The University of Sheffield's top-class HR

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Changes in university funding and fees have rocked the higher education sector, but the University of Sheffield is moving with the times

The Arts Tower at the University of Sheffield is home to the largest paternoster lift in the world. If you’re not sure what one of those is, it’s a constantly moving elevator consisting of a chain of open compartments that move in a loop up and down a building. In other words: a potential health and safety nightmare.

But one of these oddities surviving at the university makes a strange kind of sense; it’s that combination of heritage, the old world meeting the new, quirkiness and the desire to always keep moving, that characterises the organisation.

In the words of HR director Andy Dodman, one of the things that makes this university different to its Russell Group peers is its “bias for action”. “We try not to just talk about things, but to get on and do stuff,” he explains. “We are quite a risk-taking university. Most people think universities are not known for being innovative or fast-paced. We try to challenge that, be creative, try new things and learn from them.”

This bent for innovation and “bias for action” has seen Dodman recognised widely outside his organisation. In the last year he has been nominated for HR director of the year in both the HR Excellence Awards and the Personnel Today Awards, and he secured a top 10 position in the 2015 HR Most Influential Practitioners ranking. He has been at the University of Sheffield for 11 years, having joined as assistant director of HR in 2004 and worked his way up.

“The plan was always to come here for two years and then move on,” he recalls. But a rapidly expanding portfolio, which now includes leading on communications, marketing, other support functions and health and safety (yes, that lift...) has kept him interested.

Considerable changes to its funding structure, plus the introduction and then rise in tuition fees, means the higher education sector is in a period of “significant flux”, he explains. Like many of the Russell Group, Sheffield is a research intensive university and much of its income comes from research. “Government funding has declined so there’s pressure to engage much more with industry, and the challenge for us is supporting our workforce to be able to do that,” Dodman says. “There’s also a challenging international agenda. We rely on and acquire a lot of international students, whose fees aren’t capped, but if you’re over-reliant on an overseas market what happens if that market changes? It also means you’re affected by national political issues.”

The rise in tuition fees has had a big cultural impact on the sector, with students now acting far more like consumers. “They are rightly expecting a different type of experience,” acknowledges Dodman. “They expect first-class facilities and for staff to be professional teachers. It’s much more market-driven and we’ve got to compete more openly with other universities. Previously a lot of our staff were here to share knowledge and ideas, to research. That’s still intrinsically important but the students require a degree that will enable them to move into the employment market. There’s a tension and a balance there.”

All of that means HR becomes more critical than ever. As well as supporting the university’s 7,500 members of staff, the HR team also has many other stakeholders to keep front of mind: most obviously the students, but also research partners, industry and the city itself. “Our place in the community is really important,” believes Dodman. “That matters for HR. How do we engage with the city and not be too elitist?”

When Dodman was appointed HRD in 2011 his first priority was talent. “But the key thing was to keep it simple and not be too prescriptive,” he says. “The academic community are a creative, talented bunch and they react quite badly if they are seen to be controlled or directed by people like me – the administration as they would say. We wanted to define it in a way that was fresh, fun and light touch. We want people to use and develop their talents; you have to give them the time and space to do that.”

In the university environment attempting to be top-down or hierarchical is a strategy doomed to failure, Dodman feels. But allowing people the freedom to use their talents creatively, in a way that fulfils a personal sense of purpose, cannot come at the expense of the wider organisation. “The challenge is encouraging people to use their talents in a purposeful way that’s still aligned with the university’s aims and goals. You can’t give people complete time and space to do things that aren’t pulling the university together. It’s that tension – trying to find that balance.”

Rather than focus on process Dodman believes in a more personal HR service, where the HR team exists to grow the talents of individuals. Developing this ethos, Dodman also wants to increase diversity by moving towards recruitment based on potential rather than past performance.

With the support of the vice-chancellor (the equivalent of a CEO), Dodman has begun work on devolving decision-making. Despite the university’s collegiate structure, big decisions used to be made by a small group of executives. “It was quite remote and not very transparent,” Dodman recalls. Now the effort is to devolve decision-making to academic leaders rather than “professional managers”.

“We’ve encouraged our senior academics to take on a leadership role; to lead their academic disciplines,” he explains. “We want to enable and empower them to make their own decisions, whether it’s about staff, estate or money, and enable them to make decisions much closer to the community.”

This approach has gone down fairly well, but it has not been without challenges – mainly boosting academics’ confidence and capability to take on those roles. Development and support has focused on building relationships and networks, and finding individual leadership styles. “We don’t describe what a leader is,” Dodman says. “We say: ‘You’re a leader, do it your way’. We’ll guide and support, but it’s about people finding their own way because they’re better at leading their team than someone like me.” He acknowledges this devolution of responsibility is still a work in progress, but is positive about its potential.

Another major focus is health and wellbeing, which comes from a personal place for Dodman. About four years ago he felt his wellbeing was holding back his performance, so he began to focus on his physical, mental and social health. His experience has driven him to put health and wellbeing at the heart of the university’s HR offering with the HR Excellence Award-winning Juice programme. Being rooted in the personal is key to the programme’s success (survey results show engagement and sense of belonging have risen sharply since the launch of Juice in 2012), and is something Dodman is passionate about.

“Health and wellbeing has to be a personal journey,” he says. “We never talk about hitting absence targets because that’s a corporate driver whereas wellbeing is personal.” To cater to a wide range of interests, Juice offers activities (often run by students) from meditation to boot camps to dance, six days a week.

Such is the success of Juice internally that it has been attracting external attention, with other organisations approaching Dodman to find out more. While he is always happy to share good practice, the commercial opportunity offered by this interest was too good to pass up. So Dodman and his business partner Gary Butterfield approached the university with a proposal to set up a subsidiary and commercialise the concept.

He admits there was some anxiety, as the university rarely sets up subsidiaries that are not research led. But luckily for Dodman the entrepreneurial spirit of Sheffield won out, and Juice plc officially launched in February this year. It has two main offers: providing health and wellbeing activities to organisations and selling a ready-made portal, which businesses can then brand themselves.

It might be early days but Dodman is already considering commercialising other HR services, such as leadership development. As long as the internal HR service doesn’t suffer he believes such activities offer valuable development opportunities for his HR team, as they could engage with and learn from other organisations in a range of sectors.

“Your day job still needs doing and you need to balance the two,” he says. “I have a great HR team and someone dedicated to running Juice.” He advises HRDs interested in doing something similar to “have fun with it” – “if you’re passionate about what you’re commercialising that will come across.”

“You do need skills that are broader than technical HR,” he adds. “HR people need sound judgement to be able to make quick, sensible decisions and to take risks. If you can do those things you should be able to be entrepreneurial. The problem is, as you’re honing your skills in those areas, you might deskill yourself technically in HR. But I always say: I might not know the answer to that [technical question], but I know someone who does.”

He believes HR professionals should “lead from the front, be open and share”. “HR needs to take action. If there’s a business problem don’t write a policy about it – do something. Stop the rhetoric and have a go.” It’s clear one thing Dodman could never be accused of is not giving something a go. And so far it’s also clear that his “bias for action” is paying off.

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