For senior human resources (HR) executives, there is a deft balancing act to perform. On the one hand, they must ensure the essential procedural aspects of their role - from hiring to appraisals and training to benefits - run like clockwork and contribute almost unobtrusively to the successful running of the organisation.
On the other, they have to be visible in pushing for change. It is vital that HR professionals are ready to play a pivotal part in initiating ideas and implementing improvement, and accept the need to innovate as a strategic priority.
Taking the broad theme of "innovation versus tradition" as their starting point, speakers at the recent conference, organised by HR Magazine, discussed specific steps they have taken to bring change.
David Rossiter, the Hospital Authority's head of HR, focused on the in-house leadership development programme, which is preparing executives for the top and ensuring they have all the core competencies to succeed. It began with convincing colleagues that, in principle, it should be easy to find leaders in an organisation with 60,000-odd staff.
Part of the problem previously had been a lack of consensus on required criteria, and a failure to distinguish clinical, technical and organisational attributes. The answer was to define core competencies clearly, identify people with the potential and ambition to go higher, and put in place a "development ladder" to provide training, experience, coaching and job rotations.
The model has been refined over the past six years to include new elements, such as possible overseas secondments, and to offer new learning challenges. For example, there is now structured executive education and external coaching to support individual development plans.
"You have to create the environment and opportunities for people to develop into leaders," he says. "Some programmes we have taken off the shelf, but others we prefer to do ourselves. One result is that at the next change of chief executive, we should have three or four serious internal candidates to choose from."
Kerry Rooks, human resources director at Prudential Assurance, says the best way to achieve innovation in HR is to go back to the fundamentals. Doing this helps to clarify priorities and encourages HR professionals to think proactively on both strategic and tactical issues. The approach forced the company to define precisely the type of people and skills needed for long-term sustainability. What followed was the chance to embed a performance management culture, reward real achievement, and grow a strong pipeline of talent. The HR team had also brought in "biographical" interviews and was building up its own database of potential candidates. The former move made it easier to find people who would be a good fit, by looking closely at key traits and patterns of behaviour, such as drive, empathy, judgment and ability to influence. The latter is to help with "direct sourcing" from the external talent pool and accelerate the hiring process.
"In HR, we want to help hiring managers fill roles, but when we disagree, we are now firm in challenging their decisions," Rooks says. "We can't necessarily allow them to rely on a 'gut feeling' if we think their choice may be wrong for the talent pipeline."
Jacqueline Moyse, head of organisational development at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group, has introduced a new way of thinking about HR's role in supporting business growth.
Her focus has been to ensure that core staff competencies, training and experience align closely with senior management policies, which are geared to rapid international expansion over the next five to seven years.
With priorities established and agreed, the basic aim was to cascade training down though the organisation. This was done with "success profiles" setting out the expected capabilities in terms of knowledge, skills and attitudes for each role and rank.
"We approached the project as change agents and marketeers, not just as trainers," Moyse says. "We did a big launch and branded the programme, and thought very carefully about how to approach our 'consumers'."
In the afternoon, Dr Ardeshir Geranpayeh, assistant director of research and validation at Cambridge ESOL, shared his insights on the design and application of assessment and benchmarking tools in HR. Intel's Alvin Miyasato, Mark Knight, of Cambridge ESOL, and Polytechnic University's Dr Florence Ho joined Geranpayeh in a discussion on implementing assessment programmes, their use in demonstrating return on investment for training and development programmes.