The past few years have acted as a crucible for HR functions around the country, due to increased pressures, organisational stress, talent disruptions, and more. The landscape has shifted, and continues to shift, at an incredible pace. Change is happening in real-time.

One particularly hot topic in the industry is HR transformation. What does it look like in the current climate? And how has it changed on this side of the pandemic? We sat down with Robbie Whitfield MBE, an experienced Multi Sector Transformation Consultant and Programme Director, to find out.

What trends are you noticing in the HR transformation space?

I think the nature of HR transformation has changed over the past few years, and the pace of that change has been accelerated because of the pandemic. HR transformation still exists, but in general the most meaningful – and value-adding –transformations are the ones that are people-focused. There’s a move away from siloed HR transformation and more towards business transformation with demanding outcomes being delivered by HR.  This results in HR both reaching into more areas and in being better aligned to organisational outcomes.

HR professionals have been seriously brought to the table during the pandemic, which is a great thing, and something that wasn’t always the case, even two or three years ago. In the past, it felt like there was a common perception that HR got in the way of doing business, whereas now there is a keen awareness that people are the business. Companies no longer have the option of ignoring HR if they are going to remain competitive. It has become a critical necessity to leverage people in the HR function.

This was something we talked about in great detail at a recent BIE roundtable event, where I was in discussion with BIE’s Celine Clark, Director, and Rosie Murphy, Transformation Director. The pandemic required a different type of people management, and the HR function was rightly pushed hard to deliver on that. For all of the challenges it presented though, we agreed that the situation gave HR professionals the chance to shine, even if they were under extraordinary pressure. They were solving urgent problems that really mattered – and as a result, they have earned their place at the table. Alongside that, we’ve been seeing the evolution and increased commercialisation of the HR business partner role, which also speaks to HR development.

The past few years have enhanced the reputation of HR in many organisations that value their people agendas. HR now has more representation at the table, and people involved are doing higher value work. It’s really changed the nature of the function, and of people-focussed transformation.

How do you resource people for projects?

Resourcing is a big question at the moment, and it can be challenging; after all, demand has gone up. You’re looking at the same number of people, just stretched more thinly across more demanding transformation programmes And within that, the number of people who can really deliver business value through a transformation, rather than just fill a role within a set piece programme, is quite small.

There are two types of talent I look for when it comes to transformation projects: Internal and external. With internal, you might be looking for people with particular niche skills you need, or maybe access to a network. They might not be people you’re looking to pull directly into the programme, they may just oil the wheels and enable specific outcomes to be delivered during a programme.

In terms of resourcing talent externally, I don’t spend as much time as you might think looking at track records, because that should be a given. What I’m really interested in is a person’s organisational fit. What I really want to know is – does someone have the ability to come into an organisation and make a quick and meaningful impact? Without the ability to assimilate to an organisation or situation, technical or culturally dependent experience developed in other organisations is largely unusable. The individuals ability to adapt quickly is paramount to making a credible impact.

How do you maximise the value of transformations in the current climate?

Understandably, clients and customers want to get as much value as possible, often whilst paying as little as possible. So if you can find a specialist who can wear several hats (by being a business transformation lead and an expert in another function as well, for example), then you’ll get more bang for your buck, and also you’ll get more alignment in your planning and delivery.

However, don’t hold too tight to the purse strings at the wrong time.

You need to remember that in commercial world, you nearly always get what you pay for, so maintain a sense of perspective and remain outcome focussed. If you think that you can buy a multi-million pound outcome with the cheapest possible inputs then you need to check that you’re being realistic. 

To put that financially, if you want a hard-hitting specialist to help you deliver a multi-million pound transformation, then you’ll probably be paying that specialist commensurate with their a combination of their experience and what value they can deliver to you. If you spend all of your time thinking about minimising your investment, you are probably actually spending most of your time not thinking about maximising your return. That isn’t how markets work, short of pot luck, the best returns are usually delivered through intelligent investments, not minimal ones.

So don’t waste time arguing over a few thousand at the outset, when the end result will be the delivery of value worth exponentially more.

Another thing I’d suggest is to keep the brief broad. The way I see it is that I’m paid to deliver value to clients, and in my case that value usually relates to people oriented change. So the broader that change can be, the more value I can deliver. I just need to prioritise what I do to ensure that’s it’s realistically deliverable.

For true value though, you’ve got to get people on board. Sometimes clients get fixated on new systems when you talk about transformations, but systems are actually the most straightforward thing to deliver as they are logic based – people are hard, because they aren’t always logical and so you need to really understand people  before trying to ‘transform’ them. If you don’t do that then it’s difficult, and sometimes impossible, to take them on ‘transformation journey’.

Why is change management so important in transformations?

Big transformations are often straightforward at a conceptual level. It’s easy to look at them and think you understand them and how they’ll work, indeed most executive stakeholders don’t have enough detailed knowledge to understand how they will actually work either! There’s a level of complexity that people are blind to and one such area is Change Management.

A lot of transformation is about enabling human behaviour to change. You can force people to change, but that’s often problematic. All you’re really doing with Change Management is understanding the behaviours and emotions that people are likely to experience during and alongside your transformation activity and then building that understanding into your work in such a way that you influence that behaviour, aligning it to your intended outcomes.

Change Management isn’t just something that’s nice to have. It’s not a bolt-on. It’s about the acceleration and growth in magnitude of transformation benefits. If you get Change Management right, it enables you to deliver more benefits earlier in the process. That’s why it’s important. If you don’t focus on Change Management from the start, you can still deliver outcomes, but they tend not to be as big or as fast – and in some cases that means not as transformational.

The more you apply Change Management to transformation planning, the more assured you should be that your plan is deliverable. That’s something many people acknowledge. However it’s also something they’re willing to forego if they’re looking to keep costs low. Some believe think that Change Management is an insurance policy and not critical work, so they don’t build it into their plans from the beginning. That can result in a project budget or plan that’s too lean and, as things progress, you start to encounter problems and that’s when gaps open up. You can find yourself in a position where you have to try to pull more people in or have to spend more money to fill those gaps, but that isn’t optimal. You end up making expensive amends for failings, when effective Change Management allows you to iteratively evolve a plan to ensure that it’s right.

Ultimately, when you look at the relationship between Change Management and the increased benefits which it enables to be delivered, it’s an obvious investment to make. If you do it right, you get your money back: So the same investment and return rules apply as to resourcing.

Any final advice for those embarking on transformation projects?

Stay focussed on people and stay focussed on outcomes. Work together, because working in isolation, particularly in a transformational capacity, does not work. Always keep what you’re aiming for squarely in your vision. You need to keep a real sense of perspective with regards to the magnitude of the outcome you’re aiming for – and work backwards from there. If you start to become too focussed on short-term things or too focussed on inputs your thinking will not be balanced and that will have an impact on the speed you can deliver at and the benefits which your organisation will receive.

For more insights into the current transformational landscape, the results of the BIE Transformation Survey will be released at the end of the summer 2022.


Written by

Robbie Whitfield, MBE

Robbie is a senior transformation professional who has delivered programmes up to the multi-billion dollar level for FTSE listed and other international organisations. His particular interest is harnessing the power of people to deliver scaled commercial outcomes.

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