It’s no coincidence that in the IT, services and retail sectors most of the world’s top performing companies are also regarded as top employers, investing significantly in recruiting, retaining and motivating their people.
The recognition that employees can be a source of competitive advantage has raised the profile of HR and given HR leaders the opportunity to move beyond the old-style Personnel admin role to that of a value-adding strategic business partner. Senior HR people are getting cosy with their Finance peers discussing how best to measure and improve the impact on the bottom line of reducing turnover and absence and increasing employee engagement. Marketing and Sales are realising that ‘people buy people’ and that good HR management can boost revenue and is good publicity.
IT: the final frontier
Yet one area of the business that remains almost out of bounds for HR is the IT division. Many IT directors recruit, reorganise and run their fiefdoms with almost no HR input.
“HR make you jump through all sorts of bureaucratic hoops and slow everything down”, complains one senior IT source.
“They don’t understand technology or the environment we’re working in”, says another.
“The recruitment processes they’ve introduced for the organisation are not relevant to us because IT is a highly specialised discipline. They don’t understand our skill sets so it’s easier just to do it without them”, adds a third.
This proprietorial approach is even more prevalent when it comes to technology change projects. With deadlines front of mind from the start, teams are assembled quickly and get straight into action. There is little time or appetite for formal selection procedures, performance reviews and individual incentive and reward plans and team building.
While the desire to move quickly and minimise bureaucracy is laudable, the risks of sidelining HR are significant when the performance of a single IT project team can have a profound impact on the whole business. Examples that send a shiver down every IT director’s spine include the bank that inadvertently disclosed customers’ personal details online; the supermarket that lost market share because its new stock system did not deliver the basic items customers needed; and the spectacular failures of some Government IT projects.
With the late or aborted delivery of major technology change projects still costing many British businesses millions of pounds every year, and increasing pressure on them to account more openly for these costs, perhaps it’s time for a thaw in the frosty relationship between HR and IT.
Five ways HR can make an impact on technology change projects
1. Firstly, do your homework.
You don’t have to become a technology buff, but you do need to understand the key elements of the project and how it supports your company’s IT and business strategy:
What are the rationale and goals of the project?
How will it support the business and its customers?
What is the practical impact on the business and key stakeholders?
What investment is needed and what are the expected returns?
How will success be measured?
What are the consequences if the project fails?
Is the project team structured appropriately to deliver the change?
Does the business have the right structure and culture to maximise the benefits of the change?
2. Help to put the right team in place.
You will make a significant contribution to a change project if you can bring HR discipline and rigour to the team selection process without compromising on timing or adding unnecessary bureaucracy.
Understand the key roles in IT projects and the skills and behaviours needed to fulfil them successfully. Be prepared to go out to the marketplace to get the best. With so much at stake from a relatively small team, finding the right project manager is particularly important: the PM is the lynchpin of the whole programme and competition for the top performers is fierce.
Another important element here is making sure new members of the team have an appropriate induction to the business and the project, and that they operate in a suitable working environment. This is another area often overlooked by IT directors keen to get people on the job immediately, but there is real value in taking time upfront to understand the context behind a project and how it relates to the overall business. Similarly, HR can advise and support directors in providing a secure and well equipped project area with a positive and supportive culture.
3. Make sure the project team gets the right senior support.
Too many business boards force project teams to commit to delivering impossible deadlines with impossible budgets, leave them to get on with it and then get a nasty surprise when the inevitable happens. Does your board have the skills and knowledge to successfully initiate and oversee major change projects? If not, it’s HR’s responsibility to help them develop: in today’s world, change management should be a core competency for every business director.
And despite the frequent management reshuffles that go on in many businesses today, it makes a huge difference to the project if the senior sponsor retains responsibility and involvement from day one right through to completion. All too often directors move to new roles leaving a change programme adrift and it takes time for a new sponsor to get up to speed and make a meaningful impact.
4. Adapt HR processes to meet the needs of the project.
It’s right to insist that project staff receive regular 1-1s and development reviews but expecting a team to have appraisals conducted, written up and submitted when a major deadline is looming is worthy but not realistic. Keep up to speed with progress on the project and be flexible to ensure that team members get HR and line management support that fits in with key phases rather than adding to the pressure at critical times.
5. Secure your place by measuring your impact
HR is proving its worth at the strategic level by demonstrating through tangible measurements the links between employee performance, customer satisfaction and revenue. There is a huge opportunity for HR and IT to work together to improve the delivery of change by defining clear and objective measures of a project team’s performance.
For example, the cost of running a project as a percentage of the overall project investment will in most cases show that the human element is a fraction of the budget – yet it is the area that can have the single biggest positive or negative impact on the outcome. The cost of investing in the right quality and quantity of specialist project professionals is negligible compared with the spiralling costs that occur when projects get out of control. It’s an equation that should help minimise risk and keep minds focused when budgets are being squeezed.
Each of these five factors shows the direct influence HR can have on business-critical change projects. In summary, if HR can help IT to get the right people on board a project, give them the right support and measure their performance in a meaningful and timely way, we have the makings of a beautiful friendship...