Ch-ch-ch-changes: influencing change as an HR professional

I can’t pretend I’ve spent the last 30 years in higher education following David Bowie’s advice on all HR matters. “Let’s dance”, as a response to a pay dispute simply doesn’t cut it. But when thinking about change, change management processes, and HR’s role in guiding complicated organisations through change, I tend to agree with his minimalist advice: “Turn and face the strange.”

We all recognise that we are at an extraordinary moment of national change, with the endless frustrating drama of Brexit continuing to play out around us. Add to that Augar, justified public scrutiny over pay and reward, international activist campaigns around bullying and harassment, the sheer variety of universities and their individual circumstances, the changing international background in higher education, new providers and radical demographic shifts…

It isn’t that change is unusual. But we are facing an unusual degree and complexity of change, which contributes to immense uncertainty, and with issues (the ongoing USS dispute being a good example) playing out in the echo chamber of social media in a way that seems toxic in comparison to the past.

While some of the above is unwelcome, or at least unwelcome in the uncertainty it causes until the position becomes clearer, we’d all recognise the need to steer our own course for change within our universities. We know what needs to improve, and we can see where we don’t match up with the competition. Horizon scanning shows us the demographic, financial, and technological challenges we’ll face in the years to come.

To deliver effectively for students, for funders, for business and industry, and for society as a stakeholder, well-managed change is needed. This is actually about long-term sustainability – to resist change is to stagnate and to die. But how do we take our people with us, when sometimes they don’t want to go? What’s the role for HR teams in achieving change processes, working with sometimes resistant workforces that ask “How much more change can we take?”, and in trying to manage that background of endless uncertainty?

Insight from the ground

Nick Rogers, Director of Human Resources and Organisational Development at Aberystwyth University, reminds me of: “the endless context of change heading back to 1992 and beyond” including changes to funding, different societal expectations of almost 50 per cent of young people now attending university, the shift to a more “business approach” in decision-making and university management.

Nick’s advice is focused on HR professionals’ capacity to influence senior teams:

  • Build the context for change, and the senior team’s active support for it;
  • Communicate the need for change, including “symbolically” through the actions of the senior team in representing aspects of the culture that is desired;
  • The implications of changing too slowly, or of the implementation of change failing, are now clearer to see in the potential for failed institutions: it’s essential to understand the senior leadership’s appetite for risk;
  • Leadership visibility is vital. Asking open questions and listening carefully for answers is, too. Authenticity and integrity in this communication are “musts”.

That last point certainly rang bells for Deborah Mattock, Director of Human Resources, Marketing and International Relations at the University of Northampton. Northampton’s shift across town to a new campus has been widely publicised, and now that the move is complete, it isn’t just Deborah’s team that is celebrating. The new campus has a smaller office footprint, with no individually allocated office space, impacting on both academic and professional staff. Deborah’s team managed numerous work streams in a multi-layered project working alongside internal and external stakeholders.

Her simple advice? “Communicate, communicate, communicate.”

Staff engagement was central to the entire project. And we did our best to fine-tune feedback and action processes so we could respond as well ever possible. We developed policies to support a ‘smart working’ approach and helped to reduce uncertainty with targeted training. The cultural shift, the physical/geographical shift – at every point HR was there, influencing and advocating for the changes needed. Staff were excited to see the new buildings emerging – there always felt like a tangible endpoint where we could all be in those buildings and making the most of those great spaces. The new working environment is used much more collaboratively than the old and has been received very positively. Throughout it all, our ability to share and communicate about both the vision and the detail have helped us immensely.

Engaging the independent-minded

Knowledge workers are notoriously hard to lead and manage, for good and wholly admirable reasons. They are intelligent, independent of mind, quick to sense hypocrisy, and typically motivated by more than money. And of course, cliché though it is, our staff, including those independently-minded academics, are our greatest assets, carrying out the teaching and research and providing the life-enhancing educational opportunities that are the core reason so many of us joined the sector in the first place.

It isn’t HR’s job to “change these people”. But it can be the task to lead an organisational approach to change. That means facilitating tough and honest conversations, ensuring individuals understand an institutional thought process about change, what is happening and how they can influence change rather than simply experience it as done to them. When roles are at risk, or changing significantly in nature, HR can help people prepare, and shift into new or different work, or ways of working. As HR professionals we have a job to role model and communicate different ways of working. Solutions and improvements to the plan will come from wide engagement across campus, including with employee representatives and trades unions.

Core to these tasks is our ability to lead change with integrity and through inspiring confidence. If change is needed we need to be clear on the what and the why and ask widely within our institutions on the how; we need to communicate clearly and informatively; and we need to be honest about success and failure, progress and obstacles. We hope people join higher education because they believe in its purpose – to make a life changing difference to communities, individuals and the wider world. That doesn’t, and shouldn’t ever, change.

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