Productivity an everyday challenge (Analysis)

Canada's poor productivity record an opportunity for HR to take the lead
By Claude Balthazard
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 09/07/2010

Economists keep reminding us Canada’s productivity and productivity growth lag behind other industrialized nations. It all sounds very abstract but, for HR professionals, productivity and productivity growth are real, everyday challenges — one could argue productivity should be the bottom line for HR professionals. And, indeed, 87.1 per cent of respondents to the Pulse Survey agreed or strongly agreed improving worker productivity should be a priority for HR professionals.

As is usually the case, practice falls somewhat short of the ideal — but the numbers are interesting. Yes, only 30.3 per cent of respondents measure productivity well, but an additional 47 per cent do measure productivity (although not particularly well). In all, 77.3 per cent of organizations are measuring worker productivity to some degree.

When it comes to implementing initiatives specifically designed to boost productivity, 30.6 per cent said such initiatives are a priority for their organization. And an additional 36.2 per cent have implemented such initiatives, but note their efforts have not been systematic. In all, 66.8 per cent of organizations have some level of initiative designed specifically to boost productivity.

What complicates the picture, however, is just about everything HR professionals do can be put into the context of improving productivity — terminating non-productive employees, training and employee engagement initiatives, to name a few.

As drivers of productivity, economists usually focus on training and education, investments in machinery and technology, and culture or climate of innovation. Most treatments of the topic suggest all three are needed to increase productivity — investments in technology don’t work unless employees are willing to embrace the technology. Economists have suggested Canadian companies lag behind in their investments in research and development and in fostering innovation.

With respect to training, 35.8 per cent of respondents indicated it is linked to productivity at their organizations. A further 43.6 per cent indicated training is somewhat linked to productivity in organizations. With respect to innovation, 38 per cent indicated increasing innovation is important to their organizations. A further 44 per cent said increasing innovation has some traction in their organizations.

The next question was the interesting one — whether the HR function should take the lead with regards to driving the productivity and productivity growth agenda. On this issue, 24.9 per cent strongly agreed and a further 45.3 per cent agreed the HR function should take the lead.

This latter question sparked many comments. Many suggested productivity and productivity growth are only possible if there is a true partnership between HR and operations. Some expressed concern it would be difficult for HR to take the lead in driving productivity initiatives because the issues go beyond HR’s traditional mandate. Others saw an opportunity for the HR function to “step up to the plate.”

We can see a clear pattern across all questions. About one-third of respondents indicated productivity is an important issue for their organization. They track it and put specific initiatives in place to boost productivity. About 45 per cent are soft on productivity — although they are likely to agree it is important, they don’t track it in a systematic way and don’t have specific action plans to increase productivity. The other 20 to 25 per cent of organizations seem to have some catching up to do.

Since the Canadian economy lags other industrialized nations with respect to productivity, there may be a real opportunity for HR to take the lead, particularly at the two-thirds of organizations that have room for improvement.

Claude Balthazard is director of HR excellence and registrar at the Human Resources Professionals Association in Toronto. He can be reached at cbalthazard@hrpa.ca.

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