25 years of strategic thinking for HR Planners

Canadian Human Resource Planners has seen a lot of fads come and go in the last quarter century

It began as an idea by the poolside in Scottsdale, Ariz. Some 150 people had gathered for a Human Resource Planning Society conference, and the seven Canadians attending were talking at one table.

One of them, Jeannette Lalonde of Canadian Pacific, voiced a thought: why not have such meetings of their own in Canada? To kick-start the project, she volunteered to organize the first meeting, at Montreal’s historic Windsor Station.

That was 1979, when HR professionals concerned with business strategies and other high-level issues were called human resource planners. This year, Canadian Human Resource Planners (C.H.R.P.), a voluntary group of mostly HR executives at four chapters, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and London, is celebrating 25 years of coming together to share ideas and brainstorm solutions.

Along the way, they’ve seen many fads come and go, said Lalonde.

“First it was continuous improvement, then it was total quality management, then it was re-engineering, now it’s just changing the way we do things.”

But in many ways, the issues the group grappled with a quarter of a century ago weren’t all that different from those facing HR executives now.

“The issues are relatively the same though the contexts are different,” said consultant Ezra Rosen, the group’s program chair for many years. “And a lot of the means to dealing with them are fundamentally the same, though we called them different things.”

Nobody talked about “knowledge management” back then, for example, but “one of the questions we dealt with was how to break down barriers so that people in different functions could share information to become more effective. We didn’t use ‘knowledge management’ but part of its definition is just that.”

But if the fundamental issue was and remains how to leverage talent within an organization, the business world is certainly more complex now with globalization, shrinking margins and an increasing appetite for speed, noted Ian Hendry, managing director of human resources at RBC Capital Markets, and C.H.R.P.’s president.

“Ultimately that need for speed means we must be ‘master change agents.’” Hence, the HR executive has to have in his tool kit the ability to build relationships, to influence, to communicate effectively, to leverage personal integrity in building trust and to develop a strategic, business perspective for the future, said Hendry.

The group’s meetings — at breakfast, once a month — provide a forum for HR executives to work out responses to such challenges and find their way to best practices. “Even though we might be competitors, we realize that by helping each other we help build the credibility of our profession,” said Hendry.

Not all 600 members of this voluntary association are in HR, said Edmond Mellina, president of Transitus Management Consulting and the group’s chair of community relations and program co-chair. Some are senior executives in other business lines who have an interest in people issues. People aren’t excluded from joining on the basis of their job titles, he added, but the HR professionals in lower levels may not find much relevance to their day-to-day work.

As a voluntary association, the group’s strength is its reliance on its members to bring forth issues of interest to them. That’s how the topics at meetings remain relevant to members, said Mellina. In recent years, as attendance frequently balloons to 75 or 100, “there are less opportunities to interact,” said Rosen.

“So when we have meetings that are deemed as less successful, that have 35 or 40 people show up, some of us are happy. We get more action, more dialogue.”

In Calgary, members like topics that are more controversial or that arise out of new academic research, said consultant Laurie Maslak.

“Some of the topics have caused people to go off and investigate things for their corporations.” For its 25th anniversary celebration, for example, the Calgary group brought in Gus Peters, owner of the city’s landmark greasy spoon, Peter’s Drive-In.

“He didn’t use any fancy jargon. Everything for him is basically about treating people well. Among his staff, there are 10 employees who’ve stayed with him for over 25 years.” Someone asked why, if the drive-in diner was so successful, he didn’t set up others. “He gave several different reasons, but in the end, he said, ‘What’s wrong with just one?’” said Maslak.

“And everybody just roared laughing. Because so many people in the group are struggling with the aftermath of all these mergers and acquisitions, and sometimes we wonder, how big is big enough?”

Part of the reason the group has survived 25 years, said Hendry, is the sense of community that’s built out of such lively discussions. The opportunity for exchanging ideas also helps attract free speakers, many of whom are used to drawing $10,000 or $15,000 speaking fees, said Rosen.

“I think it’s a mark of our chutzpah, our willingness to be brash and go out there and say, ‘This is our organization. We’d love for you to come speak with us. You’ll meet a bunch of really great people.’”

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