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University embraces art of the possible in HR modernisation programme

Judith Whitaker, Executive Director of Human Resources

When Judith Whitaker heard Newcastle University needed a new Executive Director for HR, she knew she had to apply. The Lancashire born former HRD turned COO of the DVLA previously worked in the region for several years, delivering transformation and change at Newcastle Primary Care Trust and later the Audit Commission. Joining the DVLA and moving to Wales in 2008, she admitted she never wanted to leave the North East. Now she’s back and since January 2017 has been busy developing a programme of modernisation which will see HR play a central role in supporting Newcastle University staff to become the best that they can be. She talked to Nigel Wright about her passion for HR and shared details of the major actions taken so far to unleash people potential.

HR plays a critical role at Newcastle University. With 6,000 employees covering everything from gardeners and cleaners to world leading musicians and neuroscientists, it presents a complex though enticing proposition. This, as well as the University’s values and visionary outlook, persuaded Judith that it was the perfect reason to return to her adopted home:

“My husband was an undergraduate here and stayed for 30 years; my daughter spent her formative years up here too. We love the North East, but I did my due diligence first anyway to understand the University’s values. What I discovered was all good. The culture is very inclusive, challenging and respectful and the leadership team is totally committed to organisational development. Those on the Executive Board work closely together and all decisions are made in a considered way. It’s a solid, sensible, aspirational and people-centric organisation and it feels good being here.”

In some ways, Judith admitted, one of the most difficult aspects of her role early on was selling the idea that internal change was needed. Her 80-staff covering HR, health and safety, organisational development and talent management — based in Newcastle as well as the university’s campuses overseas in Malaysia and Singapore and supporting its campus in London — in her words are “brilliant” and “have been doing a fantastic job for several years.” The new Vice Chancellor and President, Professor Chris Day, however, was very clear when hiring Judith that her modernising approach and skills across the whole of HR would help stimulate his broader aim of making Newcastle University achieve its potential. Judith explains:

“Chris and the Executive Team’s view is that, compared to other Russell Group universities, Newcastle doesn’t shout as much about all the brilliant things it does. To change that, it needs to develop its technology as well as its culture to deliver its emerging vision and strategy. I’m not, however, here to change the world. Rather, I’m looking to maximise the opportunities for the brilliant people who work here. Nothing needs fixing, but it can all get incrementally better.”

Judith’s HR modernisation programme will focus on improving four key areas, the first being IT, and specifically the platform for recruitment. With thousands of UK and international vacancies to process each year, Newcastle University’s recruitment system must be slick and reengineering technical processes is something Judith is familiar with from her time at the DVLA when, as COO, she led its transition from paper to digital tax discs. To become an employer of choice, she notes, the University must also raise the profile of its brand. Making each interaction a memorable one is part of that process: “I must be sure that every single person who applies to one of our vacancies has a positive experience.”

Recruitment and onboarding is the second area of the modernising initiative. Working alongside Abi Kelly, Executive Director of Corporate Affairs, HR is seeking ways to link the corporate brand with staff and student recruitment, while reinforcing service delivery. During the last 10 months, Judith has established an internal consultancy looking at the overall recruitment process, identifying training needs and coaching people to “focus on the customer and act how an external supplier would.” She added: “I have people in my team who have worked here for over 20 years. There’s a real sense of community that should be reflected in our service.”

Developing professional (non-academic) careers is a third area identified as limiting the potential of the University. In coming into her role, Judith was aware of the ‘parity of esteem’ of professional staff, who don’t feel as valued as their academic peers. She referred to a NASA janitor, who in 1962, when asked by US President John F. Kennedy what their job was, replied ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon’ as indicative of what successful cultural engagement is. This is how she envisions Newcastle University’s culture evolving over the next few years: “People are a university’s most important asset. From an HR perspective, you must work hard to understand everyone’s needs and how HR can have the biggest impact on working lives. It’s about valuing everybody and giving their career direction and purpose.”

While professional careers will remain a focus during the programme, this won’t deter academic career development. With student numbers increasing, Newcastle University has recruited an additional 400 academic staff during the last four years across its three faculties (Humanities & Social Sciences, Medical Sciences, and Science, Agriculture & Engineering). Whilst it’s difficult recruiting people who, in most cases, are a scarce resource, Judith says retention is the panacea of success. Helping academics focus on research and teaching is essential, and Judith expects HR to lighten the burden of bureaucracy. She also notes, however, that many academics hold aspirations beyond their research, such as having leadership roles, and its HR’s responsibility to enable those goals by being a critical friend, not accepting the status quo, and continuously striving for improvement:

“You must win hearts and minds at a University. It isn’t like the Civil Service where you make decisions and instruct people what to do. Your approach should be collegial — having conversations and building trust before developing strategy. Are we welcomed everywhere with open arms? Not at all. There’s lots of bureaucracy that we still need to unpick. Encouraging career development also means recruiting effectively and training in leadership so academics can inspire researchers to become world renowned in their areas of expertise.”

The fourth area is longer term cultural transformation, focused on encouraging staff to become the best that they can be and how HR can support and facilitate this behaviour. Judith notes that this is ambitious but is confident she has the staff and an agreed vision to start delivering, at pace, the necessary actions to meet this objective.

Craig Armstrong, Assistant Director of Human Resources

Of course, several developments have already occurred during Judith’s first year in the role. In addition to upgrading some systems, recruitment now has a greater focus with the appointment of a recruitment business partner and some restructuring has taken place in HR to effect change and get people motivated. One initiative, in particular, has had a big impact: “Early on, I created a new Assistant Director role and promoted HR Manager, Craig Armstrong, into it. He’s now leading aspects of the HR modernisation project, both technical and cultural, managing the interface with the Workforce Information System and changing the way people think and work. Promoting someone from within HR was considered unusual. There’s been few opportunities for people within the Directorate, for all sorts of reasons, and his appointment has created a real buzz.”

While Craig’s knowledge and networks across the University allow him to “make things happen at all levels” Judith admits he has had a baptism of fire, and is daily learning new skills and gaining knowledge in a very challenging environment.”

Craig’s promotion, as well as Richard Boggie’s to Assistant Director for Policy and Reward and Chris Walton to Acting Head of Occupational Health and Safety, has released vacancies throughout the HR team, leading to several more internal moves. These have been complemented by new hires into key areas, such as Karen Povey from Egger as HR Business Partner for Recruitment, and Lisette Nicholson from Hive as Assistant Director of Organisational Development and Talent. Judith commented:

“Many HR staff have been here a long time and it’s been helpful to learn from other sectors. All those who have started new roles are learning from each other and there’s a positive and supportive attitude about the place. I want myself and my team to continue to challenge ourselves, however, and rise to the challenge. Next year, I plan to rotate colleagues and expose them to areas outside of their own. It’s about supporting leadership development and taking the burden off managers. People are definitely keen to do this as long as it’s done sensibly and that they know my door is always open.”

Furthermore, in 2018, the HR team will attend lectures run by Newcastle University’s own “leading edge” HR theorists based in the business school. Likewise, students studying HR will be given opportunities to spend time in the HR directorate applying theory to practice.

In Judith’s words “there’s lots going on.” Following a recent trip to Singapore and Malaysia, HR is now working on improving the interface with overseas teams, making sure they get the support they need. A new occupational health strategy is being rolled out and Judith is making final touches to a new people strategy, due for launch next year. Further afield, HR is exploring how more apprentices could be introduced into the University.

Reviewing how the University promotes itself as an employer of choice to underrepresented groups will be a key project for Judith in 2018. Much progress has already been achieved in gender equality, something that was recognised in 2016 when Newcastle was presented with the Athena SWAN Silver Award, one of only eleven UK universities to achieve this status at the time. In other areas, Judith will be looking to progress on disability, LGBT and BAME equality, recognising that only a fully engaged and inclusive University can achieve its true potential. HR will also support several forthcoming developments such as the National Centre for Ageing and National Centre for Data; the new Urban Sciences Building and a new learning and teaching centre as well as the Research and Innovation Centre in Singapore. Fine tuning and maximising the potential of her team will see HR succeed in these endeavours:

“From an HR perspective, we are on a journey of continuous improvement. If you don’t get the people aspect right, though, then things won’t flow and you won’t deliver to your potential. We all need to challenge ourselves to be the best we can.”

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