15 August 2001

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Government strategy for human resources


Effective HRM as a core policy objective
The effective management of the country’s human resources is not solely an economic objective relating to the utilisation and activation of dormant or otherwise unproductive capital, but is also a social policy objective, in that effective HRM seeks to embrace concepts such as lifelong learning, social inclusion to enable full participation in workplace and community development, skills acquisition and development for personal fulfilment.

The management and deployment of the human capital inherent in each and every person, therefore, elicits positive responses with respect to more and better jobs, stronger family relationships through better communication skills, sturdy citizenship and community involvement and subsequently a better democracy.

The changing nature of HRM
The changing world of work, the new business ethic, the multi-nationality and remoteness of work organisation, the stronger or weak industrial relations contexts, the promotion of human rights, the concern with personal development and the profusion of technology have broadened the scope of the traditional personnel function, transforming itself into human resources management.

Indeed, the challenge is in itself a moving target. The world of work is in a state of constant flux, and the HRM function is striving to continuously keep abreast of these ongoing developments. Today we know that any organisation is as good as its people – and wise organisations are developing high-performance work practices in a bid to create a facilitative environment for human and business development

Strategising the human resource function
That is why we are seeing the human resource function controlling the boardroom. It has become part of the aetiology of business success and management is increasingly coming to realise that sound business decisions and strategies are also sound people management decisions and strategies.

It needs to be emphasised however, that although on a cognitive level and in literature, Strategic HRM is becoming ever more a celebrity-word…in reality, successive studies indicate that few organisations are taking their people decisions within a strategic framework. Not just in Malta, but also in larger Europe, it seems that strategic human resource management is still much of a textbook myth than a business reality.

From Myopia to far-sightedness
As HR Professionals, you have the responsibility to translate concepts into practices. We all need to convince our managements that investing in our human resources, not just on an enterprise level, but also at a national scale, results in a general up-skilling of the national human resource pool. The lack of investment is sometimes justified by the fear of poaching, headhunting or simply migration to greener pastures. I am convinced that these are myopic solutions, concerned with achieving short-term success but which inevitably lead to downturns in productivity and performance. What we often forget is that the business cycle needs to be sustained and not simply boosted with one-off emergency interventions. The fluctuations in the market can only be smoothed if an agile human resource pool is cultured and maintained flexible and active to mobilise itself according to the emerging skill needs and enterprise requirements.

A collective effort to up-skill and maintain the skills development of our workforce is therefore not an expense incurred but an investment rendered to enterprise, industry and the country as a whole.

Two distinct and separate studies, one of which has been performed by the FHRD itself very recently, have suggested that management’s concrete uptake and commitment towards lifelong learning and employee development still lacks the professed commitment, which the same management advocated in fora such as these. I believe that we still need to be convinced that our entrepreneurs and employers are taking their human resources obligations more seriously. This view is also shared by Malta’s Employers Association. On the contrary, it seems that workers themselves are warming up to the need for self-development and skill acquisition. Notably, the FHRD Training and Development survey noted that 53% of training requests originate from employees as opposed to 30% originate from the training department.

The contrast is sharp! While stressing the need for the HRM function to knead itself within the business strategy, we are seeing little vision of this from the HR Departments…were it so, we would have witnessed a staggering amount of training opportunities from enterprise training departments. Again, it seems that we need to translate our words to action…in essence…we need to walk the talk!

The HR profession in Malta
The HR Profession in Malta is a hybrid profession…and a relatively young one. We have a mix of glorified personnel managers of the old school, to young and budding postgraduates in HR with a spectrum of middle-of-the-way professionals who have bravely utilised training opportunities along their job experience to position themselves amongst our country’s chiefs of industry. To date, we have no regulatory framework, no licensing or accreditation body, and no watchdog for the profession.

I consider the FHRD as a potential champion, even as a non-profit making organisation, to increasingly become a centre of excellence in setting the standards of practice in the management and development of people. Through affiliations with similar bodies and federations, FHRD could become Malta’s gateway to the HR Profession, becoming a guarantor of quality and competence in the HR field.

The agency agreement reached recently with the University of Leicester’s CLMS is already a big step in this regard. Through this effort, FHRD is becoming a leader in promoting the acquisition of skill and competence.

We now, however, need to move beyond the promotion stage. For the safeguarding and protection of our country’s human resource pool, we need an accreditation body which provides a gateway to all those who are interested in people management.

If the management of our human resources is so vital to national economic prosperity, than we cannot accept half measures.

Government’s strategy in promoting the HR profession
I believe that government has a dual role to play. First as Malta’s largest employer, and secondly as the prime mover for economic and social development for and on behalf of the common good.

Government as an employer
For the past two years, Government has strongly advocated the need for the better management of the Public Service. Contrary to public perception, I believe that the Public Service is rich in intellectual capital which can spring into effective action if rightly mobilised, motivated and rewarded. The long standing, oft quoted accusation against this ‘fat-cow draining the public purse’, is in essence a problem of mismanagement.

I have more than once stated, that the major problem within the Public Service is not its number, but the total absence of a middle-management line-function and the subsequent mismanagement and effective utilisation of its human resources. The sterling work being performed by the Management and Personnel Office has not attenuated this problem, and we are now seeking to decentralise some corporate HR functions to enable the executive to become more agile and responsive to our operational demands.

This realisation is no revelation of a Deputy Prime Minister! For the past two years, the Staff Development Organisation has been promoting and prioritising the HR profession through the sponsorships of degree courses in the field alongside and in higher frequency to other management specialisations. This is still not enough to soothe the dearth of the profession in the Public Service. I do hope and encourage line departments and government entities to take their HR functions very seriously by investing their energies to secure the optimal management of their human resources. I repeat, an organisation is good as its people, and the corollary to it is that the Public Service is as good as its people. Politicians like me shoulder the responsibility for public policy…the executive of government needs to shoulder its responsibility towards effective management and business development through the development of its people.

Government as the prime mover
Besides being Malta’s largest employer, Government has a mandate to uphold the best interest of its citizens by seeking to ever improve the quality of life through economic and social prosperity. This can only be achieved if Government manages to embark on policies which tap on its citizens’ inherent potential and optimise their contribution both on the social and economic level. This is the main tenet of this Government’s policy, and I sincerely do think that a number of Ministries are seeking this objective in different ways – either by making Government more approachable to citizens or by adapting governance to the citizen.

In seeking to create a conducive environment for personal growth and national prosperity, government is touching on the HR Profession by instilling the need for a market in this respect. Government’s continuous and steadfast efforts to inculcate the notion that our country’s future rests upon the maximisation and optimisation of its human resources opens up a plethora of opportunities for HR Professionals to identify ways and means to concretise and distil this policy agenda into nuts and bolts for our population.

Having said this, Government has taken a number of initiatives in this respect, most notable of which are:
01. Its continuous financial, moral and institutional support to FHRD;
02. The programmes initiated by ETC to assist jobseekers as well as those taken to upgrade the skills of the workforce and/or activating dormant human capital;
03. The Lifelong Learning Initiative taken by the Ministry of Education to instil a culture of life-long learning;
04. The establishment of a corporate body (MCPVQ) for the accreditation of prior learning as well as the recognition of vocational qualifications;
05. The impending launch of MCAST which shall break away from traditional formal schooling methods, providing a vocational pathway to persons from all walks of life across all ages;
06. The broadening of the remit of the MCED to incorporate a social dimension with particular focus on employability and sustainable national prosperity.
All of these initiatives lay down the policy foundations and provide leadership through example.

The tripartite process for HRM
Government however cannot work in isolation. We are increasingly seeking ways to promote a sustainable social and economic policy based on social concertation between

all key economic and social contributors. Tripartitism is increasingly becoming significant in continuing education and training and the social partners, particularly the HR Profession and Trade Unions have a lot of bridges to build for effective people management.

HRM and Industrial Relations at a first glance seem to be two opposing strands of the employment relationship. Their interests, their focus, their operations and their method are very distinct. The transformation undergone by the HR Profession are seriously impacting on the role of Trade Unionism.

Reconciling or harmonising the apparent incompatibility between Industrial Relations and HRM is a major challenge faced by Industrial Relations. If it is to take place it requires integration which involves expanding the frontiers of both - HRM should take into account the external environment more than it does at present, and Trade Unions should focus far more than they do on workplace relations and recognise that their efforts should not consist largely of collective relations.

Alternatively, it requires the two to operate as dual or parallel systems, which is less advantageous, because this is less likely to expand the frontiers of either.

There are some pre-conditions to harmonisation:
• changes in both management and union attitudes;
• acknowledgement of the link between employee development and enterprise growth;
• recognition that employer and employee interests are not only divergent but also common e.g. productivity is an important issue to both;
• both HRM and Trade Unions should be prepared to accommodate the other. At present Industrial Relations seems to view HRM as its nemesis;
• unions would need to be more willing to involve themselves in HRM, and not over-emphasise their national agenda. Otherwise employers will have free rein in promoting HRM at the expense of Industrial Relations. This also involves training of unions in HRM. Where union structures change, as happened in Japan when enterprise unions became important features, the potential for such involvement is greater. Union co-operation would depend to a large extent on whether in a particular enterprise HRM is perceived as a union avoidance strategy. Union involvement can be critical, since research appears to indicate that HRM initiatives have worked most effectively in unionised settings.
• changes in Industrial Relations thinking of redesigning collective bargaining to accommodate more workplace issues (as is already occurring)
• Industrial Relations needs to open its doors to other social disciplines (e.g. organisational behaviour and psychology, industrial sociology) with consequent attention to team work and new forms of work organisation
• Trade Unions would have to recognise that communication in an enterprise need not necessarily be effected collectively. Dual communication systems are possible and can complement each other.
• Industrial Relations has to embrace the whole employment relationship, and not only its collective aspects;
• Managements should themselves be willing to involve unions in HRM initiatives. Workplace co-operation mechanisms, for instance, tend to be more effective where, in a unionised environment, unions are consulted.
• A more strategic perspective of Industrial Relations needs to be developed, going beyond including traditional objectives such as distributive justice. Such a perspective would need to place less emphasis on standardisation and to espouse productivity and competitiveness.
This is why Government has chosen to spend a substantial amount of effort to set-up a legislative framework for social dialogue through the MCESD. All social partners are eager to see this forum develop into a melting pot of ideas and new initiatives which are taken within a national rather than a purely sectoral context.

The HR profession and corporate social responsibility
The HR Profession is essentially a people-centred profession. It seeks to develop and manage human capital to be able to exploit its full potential. Its interest should therefore, primarily rest on people and not on the business. In this sense, it is Government’s wish to see HR Professionals in the Private Sector instigate their managements to embrace the notion of CSR through the utilisation of opportunities which Government is providing along its skills-supply strategy.

I am directly referring to the involvement, which the private sector needs to step-up to assist jobseekers acquire skills and abilities while providing job experiences. This measure of CSR, I believe, is still quite missing within the local private sector scene. Government is definitely dissatisfied by the uptake of apprenticeships and job schemes currently being offered by the ETC to assist jobseekers, women returners and long-term unemployed. As I have reiterated earlier on, it is the same private sector which stands to gain from the agility and readiness of the country’s human resource potential, and unless the private sector participates in this national agenda, then we will still face the labour and skill-set shortages which we are currently experiencing in a number of industry sectors. I do believe that as HR Professionals you have a lot to offer by advising your management to buy in these schemes with a foresight in their eventual payback!

I think that I have said a lot and that you maybe need to think more about what I have said. We have seen the HR Profession plummet from a boring duty concerned with contractual obligations to a strategic profession intricately tied with business optimisation and enterprise performance.

Government recognises this shift in emphasis and validates the profession in a number of ways. There are however a number of challenges which our country is facing, the successful management of which relates to our capacity to maximise upon our human resource base. I would prefer to think that the acid test for the HR Profession’s ability to succeed in this challenge is yet to be experienced!

The Business Times, Network House, Vjal ir-Rihan San Gwann SGN 07
Tel: (356) 382741-3, 382745-6 | Fax: (356) 385075 | e-mail: editorial@networkpublications.com.mt