With a clutch of awards for its business process improvement work, the University of Strathclyde’s achievements are getting UK-wide recognition. The university’s HR director Sandra Heidinger talks to Rosie Niven about how empowering staff is the key to organisational success.
Can you tell me a little about your role as HR director at Strathclyde?
My role is to ensure that Strathclyde is a great place to work for current staff and a preferred employer for new staff and, most critically, to ensure that it meets its strategic plan through its people. That means developing people strategies and policies that support what we need to deliver.
Over the past few years we’ve developed our people strategy to match the university strategic plan, which includes an operational strategy and business improvement.
I immediately saw that business improvement is about HR in its wider sense. The constant identification of areas for improvement and empowering the staff closest to where the problems are to deal with them, really caught my imagination. I then recruited John Hogg, who is now our director of continuous improvement.
One of the key elements of my role is strategic problem solving and anticipation so looking at what the organisational vision is and helping to support that vision. The business improvement team is a key example of that, but there are obviously others, for example we won the 2015 Universities HR award for our knowledge exchange career pathway.
The career pathway maps out careers for individuals who provide a vital link between academia and industry and who otherwise wouldn’t come to a university because they don’t see themselves fitting into traditional academic and research career paths.
A key element of my role is to do that strategic problem solving. To look at where the organisation wants to be, to look at the kind of people we need and the things they need to be doing to take us there and to find solutions and ideas around that. I am constantly looking to see what else will take us ahead.
What are the biggest efficiency challenges that you are dealing with in your role?
For us, innovation is king. If you keep doing things the way you’ve always done them then surprise, surprise, you get the same results.
The greatest challenge around efficiency is freeing up space for people to be creative and innovative and trying new things – and one of our organisational values is innovation. We are always looking at what we can do differently; what can I stop doing, what things are we doing that are no longer driving institutional success.
Over and above that, it’s about working smarter and productivity. We need to be clear that all of our staff are adding appropriate value in the roles they are doing and having appropriate performance management. By that I mean alignment between what the individual is doing and what the organisation needs.
We have developed ourselves an online accountability and development review process which links to organisational objectives. So when every member of staff sets their objectives, there is a drop down box that says “which of the university’s strategic objectives will this link to? Which of the university’s values will this link to?”.
That’s an example of ensuring that we work smarter and that everything that staff do adds value. Over the past year I have had six or seven organisations asking us about this review process, including one international organisation.
Strathclyde’s Business Improvement Team has recently won the UHR 2016 business effectiveness award for HR excellence. What have been their successes?
We also won the Thelma (Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Award) in June for outstanding administrative services and I got to cuddle the compere, Jimmy Carr!
The reason I wanted to set up this team as part of HR is the idea of staff engagement and staff empowerment being at the heart of what we are doing. For example communication cells. We have about 40 across the institution, including in HR where we have ten minute daily ‘team huddles’.
It’s changed the way staff communicate and it breaks down silos. As well as looking back at what can be learned about what is happening, we look at the issues we are facing in the future. It becomes part of the way you do your business.
The communication cells happen daily, first thing in the morning. We have our departmental key performance indicators (KPIs), plus continuous improvement targets and we look at those and keep those up-to-date.
We have a communication cell board which is paper-based and not hi-tech. But it’s also simple and very visual so we can see that we’re doing well on that, we’re down on that and we can take action to deal with it. That’s a key part of the business improvement team’s methodology and we are rolling this out across the institution.
A key difference with our approach, is we map out the benefits from our work. Before you start any business improvement project you have to spend time looking at current activities and success levels within that project. You must look at turnaround times for example, before and after and you must quantify those benefits. It all must be evidence based.
From this we have produced the Evidencing The Benefits of Process Improvement guide. We got some funding from the Leadership Foundation to do that which was really useful because it gave us an extra resources to deliver what we saw as a business critical guide.
We’ve been delighted with the interest we have had. We’ve had more than 3,000 downloads and the guide has been adopted by other UK institutions, and supported by Universities Scotland, HEFCE, BUFDG. That’s been a real game-changer for us and is a key reason for the awards this year.
We had some £450,000 of annual efficiency savings and nearly 30,000 hours of staffing capacity released to do innovative thinking. There are other things we are measuring. Since the introduction of the communication cells, some 2,800 process improvements have been implemented with a further 650 in process. We are measuring those as a KPI as well.
Communication cells are responsible for sorting out the issues they have identified. It’s about empowering staff, but it is also about measuring it and making it metrics based.
You have held roles in organisations outside HE. What can universities learn from them?
I’ve been in the HE sector a long time, but I have a number of non-executive director roles. At the moment I am a non-executive director of an FE college and I have also been a non-executive director and the chair of a board in the third sector.
I think from my experience of a small international charity, the third sector is much more nimble and possibly much more innovative than HE. The organisation I was involved in was very much about fundraising and responding very quickly to changing economics, to changing moods, to international crises that would make people give their money to something else.
Strathclyde’s a research intensive organisation. We have our roots in the enlightenment of 1796 and research is critical. There’s no doubt that it drives the income and the reputation, but it also makes industry and business work with us.
Whilst research is critical, so is learning and teaching. Further education institutions are very good on the transformational impact of learning and I think that higher education needs to always be aware of that.
What we learn from further education is that we can’t take our eye off the student experience and learning and teaching because Strathclyde students are a global salesforce. Wherever I go in the world, I find Strathclyders who are proud to have been here and they tell others about us and encourage them to come.
Are there any projects at other institutions that you particularly admire?
I always look for someone who is doing something a bit different. The University of Kingston has done an all staff reward scheme linked to a couple of priority KPIs and targets. If they meet those, all staff get a reward, perhaps a couple of hundred quid. That kind of thank-you, has an impact.
Some organisations are very good at branding and packaging what they do. I like Sheffield’s wellbeing strategy The Juice because it is dynamic and beautifully branded. Well done Sheffield for that.
From an efficiency perspective, universities are looking more and more about how they can impact on productivity. I think that will be a key focus for many universities over the next few years.
What do you enjoy most about your role?
I just love Strathclyde. I have been here since 2001 when I came in as an HR manager. We focus on making a difference to Scotland and the world, helping to solve the problems of a technological world. It’s practical, focused problem-solving research and I love being part of that. I love the fact it is real and makes a difference to people’s lives.
I like the fact we are a values-based organisation. We’ve just finished our values survey where we asked staff, “do you think we are living the university values, if you don’t agree, tell us why and if you do agree, tell us why as well”. Every year we talk about the values and ask: “What’s stopping you from being innovative? What’s stopping you from being bold? What can we do about it?”.
In terms of my own role, I like the fact that I manage 70 staff across a range of disciplines, the variety of the role and the fact I get a chance to input strategically as part of the executive team. I’ve got a principal / vice chancellor who is forward thinking and gets the people side enough to say, “yep, let’s do it”. I’m blessed to have a really fantastic role.
Sandra Heidinger is HR director at the University of Strathclyde and was recently appointed chair of UHR.