Happy new millennium

Look back over the last year and think of
the changes business and the economy have absorbed in that short period. No wonder we all need break!
We survived Y2K, increased tax rates, the reintroduction of ACC, and the new Employment Relations Act with the associated Code of Good Faith.
Petrol prices skyrocketed, margins were squeezed, costs rose and business confidence plummeted. Economists warned of “stagflation” as inflation broke through the three percent barrier for the first time in many years.
Our bright young people are leaving the country and their education debts to look for greener pastures and brighter prospects.
Where is all this taking us? As the lucky ones head for the beach, bach, bush or just to laze around home over the holidays, take moment to think of how we can change this situation and help create the sort of economy we want.
It’s more than just wishful thinking, it’s about taking control of the factors that impact immediately on our workplace and the profitability of our organisations.
Recently I was asked to judge national competition of leading-edge human resource practices – the size of the company and the industry had no bearing on the outcome.
As judge, what I looked for was how changes to strategy and development were implemented, leadership during the change, communication to employees, and most importantly how the initiatives had been measured. All entrants were justifiably proud of their achievements. They all started with the realisation they had to develop closer partnership with stakeholders, especially employees.
Some faced increasing competition; others identified the need for greater productivity. All had compelling reasons to improve services or products and all realised their employees were the key to achieving those changes. This is their sphere of influence. They have as little control over the US dollar as the Reserve Bank, but they were able to exert lot of influence over their own performance and futures.
It is ironic that the reputation for innovation and resourcefulness that has made us famous internationally does not generally apply to our onshore activities.
In my experience too many managers fail to tap into the huge potential their employees have to improve the workplace.
I first encountered this shortcoming in large manufacturing company that had to undergo considerable change to become internationally competitive.
The board appointed an international management consultancy to review its operations and consultants armed with laptops and stopwatches investigated every detail of the operation.
They interviewed key personnel from machine operators, to team leaders, managers and support staff. From these interviews they prepared their comprehensive report.
The irony was that most of the suggestions for improvements and productivity gains came from employees. Management had the answers to most of their problems sitting on their doorstep.
Because of the organisation’s traditional top-down “management knows best” culture, it had not talked to staff or involved them in the change process.
The reality is that if we are to improve our environment and have more control over our destiny, then we have to involve all those with an interest. The truth is we suffer as much from lack of leadership, communication and courage as we do from external economic factors beyond our control.
During the decade of the Employment Contracts Act we had an opportunity to develop close partnerships with employees. Those that did prospered and there are plenty of success stories.
The majority did not and as result productivity increases over that period were minimal. The rest of the developed world forged ahead and we slipped in the rankings.
The new Employment Relations Act is designed to give employees – through their unions – more significant role in any change process. The truth of the matter is that the legislative framework is largely irrelevant to strong employment relationship.
The key to success in the new economy is the ability to forge partnerships for the future underpinned by frank, honest relationships.
Communication and negotiation skills will be essential, as is will to accommodate the needs of employers and employees alike to achieve outcomes that benefit both.
It has been done before and can be done again. Once we’ve put down Tom Clancy or the other holiday pot-boiler, perhaps we need to turn our minds to how.

Perry Skilton is consultant with the Organisational Performance Consultancy, The Empower Group.

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