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WORK LIFE - DIVERSE TALENTS

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Ealing LBC's human resources department has become a valuable means of reflecting the council's strengths, says Min...
Ealing LBC's human resources department has become a valuable means of reflecting the council's strengths, says Minna Nathoo

Human resources departments often have a bad reputation. One common complaint is that HR has failed to support the organisation in achieving its objectives.

There is some truth to this - we need greater flexibility from our human resources departments, and a more aggressive approach to the possibilities of technology. We need to put in place systems that liberate our best HR thinkers for more strategic planning.

Yet across the world, human resources departments are busy answering the same queries about sick leave and retirement on an hourly basis.

That is why over the last 18 months Ealing LBC has re-evaluated, not just the way it performs its human resources functions, but the very nature of the service. Fundamental changes are underway that radically restructure the HR function. We are taking an extreme model of decentralisation to the opposite extreme as the first stage of remedial action.

As I see it the council is only as good as its 3,000 staff. We need to motivate these people and attract others to help us carry out our business, and we need to raise the whole profile of Ealing as an employer of choice.

Beginning the process of change was difficult, as our starting point was fairly low. When I arrived in the new post of executive director, diversity and talent, HR in Ealing had no clout. Our department wasn't on the corporate board and there was no strategic focus for people management. The service was reactive and devolved - HR only meant operational issues, and no one addressed what HR meant for all of the council and where it needed to go.

Our key problems were many, including: issues on equality and diversity and staff perceptions about Ealing's commitment to them; a poor best value review; lack of confidence from our staff, managers, unions; difficulties with recruitment and retention; problems with our records system and competence of staf f; lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities; and poor implementation of the appraisal system.

I sat down to design a HR service that would address all these concerns and deliver people solutions that could help the business.

Along the way we left behind our old title of human resources department, choosing diversity and talent instead. Human resources seemed mired in a reactive mindset. More to the point, it did not reflect the strengths of Ealing and its council. Ealing is one of the most culturally diverse areas in the world, a fact we strive to reflect in our workplace employment. More than this, diversity and talent is for us a bold statement of our ambition - we are looking to groom the best talents from the widest section of the community.

To do so, we have introduced a new, more fluid structure to the entire service. Originally, our devolved structure had human resources units attached to each department. The new structure sees a main human resources division, with some staff - customer services officers - maintaining that close working relationship with each department, but the majority becoming consultants working to a project-based brief.

Technology was central to the changes. The council's intranet gave us a new level of possibility - by automating some functions we were able to free up workers, while at the same time creating a more efficient 'self-service' culture for staff.

Through the intranet, the majority of staff will be able to find out information for themselves rather than contact a third party. In practice, this could mean anything from submitting time sheets to accessing information on retirement benefits or sick leave.

The pay-off for all our work in human resources will be in efficiency. We are expecting to answer 80% of staff queries at the first point of contact, a massive improvement for the council.

Meanwhile, we have been able to create these changes with minimal impact upon staffing. We have shifted some staff into new roles, while many are continuing in their old positions but with far greater creative input.

There still remains much to be done if Ealing is to achieve its goal of creating one of the best HR services in the sector - providing real solutions and acting as a key partner to support the council's core business. We recognise that we are in the same competitive marketplace for staff as IBM or KPMG. We are committed to making a world of difference to our customers and we believe it is our people that will make the difference. Our people strategy and new structure is key to achieving the council's vision.

Minna Nathoo

Executive director, talent and diversity, Ealing LBC

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