apply a one-size-fits-all policy. You can’t fit everyone into the same set of rules and standards if you want to retain your competent staff.
Marupen points out that South Africa, along with the rest of the world, is going to face this challenge in a very specific way when Generation Y begins to hit the market place.
“We know through research that these are individuals who will challenge the status quo and push boundaries. HR practitioners will need to be able to respond to them in ways that are creative and tailored to the individual.”
Marupen also pointed out that good HR strategy that enriches a firm and pushes up its productivity and competitiveness in the market place is heavily reliant on being able to identify talent and then to grow it. Again, there is a special challenge for South Africa in this imperative: “It’s no good simply looking at whether the person you are hiring is a black person with a degree; you need to know what other skills they bring to the table, whether they will be a good fit with the organisation and contribute to its growth.”
That said, it is also the responsibility of a good HR practitioner to grow employees and to stretch them. Support given to staff to advance in their careers therefore figures high on the list of criteria for retaining good staff.
Given the myriad new challenges facing HR departments, there are a number of new trends that have emerged. These include sharing services, outsourcing non-core HR functions such as medical aid, and bringing more women into the industry. As a result, says Marupen, an HR practitioner needs to be a coach, to be an architect of policy and change within an organisation, to facilitate change – which is a process and not an event – to deliver and to be active, thereby improving employee performance.
HR, says Marupen, is no longer about “what we are doing, but what we are delivering”.
Kumba Iron Ore’s decision to begin mining in Guinea is a good example of including HR as part of a business plan.
“We need to know who we need to have in place to pull off the exercise, whether we will be able to find the number of people we need to staff the operation, how to keep them safe and content, and we need them to be on board with the culture and the ethics of the organisation.
“We need to understand that the employee is our consumer, and that our customer is management.”
To be at the top of your game in modern HR, you need to know how to balance the strategic, ethical, financial and legal implications of the process. History is littered with business failures that occurred after companies did not look at the long term implications of their actions, Maruden pointed out.
“For instance, in 1995 Mittal Steel SA (previously Iscor) made huge financial cuts and cut their staff by half, but down the line these cuts have cost heavily, especially as they resulted in the closing down of technical training colleges, contributing to the acute skills crisis in South Africa today.”