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People for purpose: HR in a time of change

11 August 2017 Rev Keith Garner's Blog

This week I was invited to speak at a forum for managers and professionals working in Human Resources and Learning and Development in the For-Purpose sector. This is the second time our Wesley Centre has hosted such a forum and we were delighted to be able to facilitate such an event. As a CEO, it’s not uncommon that I am asked to speak at such forums or conferences. My address focused upon the challenges the sector faces, particularly those arising from technological, economic and political change. I have been asked if I would be willing to share it, so here it is.


I am delighted to welcome you here today, as the Senior Executive of Wesley Mission, to the Wesley Centre and to be part of this forum which I am sure will encourage, inform and challenge you in your chosen career and profession in relation to the management of human resources.

I would especially like to welcome Ashley Fell, Social Researcher, TEDx Speaker and Head of Communications at McCrindle, and International Business Speaker Jen Harwood. This is not the first time Wesley Mission has hosted this event.

I am sure people are looking forward to hearing from Ashley:  as our client’s needs become more acute and complex, and as governments and funding bodies seek greater accountability for the work we do, we need to use the most relevant and current information about the communities and cultures we work within and the people we serve.

Organisations like McCrindle help us to analyse findings that help us to decide on our strategies. McCrindle’s purpose is to advise organisations to respond strategically to the trends and so remain ever-relevant in changing times. I have just enjoyed looking at Australian Social Trends report which I commend to you. Mark McCrindle has been a guest on my TV program, I value his work.

Wesley Impact TVThere are many forces at work in our world bringing about change in its many forms. It often feels that we are constantly playing catch up, particularly when it comes to technology. While the workplace itself feels like a moving feast of information and data with no fixed address it also demands new levels of accountability and responsibility which we are constantly recalibrating.

Good human resource management is critical in this age of rapid technological change. While the world seems to be wallowing in political, cultural and economic instability, technology is changing the world of human resources many times over. In the information age, computers and the Internet have increased that impact significantly. No organisation can even function without being ahead of the game in the use of technology. This impact is seen in nearly all areas of NFP work, including human resources, where technology continues to have a significant impact on HR practices.

If HR wants to continue to play a critical role in helping our organisations anticipate and manage organisational change, it must have technology at its core. That is always an evolving challenge for Wesley Mission with a diverse range of services, 2000 staff and 4000 volunteers spread across Sydney, NSW and regional and remote parts of Australia.

Yet technology has had a great influence on us by blurring the lines between work and home, and work and leisure. By its sheer use, technology like the smart phone, has empowered people as never before. A world of information and entertainment is at our finger tips. However, it has also resulted in the atomisation of life, and while people are more connected than ever, life has become more privatised and narrowed our long-held human interactions and sense of community. It has had the binary effect of connecting generations yet also distancing them. Paradoxes abound and many of us are trying to make sense of this constant state of flux.

With Millennials making up more than half of the current workforce — and predicted to make up 75 percent by 2020 — HR will need to embrace and build on technological advancements to meet both employee expectations and business requirements. Talent analytics and workplace analysis will become more commonplace, and companies using the data available to them will be far more competitive.

We are being told repeatedly that the economy is doing well, but many ordinary individuals are not! – and many including the ‘not for profits’ are under pressure.  In an Australia that in one sense has never been so rich, we have every reason to raise the concern that there has never been a higher level of personal debt – and we also need to find ways to call government, institutions and individuals to account, ensuring legislative change to protect the vulnerable and seek social and cultural change through education and community/corporate engagement. However compared to Europe and sections of North America we have a degree of stability. We are finding new areas of operating for many people. Our city centre tent village is an example of the challenges we face. This is especially true when something like 1.3 million households have a housing issue to face.

Our cities are growing at a rate that is questioning the ability of governments and the private sector to keep pace with the demand for infrastructure and basic services from health and education to roads and public transport. This has evolved against a backdrop of user pay and the shift of responsibility from government to the individual and the household budget. Basic provisions which were once the prerogative of the public sector have now been foisted upon the private. Again technology is pivotal: it is at the point of transaction where individuals and families feel the pinch like never before. This is why the current debate about inequality and not just equal opportunity is gaining traction and resonance.

Electricity prices have soared 106 per cent over the past 10 years with the rise in annual household bills outstripping the growth of every other household expense, while also making it the fastest growing cost for most businesses.

Prices have rocketed by up to 135 per cent in some states since 2007, while electricity costs for business have risen 50 per cent in just seven years.

Several Wesley Mission research reports have consistently underlined the fact that our household debt is growing. Financial stress is increasing in New South Wales and the number of households who are spending more than they earn has escalated.

Wesley Report 14: Facing financial stressThe last Wesley Report, Facing Financial Stress, reveals that an alarming 44 per cent of NSW households are suffering financial stress – up from 37 per cent in 2010. The survey also found that 38 per cent of NSW households are technically insolvent - spending more than they earn - a seven per cent increase from the same years. Disposable income has decreased and an increasing number of households are spending more than they earn.

This trend is an international not just an Australian phenomenon. The swing back to isolationist and nationalist populist politics can be seen in the Brexit vote, the rebuff of British conservative power and the near win of left wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn. It may be a matter of similar horse but different jockey in the United States with the election of Donald Trump: disaffected working class voters venting their anger against growing inequality, job losses to two-thirds world suppliers, increases in immigration and disaffection with politics.

We need to keep our ears and eyes open: I have noted that the Federal Opposition has incorporated the importance of inequality into their discourse and the notion of class being introduced in popular rhetoric for the first time in decades. Class is no longer a term of cultural cringe but of electoral pragmatism. Some would say they are tapping into some real underlying trends which have been put on the back burner and have for many years been dominated by the impulsivity of identity and cultural politics.

Many Australians have not had a pay rise in real terms in years in the face of an assault on wages which has policy makers, unions and business groups seriously concerned. The typical Australian family takes home less today in real terms than it did in 2009, according to the latest Household Income and Labour Dynamics survey released last week.

The rate of underemployment, which represents the number of people who have fewer hours of work than they want, remains high at 8.8 per cent and has not followed its normal trajectory in line with falls in the unemployment rate, which is at 5.9 per cent. Semi-skilled and unskilled young people and female workers over the age of 55 are working two and three jobs to make ends meet. There are growing numbers of Australian workers who would like to have more work.

The Reserve Bank says it is not clear how much labour underutilisation – a combination of unemployment and underemployment, now at more than 14 per cent – is impacting on wage growth.

So what does this mean for the services sector? Inequality and disaffection will place greater pressure on service providers. Governments will continue to devolve services to the NFP sector but also let providers carry the risk. Risk management will be one of our greatest challenges in the coming years.

As organisations in the $103 billion for-social-purpose sector we need to continue to distinguish ourselves in the marketplace and demonstrate that working for social purpose also means competent business management and financial responsibility. The greater levels of accountability and transparency being asked for by the ACNC may well result in some charities ending operations. But those who have kept true to their core values and adapted to the changing environment have an opportunity to have their value to the community exposed for the shining example that it is.

So what does this mean for people in the field of human resources? At Wesley Mission it means that we uphold our values of care and compassion for all people including our staff as we also uphold values of integrity and accountability.

In the area of workforce management we are beginning to measure and analyse data that will help us to make decisions that influence the recruitment and retention of frontline care staff. In the lean environment of consumer directed care models like NDIS we are improving the way we monitor staffing to increase productivity and efficiency. Compliance and risk avoidance are essential principles for HR, underlying every function and task. As a result, HR has earned a reputation for being stuck in time-consuming duties with significant amounts of paperwork.

However technology has changed much of that dreariness, via new HR portals and platforms that digitise much of the information HR needs to process. Today’s technology gives HR professionals access to data impacting the way organisations understand their stakeholders, market to new audiences, and communicate with existing and prospective employees.

But it’s not all HR analytics and number crunching. We need to continue to invest in developing staff and managers alike. At Wesley Mission we encourage people to aspire to reach their potential. I have treated this as a priority. We ask our leaders to develop a genuine interest in the development of their people and team because it is when people are helping and bringing healing to people who are vulnerable and hurt that those frontline staff need the support and encouragement of their managers to be resilient and persistent.

Many of you will understand the need for increasing attention on the governance of our organisations. The Wesley Mission Board and I continue to shape our organisation to meet the growing need for sharper decision-making and risk prevention. In recent times we have focussed on the task of articulating our risk appetite. By the very nature of our Mission we invite risk! We are guided by Christian values to move towards risk, to spend time on the margins of society with people who need us to stand alongside them when no-one else will, to seek to help the most in need. How comfortable does that make the Human Resources leaders in the organisation? Inclined to offer measured advice on the likely risks associated with the services we provide they must also show courage in the form of professional discernment. Through the process of developing our Risk Statements and an appreciation of our risk appetite we have a stronger collective consciousness of where we stand.

In a few moments there will clearly be a focus upon the demographics of our Australian workforce and the needs of different generations of workers. The ‘Millennials’ seem to be the latest cohort to be stereotyped – often unfavourably – in the media. These distinctions between generations in the workforce can sometimes be unhelpful. At other times they can help us to think carefully about our strategies for recruiting and retaining staff.

Find a role at Wesley MissionOne area that Wesley Mission has grappled with recently is around the matter of Career Development. We often hear about the numbers of careers, let alone jobs, that young people today will have over their lifetime. Where does this leave the HR professionals and managers when faced with employee survey results that tell them they don’t do enough to ‘develop my career’.? As with many problems in the field of human relations, it sometimes depends on the way you look at the issue. This afternoon I hope you get a sense of how to reframe the question of career development from Jen Harwood on the subject of personal development.

Bless you and once again a warm welcome to Wesley Mission and this important forum. I am sure that your time together will be a great opportunity for not only learning but fellowship, networking and mutual support.

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