Ploughing into fertile ground for the firm


Mr Sean O'Driscoll equates his job with that of a plough, working the fertile ground of his organisation to harvest the best results. Mr O'Driscoll is the head of group human resources with the ESB. He says a good human resources department should become a business partner to an organisation.

Human resource management (HRM) is broadly defined as any part of the management structure that relates to people at work. It involves everything from recruitment, to training to employee welfare.

In recent years HRM, also known as personnel management, has undergone enormous change. While in the past the role of a personnel manager was to cope with events as they happened, human resource staff are now trained to anticipate and cope with developments.

Three years ago the ESB was looking ahead to an era of substantial change. All over the world, companies that had enjoyed a monopoly in various areas were facing up to deregulation. The ESB was no exception.

The ESB's cost and competitiveness review was about facing up to a future where 28 per cent of electricity generation in the State would be carried out by other companies by the year 2000. "The role of HRM in one way is to help the organisation change successfully without destroying itself," says Mr O'Driscoll.

A series of internal discussions took place between management, employees and trade union officials, with a view to evaluating how the ESB could operate successfully in a deregulated environment. The process was completed in 1996. The two main results concerned reduced employee numbers and changes in work practices.

By next April, the ESB will have shed 2,000 staff and, while such extensive downsizing will always result in some dissatisfaction, the process has been relatively smooth. Mr O'Driscoll explains how this was achieved. "We set up a careers change group to help some people leave the organisation and look at where their skills could be employed. It also involved such practical help as giving advice with their curriculum vitae (CV)," he says. Other workers were given attractive financial packages so they could retire. "While you don't lose such a large amount of staff without some morale issues, people who left were seen to have done well," he says.

Equally successful was the "upskilling" of some workers who were trained in new areas of work and practices. "We took a partnership approach to ensure that the company would survive and succeed in the new environment. HRM is about freeing the organisation to achieve what it can achieve," he says.

Human resources did not always play such a holistic role in business. According to Mr Michael McDonald, of the Institute of Personnel Development (IPD), a dramatic change has taken place.

"The whole area of HRM or personnel management began as a reaction to the conditions of the post-industrial revolution workplace. There was little protection of the health and safety of workers, and the role of a personnel officer then was about making adequate provisions for the workers," he says.

As the 1960s arrived, bad management practice in the big factories around Britain and Ireland led to serious clashes between organised labour and their employers. The personnel manager was charged with the task of being management's representative at the industrial relations table. Gradually the decade of upheaval, as it was known, became a distant memory and another shift took place. New technology meant that industry no longer needed vast numbers of people to work in places like car factories. Employers needed a different type of worker, ones who could apply their knowledge and skill to the new working environment.

Personnel management became rebranded as HRM. "Basically the human resources manager is there to provide a climate which will enable an organisation to attract and retain the very best people. HR has moved to the very heart of the business, looking at what the mission and objectives of the company are and developing a strategy to achieve that," says Mr McDonald.

Membership of the IPD has almost doubled in the past ten years - it now has 2,700 members. Developments have been made in areas of recruitment and selection and also in creating incentive or reward packages to increase the productivity of employees. New career appraisal techniques are also integral to the HR role of helping an organisation achieve its business objectives through its people.

"There has to be a shared view of what is required for the business," says Ms Bernie Grey, HR manager with Telecom Eireann. The semi-state has also embarked on a downsizing strategy (reducing the number of employees) in order to perform as competitively as possible after deregulation. The business-driven process meant designing schemes to meet business needs, whether they were social or economic. "It is not down sizing for the sake of downsizing," she says.

At the Intel computer plant in Leixlip, Co Kildare, a well-structured human resources policy is in operation. As part of this, the working environment and the social integration of its almost 3,000 employees is carefully considered. The plant includes a large gym, and employees have the option to be included in a sports and social programme which is funded by the company.

There are currently 20 courses on offer in institutions around the State leading to a HR qualification, and there is a definite shortage of such skills in some industries.

HR issues for the future include handling profit sharing schemes for employees as an increasing number of companies float on the Stock Exchange. However, the real challenge, says Mr McDonald, will be managing teleworkers as more and more people use the latest technology to work at home. "In this way many people will not travel to work and the office could be transformed into a kind of club," he says. People going into to the office to relax? Now that is definitely progress.

Next week Business 2000 will look at franchising in the retail industry