Global connections in HR: An enlightening trek to South Africa (Guest commentary)

Highlights from the IPMA-HR International Symposium on public HR management
By Karen Pettit
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/10/2007

When I looked at the sign post that showed there were 3,000 kilometres to the South Pole and 19,000 kilometres to Vancouver, I knew I was a long way from home.

I was in Cape Town, South Africa, attending the 32nd International Personnel Management Association — HR’s (IPMA-HR) International Symposium on Public HR Management in April. I trekked to the southern tip of Africa and met up with 55 delegates from around the globe. To top things off, a joint conference with the Public Service Commission of South Africa followed with 300 delegates — most of them from African countries. The learning at the symposium was nothing short of exceptional. Some common themes emerged.

HR’s role in strategic planning

: Many have no doubt heard HR has a goal of being or becoming more strategic. Phrases like “being at the executive table” are commonplace, so discussions took place to find out what is actually happening in workplaces to move towards less transactional work.

It was fascinating to share information on this topic. We challenged each other, debating how HR can provide the best value to organizations — definitely as a strategic partner, business expert and change agent. These are the cornerstones of the IPMA international certification program. We also gave thought to whether HR should be in “operations” or function as a stand-alone department. The opinions varied depending on organizational culture and the HR business model. One belief rang true — HR needs to be strategic and the conscience of the organization when it comes to mitigating the risk of people issues.

Dealing with demand for skilled workers

: In developed nations, including Canada, skilled people are in demand, especially in finance, IT and HR. In some of the African countries, the skill shortage takes on a different meaning. Many countries are faced with unskilled labour, with minimal or no education, intensive manual processes with little technology and applicants who have never used the Internet and in many cases don’t have a telephone.

Also, there is concern that skilled workers from developing nations are immigrating to countries such as Canada, England and the United States, which leaves those remaining in Africa trying to build a better way of life without their top performers.

Public-sector recruitment

: Challenges in recruitment was a consistent theme. Whether in Swaziland, Singapore or Canada, HR is facing harsh realities on the sustainment of people and services in the public service. This is due, in part, to the aging global population and lack of skilled professionals, such as doctors, nurses, engineers and teachers. The health-care field is in desperate need of practitioners to assist with world health issues, such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic in Africa. Of the 42 million people in the world who have HIV/AIDS, a stunning 30 million live in Africa. From an HR perspective, absenteeism and bereavement are a huge issue on the continent. It’s quite overwhelming for those in the Western world to fully understand the impact.

Performance management

: Another interesting discussion on effective performance management systems revealed there is no perfect system to develop, motivate and retain workers. We shared information on 360-degree feedback systems, self-evaluation and pay for performance. While there is no one-size-fits-all solution, there are good points to each system.

We heard a lot about the magnificent country of South Africa. It has accomplished so much in less than two decades. The end of apartheid occurred in 1994 and the Public Service Commission of South Africa is one for all of us to look at for best practices.

Everyone I met was an enthusiastic, passionate HR professional dedicated to doing the best job possible. We all face similar challenges, just with different perspectives and complexities.

So, I have returned to Canada a changed person. The simple things like drinkable water, access to food and shelter hold much more value. Most of all, I realize we are so very fortunate to live in a wonderful country like Canada. Having global HR connections keeps it all in perspective.

Karen Pettit is a hiring strategist with the British Columbia Public Service Agency in Victoria and past president of the executive council of the International Personnel Management Association — Canada. She can be reached at

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