Employee EngagementRecognition & Rewards

Looking Up In a Downturn

Inculcating participation offers high impact—at low cost.
By Bill Sebra and Jeff Brody
History is the greatest teacher of all. We have all heard this, and know it to be true, yet sometimes we forget lessons learned in the past. For a whole generation of new workers, entering these times of economic uncertainty has taken them into a completely new dimension. Many recent graduates and individuals entering the skilled labor workforce have never experienced the unsettling and destabilizing effects a recession can have on the job market and/or their personal careers. 
Here are the facts:
• Companies are rightsizing, downsizing, and trying to become more competitive in a global marketplace that is changing rapidly.
• Globalization and outsourcing are fundamentally changing the ways in which business executives think about delivering products and services to customers.  
• New technologies and processes are being implemented to stay ahead of market demands and consolidation. 
• Those with the federal Government as a customer are reshaping their business plans in light of emerging interests and requirements.
Lessons of the past & the visionaries of the future:
The lessons of the past teach us that a period of economic uncertainty is the best time to plan the strategies and tactics that will enable an organization to succeed 5-to-10 years and beyond. The truly great companies—the visionaries, the leaders—all focus their attention on the future, for the future is what will sustain us.
Organizations that are successful for the long term know that they cannot depend on a select few to build a winning organization. A winning equation depends on harnessing the power of the entire organization. This potential is completely and fully tapped when the organization creates a participatory culture—one in which everyone feels that he or she has an ability to influence decisions and outcomes.
A participatory culture sounds like something that will not help drive financial results. Yet, this perception could not be further from reality, because business gets done through and with people. It seems so simple and straightforward, but many leaders fail to convert common sense into common practice: Take care of your people, and they will take care of you. Leaders often forget that they are only as good as their teams.
How is a participatory culture established? Implementing a variety of communication initiatives can not only “put a spring” in a worker’s step, but also unleash ideas and opportunities that would likely otherwise remain dormant. For example, using a simple e-mail address to solicit ideas and demonstrate that input is desired can signal that an organization wants to discover the best techniques and to have everyone involved in the process of innovation. Moreover, focus groups can serve as an adjunct to a leadership team and effectively help the workforce to understand “what’s working well and what’s not.” Of course, using processes such as an e-mail solicitation and focus groups can be uncomfortable and undesirable because of the follow-up that is required. However, the historical records show that these practices are actually low cost and high impact (See chart).
An organization that understands the power of planning and tapping into the full potential of the organization is the Space Systems Group of Alliant Techsystems, Inc. (commonly referred to by their NYSE trading symbol, ATK). ATK has a rich tradition of providing innovative aerospace and defense solutions to industry and the government. In fact, ATK has supported NASA’s Space Shuttle program for the past 25 years by providing the program with the reusable solid rocket motors that boost the shuttle into orbit. So why would ATK decide to rethink its human capital strategy, given a track record of growth and accomplishment?
The answer is easy: ATK’s Space Systems Group (SSG) recognizes that a sound human capital strategy must be predicated on inspiring the workforce to embrace a winning attitude. How is this accomplished? SSG has developed an overarching approach to developing leaders. This is a critical component of the human capital strategy because of recognition that leaders represent the face of the business to the workforce. That is, project teams take direction and seek resources from leadership. Thus, it is critical for leaders to be equipped with the skills that are necessary to effectively communicate, resolve conflict, and inspire the workforce. After all, like most technology companies, SSG is largely composed of a management team with backgrounds in science and math. Consequently, the leadership ranks did not receive formal education in human capital leadership.
Additionally, SSG appreciates the power of culture as a method to drive business transformation. Specifically, the organization appreciates that culture is the glue that holds its plans, mission, vision, values, and balanced scorecard together. In other words, things get done with and through people; therefore, it is critical to understand how to engage the workforce in technology, business development, and human capital initiatives. An empowered workforce is one that more readily embraces desired strategies and is more compelled to own the processes and practices that will yield desired outcomes.
Regardless of the business cycle, people are differentiators. An empowered workforce operating in a non-hierarchical environment can more readily contribute free-flowing ideas. Of course, not every idea is a winner, but the key is that ideas are flowing, contributions are welcome, and leadership is receptive to the power of tapping into the hopes, desires, and aspirations of the workforce.
The clear difference between companies that succeed and those that fail is a well-developed plan that includes all the elements of operating a high-quality business. Those elements are vision, strategy, operations, technology, finance, human capital, and sales. Note that human capital is a key function—often overlooked, yet one of the most critical (and costly) elements of the future success of the organization. One definition of human capital is: the accumulated value of an individual’s intellect, knowledge, experience, potential, and commitment that contributes to the achievement of an organization’s vision and business objectives.
The human capital strategy for a forward-looking organization must include the combination of people, process, and technology solutions to drive the tactics and strategies of business for today and the future. It requires an organization to plan for the types of individuals it needs in order to change and drive a business forward. (This is critical as business strategies take form and are put into action.) The role of the human capital officer (HCO) is to provide the tools and the stimulus/leadership for assessing the skill sets of the organization and determining what gaps exist for the organization as it plans for the future. The HCO must be aware of market trends and technological advancements and, of course, the availability of talent. This drives the strategy to build (train) or buy (recruit) the required workforce for the future.
Business in the future will continue to focus on the bottom line, which will strain the current human capital strategies of today. To respond effectively, companies need to be aware of the following trends:
• Organizations large and small will need to re-think the ways in which they attract and retain talent. 
• Demographic, economic, and technological changes are creating a different type of workforce that will be more mobile, more diverse, and (due to the vast numbers of pending retirements) much smaller. 
• Real-world issues like ever-expanding third-world economies are only the tip of the iceberg and must be addressed to keep business competitive. 
The Employment Policy Foundation indicates that “in the United States there will be a demand for more than 30 million new college-educated workers in the next 10 years while only 23 million new U.S. college graduates are expected.”
The human capital issues facing businesses today transcend the economic slowdown. They include the challenge of how best to plan for and execute a sound human capital strategy in an ever-changing market. 
Plans must meet market demand precisely at the time and place of market needs and in places that will see market expansion. Companies must plan for what talent is needed and when, what skills will be in demand and where and how the technological advancements of the future will affect the market segment. The key is to have a flexible, nimble plan that enables a company to modify its course without being derailed.
In these times of economic uncertainty, it is critical not to underestimate the need for a strong human capital strategy. A well-developed human capital strategy can be the clear enabler that helps an organization meet the demands and achieve the business objectives of the future. Watson Wyatt, in its human capital study, asserted: “The linkage between superior human capital management and superior shareholder returns has been proven. Moreover, proof that superior HR practices drive financial results more than superior financial results drive HR practices supports our theory: If you hire the right people, create an environment that supports creative thinking and increased productivity, leveraged by technology, you’ll reap the rewards.” Taken a step further, a company must plan to hire the right talent at the right time.
Leaders embrace change, for it is inevitable—good leaders, however, do it with clarity and a well defined, yet nimble, plan that focuses on the talent needed to meet changing market demands head on. 
Bill Sebra is an independent consultant for RPO solutions. Jeff Brody is VP, HR, Alliant TechSystems, Inc. (ATK) Space Systems Group.

Tags: Engaged Workforce, HRO Today Global, Performance Management Rewards

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