Says Richard Finn, director of specialist people consultancy Crane Davies (part of the Penna Group): “People strategy is on agendas as never before, partly because organisations have run out of big ticket items to work on and are increasingly recognising the old thing that people are their biggest asset, especially if they are in the knowledge business. Boards realise they have to manage this asset as effectively as they manage other assets – and they know they aren’t very good at it.”
Crane Davies provides consultancy mainly to blue chips facing a people or performance problem, he says. It works in three main strategic areas: HR people strategy; change management and HR capability. The firm is very busy at the moment and Finn attributes this partly to the fact that many of the big consultancies are changing direction. “Unless it is a very big project or technology-led, clients wanting a competence framework or a change programme would now go to a specialist rather than a big consultancy,” he says.
Kevin Delany, a partner in PwC’s Global HR Solutions practice, has seen a change in clients’ demands. “In the past we were asked to come up with new policies or revise procedures but increasingly we are being asked to help organisations look at HR strategy and the effect of a particular change on their resource base.”
He says organisations are seeing that mergers and acquisitions, demergers or big changes are only successful if the people aspect is right. “Other concerns such as classic criticisms of fat cats on share schemes, problem-recruiting areas and competition with dotcoms are driving people to rethink the stuff that historically they thought wasn’t difficult to do,” he adds.
Brett Walsh is UK partner responsible for people strategy and HR management within Arthur Andersen’s Human Capital practice. He sees the introduction of e-HR as another driver for clients: “Major organisations want to outsource or create less admin around the transactional processes of HR and become more strategic and add value.”
The practice, which provides an end-to-end service for its clients, is phenomenally busy, he says, turning over #55m last year. Walsh cites the integration of HR systems and policies following mergers and acquisitions and the development of global HR strategies and employer brands to attract a diminishing pool of talent, as important areas of work.
Both Walsh and PwC’s Delany are recruiting at the moment across the board.
Says Delany: “We are looking for people who have traditional expertise but also are more skilled in the processes of delivery to clients.” He adds: “People are perceiving that consulting in HR offers a credible career path which is something that wasn’t there four or five years ago.”
Experienced hires are recruited typically from other members of the Big Five and actuarial houses and from people working in line roles, he says.
“A lot of recruits for our HR consulting area are HR directors and managers,” he adds.
From the recruitment point of view, says Chris Sale of recruiter Prism, the market has changed radically over the last two or three years. “Traditionally an HR consultant has typically had a fairly narrow remit but that role has become much broader and differences between what is HR and what is process and IT have become blurred,” he says. “There is a greater than ever realisation that why projects fail is because the people things aren’t right. There has been a major rise in demand for people who can help realise those changes.”
Sale has also seen demand growing over the last 18 months for internal communications consultants, and the market is also buoyant for people with knowledge of outsourcing, knowledge management strategies and e-HR, he says. And HR consultants have a role to play in the radical change in thought and culture being brought about by firms’ concerns over morale, staff retention and the haemorrhaging of good talent to dotcoms.
“Talent management is a growing area,” says Sale. Delany agrees. “It’s all about retaining the right staff,” he says. “Getting people aligned with business objectives and retaining them in a way that keeps them developing and rediscovering themselves.”
People’s demands of organisations are changing, he says. “In our own organisation, for example, recruits now have much higher demands than I had. They arrive with expectations about training and the countries they are prepared to visit. Good people can make those demands.”
And good people are hard to find, according to most commentators. Colette Dorward is CEO of the London office of Smythe Dorward Lambert, a firm specialising in communication and behaviour, particularly in relation to large change projects. “Everyone is looking for credible talent and is chasing the same few people,” she says. Dorward looks for recruits with a real interest in people, an appreciation of what makes them tick and how organisations can and need to function, alongside technical or consulting skills and industry expertise.
“We do hundreds of things to trawl the market,” she says. “You have to be open, recruits don’t always come from conventional sources.” She notes that some people find the global consultancies a stifling place to work.
“If you are a behavioural specialist you may not feel you have a lot of influence if you are boxed in on enormous projects. And with so much in the press about the buzz in other sectors, some feel that they are missing out and move away from the codified, structured firms.”
Crane Davies’ Finn sees people leaving firms like PwC, as a result of the move towards technology-driven assignments. He looks for good consultants experienced in a people or HR area, or someone from HR in line management who has done some internal consultancy. “There are some extremely good pedigrees out there,” he says. The problem for smaller firms like his is the time and effort required to identify them.
PwC’s Delany says people who have left the practice recently have gone to clients or similar organisations. “A lot of people are moving around and a lot of organisations are busy trying to reinvent HR for themselves. They are trying to bring in people with a broader experience set.”
Walsh agrees that, as companies become more educated in the strategic value of HR, there is a career route for HR consultants in the corporate world. “But,” he adds, “the challenge would always be to provide the stretch and variety that a consultancy can offer.”
Mary Huntington is a freelance journalist HSBC TAKES A BALANCED VIEW
In April this year, Crane Davies completed the implementation of a balanced scorecard project for the asset management arm of HSBC. Says Chris Parsons, a consultant with Crane Davies: “The project started as a result of a management for value philosophy, designed to deliver value for shareholders. HSBC wanted to engage all levels of staff around that concept and explain the alignment between what individuals should be doing and how they contribute to the overall objectives at operational level. Seeing that contribution is a great motivator.”
The balanced scorecard approach allows the translation of an organisation’s objectives into a set of measures of its performance.
Crane Davies created a scorecard around the first three hierarchical levels of HSBC. Key success factors, says Parsons, were a great deal of ownership and engagement by senior management, communication and a joint team approach using the best practice of the consultants and the internal knowledge of the client organisation.
“Our role is not to dig ourselves in so that they rely on us but to upskill their resources so that they can monitor and take forward the project themselves.”