Good human resources practice can lead to lower costs and reduced waiting times. Carol Harris reports on a conference for NHS HR management training scheme graduates

Good human resources practice can lead to lower costs and reduced waiting times. Carol Harris reports on a conference for NHS HR management training scheme graduates

The theme was 'Who wants to be an HR director?' It may not have the broad appeal of the Millionaire model, but the audience for the panel discussion at a conference for graduates from the NHS human resources management training scheme was nonetheless riveted.

The event in York in July brought together the first two intakes on the scheme. One of the organisers, Andy Williamson, who is part of the second cohort, explains that the conference theme of 'HR present and future' offered scope for tackling subjects new graduates would find of practical use in times to come.

He says: 'We wanted something different to focus on - a look at where we are at the end of the scheme and where we can go.

'We are hoping the conference will build the reputation of the scheme and encourage an increase in the number of places.'

HR management training scheme programme director Alex Bush says: 'The graduates are the future of HR in the NHS - many will be directors within 10 years.

'The point of human resources in the NHS is capacity-building. We are looking for people who can manage change and make cultural change happen.

'In 2004, we had 18 graduates; in 2005, 28. In September this year we have 55 people starting - but that is from 1,500 applications.'

'Actually, I'm really pleased with the way it went,' Alex adds. 'I've not had much experience of organising conferences. On the scheme you can become inward-looking and delegates learned a lot, especially from the different perspectives offered by those in HR who were outside the NHS.'

One such speaker was Henley Management College principal Chris Bones: 'To be successful, you must have an understanding of stakeholders and of the business environment of the NHS, and must ask the right questions - there are an awful lot of answers that don't tell you anything useful,' he said.

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development assistant director general Duncan Brown told delegates that if frontline managers and HR learn to value each other's contributions, dialogue can transform services.

'Our research suggests that places that manage their people better have higher staff retention and better staff performance.

'That translates in the NHS into perceived improvement in patient care and lower mortality rates.'

Duncan added that, generally, line managers do not have a huge amount of management training and often do not value the HR function. Frequently they are stuck in operational areas and have neither the time nor information to focus on wider issues. 'Changing and improving the relationship means tapping into the philosophy underpinning the NHS and making that explicit.

'It is a more meaningful philosophy than in many parts of the private sector where the work may be about tins of beans - staff are excited about the push to get a patient-centred agenda into the workplace. You have to create an environment where staff feel they can make a difference.'

Frontline managers and HR have a mutual interest in ensuring everyone in a trust has good information - for example, on ways of dealing effectively with staff absence. 'Bring in such initiatives from HR, and line managers themselves will quickly make change,' said Duncan.

Department of Health acting director of workforce capacity Dean Royles said: 'It has to be admitted that HR in the NHS is not always good at sending clear messages.

'If HR named films, Star Warswould have been called Interplanetary Disputes (Resolvable by Mediation).'

Communicating success and sharing what works is one of the crucial HR roles in the NHS, he adds. 'It is not just what we do but how we do it.'

Dean told the conference that the HR response also needs to focus on the value it can add in terms of providing leadership, confidence and well-integrated planning. It can lead financial efficiency and productivity, and the drive to patient-led services.

Delegates heard that HR can have a high impact in key areas such as tackling the high cost of temporary labour - trusts had saved millions through doing so, such as East Kent Hospitals trust which saved£3.5m. Or in job design, such as an initiative at Cambridge University Hospitals foundation trust, which halved the wait for radiotherapy.

'HR has the opportunity to shape the patient-led NHS. One of the world's biggest employers needs to be one of the world's best. It's a tough challenge - but there are worse jobs,' said Dean.

Paul Allen, director of leadership development at the NHS Institute of Innovation and Improvement, says the environment in which HR operates today is increasingly fragmented. Back-office services, sometimes including HR itself, are outsourced and the emphasis is on smaller, more focused corporate centres.

Individuals are more demanding of their employers and diversity is still a big challenge for organisations. He adds that HR is becoming a recognised profession and is increasingly represented on management boards.

But while the UK is perceived to develop excellent HR professionals, there is still a shortage of talent at middle and senior levels, particularly of people with cross-cultural or international experience. Added to this, many still lack other functional or organisational experience.

An outstanding HR practitioner today needs 'a mindset of an organisation perspective, and a functional perspective - in that order', Paul says.