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What has HR ever done for Ian McCaig?

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The MD of Nokia in the UK tells Elaine Rowe why HR is ingrained in the groups culture

Nearly every book or article you read on Nokia mentions the way in which the Finnish mobile phone maker sets great store by its HR strategy. Known as the Nokia Way, HR played a central role both in managing Nokias phenomenal growth in the 1990s and in minimising the pain of the subsequent sharp slide in technology stocks. We asked Nokias Ian McCaig to tell us more...


What is your definition of HR?


I see HR as a bridge between company strategy and the people who are actually putting it into practice. It is not the only bridge, but it is an important one.


Do you have HR on the board and why?


Yes. One of Nokias core values is respect for the individual and a big part of our success has been that people tend to stay with the company. Now I dont see how you can ensure that the people values of the company are adhered to in the way you conduct your business unless you have HR in your top team.


The speed of change, particularly in the technology industries, is dramatic. In recent years, the changes have been more profound and the implications greater from a people point of view.


What do you see as the three key skills HR directors should demonstrate?


Business knowledge and understanding is key I cant stress enough how crucial this is to being a good HR leader. Second, it is important in our industry to be an expert in change management and to be a project director as well as a functional leader. Third, HR directors have to be able to act as counsellors at all sorts of levels, at the same time as being hard-edged business leaders.


Would you like to work in HR?


The areas of coaching and mentoring appeal to me. I personally find them very interesting. Im also interested in organisational evolution or revolution what works today against what will work tomorrow given the strategies, business plans and environments of tomorrow? I think HR leaders whose responsibilities involve working on the strategic architecture of the company and its human implications have got great jobs.


What is the biggest single example of a situation where you could not have achieved your aims without HR?


My first leadership role that involved management of people was scary. You are desperate to do well and to be seen as a good leader, and all of a sudden instead of a team of 20 you have hundreds. It turned out well, but it wouldnt have done had I not had on my team an HR manager who understood what I wanted to do and how I wanted to change that business and take it forward. He was able to evangelise the change process and really helped me to make people see that it was change for the better.


What that HR manager also did was show me the human implications of the difference between decisions that are made and executed quickly and those that are fed in and then managed in stages. He was very plugged into the heartbeat of the organisation, and that allowed the management team to be very proactive that was a major business benefit.


Describe the biggest HR cock-up youve seen in your career. What impact did it have on business performance?


A company I was with a few years ago not Nokia I should stress went from a period of high growth into difficult times. The executive management of that company had a knee-jerk reaction and decided that some very dramatic reorganising and cost-cutting had to take place. That in itself is no bad thing, if its done the right way. However, the way it was carried out was so aggressive and so heartless: a procession of managers were led in to a room and told, You used to have 50 people and now you have five, and anyone who argued was torn apart on the spot.


HR set up these blood-spattered sessions. HR aided and abetted the process, and every ounce of integrity and honesty that people felt HR previously had, disappeared in the space of a month. I believe you could trace back elements of that companys demise to that point. It had a manifestly negative commercial impact. The slash-and-burn approach meant much of what was still good about the business was lost.


If you could only ask for one achievement from your HR team, what would it be?


A lot of companies now have so much procedure and so many manuals that many very good HR managers spend less and less time actually out there with the people in the organisation reinforcing the values of the company. Im hoping that technology will free up HR managers to get out there and do more of the stuff that adds value. So my one wish would be that HR people had more time to be involved with individuals and teams in the business.


Is there a commercial benefit to developing a specific organisational culture?


You might say that I would say this but, of all the companies Ive worked for, Nokia is certainly the one that has built a business ethos on a set of company values and culture. There are two sides to this: there are the values themselves and also how the leaders of the company behave. With Nokia the executive leadership of the company has remained pretty constant for a decade. The consistency of the values is manifest in the behaviour of the leaders of the business and that makes them work.


The values have to be refreshed, and periodically the leaders of the business have to pull them out and question the meaning they have today in 2002 against the meaning they had in 1990. They have to be refreshed and re-energised, right from the top down.


The Nokia values are respect for the individual, customer satisfaction, achievement and continuous learning. Thats what were about. What those mean at different times varies. For example, when a market is in decline, what does achievement mean? It will move from growth-oriented achievement to survival-oriented achievement. You need to relate that changing environment back to the values on an ongoing basis. That way it doesnt matter whats going on in the outside world the people in the company still have a sense of what their company is about. The values become the focal point.


Can you measure the impact of having a specific culture?


You can look at the facts and say that we are in better shape than many of our peers. You can say that we have not had to go through some of the very deep downsizing that others have experienced, and again thats partly because of the leadership. But its also because the values have ensured that the vast majority of people are performing valuable tasks within the organisation. The way we work, with short lines of communication and a minimum of hierarchies, means we can move fast and do things quickly.


Those values mean that from a business perspective you take nothing for granted, you dont become complacent, and you dont become arrogant that has a major commercial advantage.