Claiming a seat at the table: why and how HR should be playing a key role in your NFP’s strategic planning

Who’s involved in setting your organisation’s strategy?

Traditionally, HR wasn’t a part of the strategic planning process in most organisations. People considerations were more of an afterthought or a response to the strategy that was already set by senior management.

But in the rapidly changing Australian NFP sector, can organisations afford to leave HR expertise and perspective out of their strategic planning processes?

Shannon Foley doesn’t think so.

As the Group Executive Human Resources at UnitingCare Queensland, Shannon’s HR team takes a leadership role in the development and delivery of organisational strategy through a strong partnering relationship with business leaders – while also supporting 15,000 staff and 9,000 volunteers!

Ahead of her presentation at November’s Not-For-Profit People Conference, we caught up with Shannon to find out more about her team’s involvement in organisational strategy, and why it’s so important for HR to stake its claim in the process.

Hi Shannon – thank you for speaking with us! To start us off, tell us about the role of strategic planning in NFPs

I think strategic planning anchors an organisation. It gives you an understanding of the ‘why’ and what we are charged to do as an NFP, which is typically solving a market failing where commercial entities and government no longer fill the needs of the community, either economic or social. It’s a very mission-based conversation.

So in NFPs, the strategic planning process is important as it provides context, and from that the financial returns of the organisation increase our ability to support the needs of the people and the communities we serve.

What impact is the changing external environment have on strategy setting at NFP organisations?

This is a great question because, at the moment, pretty much all NFPs are in a period of significant change. Globalisation is having an impact, the increasingly mobile workforce is a factor, and technology is playing a larger role in solving products and service developments, as well.

Governments are looking to shift accountability for service delivery to third parties, which has funding implications.

And in community services, consumer participation is at its highest point in history as we see governments shift funding models towards empowering consumers. That’s a really important external factor at the moment for us.

There’s also an industry convergence going on at the moment as we see an increase of commercial operators in areas that have traditionally been not-for-profit activities.

And lastly, what I think probably every not-for-profit is facing at the moment is this real shift to customer-led experiences. It’s about truly understanding who our customers are and, at UnitingCare Queensland, we use that term to reflect the people we serve and the communities we work in. We really want to be outcomes-focused around what they want and need.

At UnitingCare Queensland, your HR team takes a leadership role in the development and delivery of your organisational strategy. How does that work, and what value does the organisation get from HR’s involvement?

HR plays two very important roles in our strategic planning.

One is a facilitation role, where HR supports leaders to uncover what the key strategic drivers are for their organisation when it comes to the workforce.

Whether that’s about managing labour costs or driving employee engagement or winning in the “war for talent”, it’s HR’s job to help business leaders identify the HR approach that best addresses the organisation’s strategic imperative.

The second role that HR plays is in contributing to the design of the organisation’s strategic imperatives as a business contributor.

As a business partner, I think HR should have an active participation in the leadership of the organisation. So they should be present in all the conversations about how the organisation can progress, not just the conversation relating to people or people-related services.

I think this brings diversity of thought to the discussion, it enables inclusive leadership, and it helps really position HR as a strategic partner.

What kind of challenges does HR face in your strategic planning process?

One of our challenges is how we go about creating one plan that meets the diverse needs of our workforce across all of our different service areas. As a large not-for-profit, our scale is something we always need to consider when planning.

Affordability is the other key challenge. Strategic HR initiatives – things like leadership development or capability development, culture work, engagement, talent – all require quite a large investment and usually have a long lead time to see benefits.

In an NFP or an organisation with limited resources, it can be challenging to influence around the importance of these types of investments. To do that, we need to be really precise about the return on investment for any HR initiative.

Lastly, getting a seat at the table itself is sometimes a challenge for HR. People who work in HR who are involved in this process need to have established credibility as a contributor to the conversation, not just be seen as a commentator on people-related things. Getting business leaders to see the value in strategic HR contribution starts long before the planning process commences.

So how does HR’s involvement with strategic planning help UnitingCare Queensland to manage with the rapid change that’s happening in the sector?

[Being involved in] organisational strategy is very important to be able to do change management, because it provides a connection to why the organisation is changing.

One of the things we’re doing to assist us is building the capability in our leadership to not only manage change – so, the technical application of change – but also to see change with a more human focus or people-based experience. We’re investing in equipping our leaders with the tools and skills they need to implement change with a focus on people.

We’ve learned lessons along the way; we do try to take a continuous improvement approach to organisational change. Our very diverse geographical spread and our shift environment create access challenges, for example.

And we know our people particularly value face-to-face communication – two-way conversation. We’re constantly looking for new ways to improve our communications and engagement channels with all our people so they are fully engaged in the change process and fully understand the reasons and rationale for why the change is happening.

And just finally, what else will you be sharing at the NFP People Conference?

I’ll also be talking about the importance of aligning the organisational culture with the organisational strategy, and how to ensure mission and values are present throughout the planning process and reflected in the outputs of the strategic plan.

So I’ll talk a little bit more about the process we use at UnitingCare Queensland to ensure we achieve strong culture alignment, strong mission alignment and strong values alignment so the end result is a very robust strategic plan that takes us through into the future.

Thanks for your insights, Shannon!

Want to get the full story from Shannon – and ask your burning questions – at the 2017 Not-For-Profit People Conference on November 13 and 14? Find out more and book your place here.

Image: Flickr/Samuel Mann

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