HRD's pocket guide to... R&D

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November's pocket guide outlines what you should be doing when it comes to R&D

Why do I need to know about it?

Research and development (R&D) is an area not many HRDs have had cause to be knowledgeable about, particularly if they don’t work in a STEM business. However, as organisations become more agile and silos break down, this could begin to change.

“In today’s highly competitive and uncertain world, the key to growth is innovation. Innovation is the responsibility of the whole organisation, not just the R&D department,” says David Hughes, board member of the Research and Development Society. “With innovation comes the need for changes in organisation structure and culture, which have a strong impact on the role of HR.”

HR needs to be aware that ways of working, and even the individuals hired for R&D, can require a different approach than that used for more familiar business areas. “R&D processes are very different to the rest of the organisation usually and should be managed quite differently. HR staff should take time to understand these differences,” explains Paul Walley, a lecturer in operations management at the Open University Business School. “R&D usually employs a disproportionate number of high tech, high cost individuals whose talents need to be nurtured.”

R&D processes can also help improve HR practice. “Evaluation is perhaps one of the most common weak points of HR practice, and R&D can help practitioners to evolve success criteria and evaluation methods for their practices and interventions,” says head of HR research development at the Institute for Employment Studies, Stephen Bevan.

What do I need to know?

HR should be touching base with the R&D department to ensure knowledge is best used to benefit the entire business. “We have a key role in building new organisational capabilities and deploying them in a way that ensures they gain traction and are sustainable. At the core of capability building is the need to access the relevant research and developments in that particular field,” says John Greatrex, group HR director at Unipart.

HR can then be responsible for ensuring this knowledge is heard and understood among the C-suite and beyond. “[HR] has the responsibility for helping the board and senior executives to ‘join the dots’ on business and HR strategy. They should also be using R&D to spot oncoming trends in business and the wider labour market,” Bevan states.

Culture and communication are vital if this knowledge dissemination is to be a success. “If companies want to engage the whole company in commercialisation of R&D, some of the key HR questions are around how to build a positive culture of cross-functional team working, understanding of new processes to uncover what customers want and more effective product development processes,” says Hughes.

Where can HR add value?

There is ample opportunity for HR to use its skills and experience to influence the success of R&D, and hence the wider business. Walley identifies several key areas:

  • Having the right organisational structure within R&D (less hierarchical)
  • Having the right selection and retention practices
  • Defining clear job roles for R&D staff
  • Fostering the right style of team building and team working
  • Communication and participation: providing the right environment and support to create centres of expertise
  • Performance appraisal and reward. Not all R&D produces great results. Understand this when developing performance appraisal practices on long lead-time developments

Anything else?

Although HRDs are unlikely to have the level of technical knowledge those in R&D have, this doesn’t mean HR won’t understand the department’s findings. “Lots more HR professionals these days are doing postgraduate degrees and are familiar with research findings – this means researchers have a chance to have a more meaningful dialogue with practitioners to find out how best to co-create better outcomes in workplaces,” points out Bevan.

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