Managing a vocational education organisation: Part Ten – Thinking that your [VET] organisation is just a business?


There is an underlying human drive towards what we might call higher human values.

Serious problems can arise if employees are seen as no more than numbers and symbols on a screen.

Human resource management (HRM) is a term which is now widely used but very loosely defined. It faces the threat of reducing itself to a safe but narrow technical, administrative role.

Based on theoretical work in the field of organisational behaviour it appears that HRM comprises of a set of policies designed to maximise organisational integration, employee commitment, flexibility and quality of work.

HMR systems may offer efficient digital management of employee data where it is possible to monitor everything from benefits to payroll and paid time off with a few clicks on your computer. This makes HR functions efficient but not better.

Loss of Subjectivity

HRM systems may provide good listings of employee accomplishments, certifications and degrees.  Managers may therefore be tempted to only promote based on the objective data your system provides. They may be discouraged from taking the time to get to know employees on a personal basis as part of their evaluation of what staff members can contribute.

The U.S. Office of Personnel Management points out that computerised employee evaluations can result in an impersonal assessment and narrative from managers.

Clearly, such evaluations may not be the most reliable guides for making decisions about promotions.

Ethics of Human Resource Management

Guided reading and extracts from: Threats to HR/IR or a productive future role?, Glenn Martin,

A harsher employer approach to employees to surface, and at the same time it has made many HR matters (e.g.,leave entitlements) more technical. In the light of this challenge, HR faces the threat of reducing itself to a safe but narrow technical, administrative role. It can advise on leave entitlements and study assistance, and it can play a merely reactive role in responding to complaints about such things as discrimination or bullying. While these are necessary and important, they will not address any deeper organisational issues such as high turnover and skills shortages.

Threat No. 1 – Thinking that the organisation is just a business

If you watch the TV show, “House”, there was an episode where Dr House is (typically) fighting with the hospital administration about resources. He breaks rules and has little interest in abiding by restrictions on medical resources. He would be a very difficult employee to handle. In this episode, the administrator finally loses it and makes a very lucid and animated speech about what the hospital is. He says,  “You think of this place as a team, as some kind of community. You think it’s got a vision and a mission. It’s none of those metaphors. This place is a business. That’s all.”

Has local government arrived at this point? The public sector in Australia has been told for two decades that it has to be more business-like. It has been pushed towards competition, it has been told to set targets and establish performance measures. Has this push been successful? Has it been too successful? Has this focus on business competencies led to improvements – in productivity, morale and organisational sustainability?

Or has it led to a heartless, arid environment where there is no commitment to customer service or human values? The argument between Dr House and the administrator is, of course, a pointless one. There are always limitations on resources. What is important is the values that drive the choices and the decisions about resources. The danger is that the quest to be more business-like over-reaches itself and erodes the human goals that form the purpose of the organisation.

This is particularly true in the non-commercial sector. In local government, the reason for a council to exist is to provide basic services to the local community. A good corrective for leaders in organisations threatened by the demand to be business-like is the Margerison-McCann Team Management Wheel model. It says that for a team or organisation to function and fulfil its goals effectively, a number of different roles all need to carried out. In its simplest form it talks about four types of roles:

Explorers, who explore opportunities and like to create and experiment with new ideas

Organisers, who implement ways of making things work and who focus on producing outputs

Controllers, who monitor and audit systems

Advisers, who gather and report information, plus

Linkers, which describes the responsibility everyone in a team has to ensure that relationships are established and developed, and to provide leadership.

Therefore there are two conditions that are a requirement for high performance

(1) team diversity through a reasonable balance of team role preferences and,

(2) effective Linking.

This model is powerful because it immediately suggests that the administrator in “House” is a necessary part of making the whole place work. The big mistake is if people fall into the belief that this is the only perspective.

In the Margerison-McCann Team Management Wheel, the administrator is acting as a Controller. Dr House’s hospital, and local government, will not work if the Controller is not balanced by the Explorer, the Organisers, the Advisers and the Linkers.

These roles are where the core ideas and values of the organisation come from. What does this mean for HR? The people in the organisation have to understand that the organisation is a group of humans who work with one another for a particular purpose, and that it needs the input of all the roles described in the MargerisonMcCann Team Management Wheel.

Hence, the view of the administrator has to be held in balance – not conflict, but creative tension – with the perspectives of the other roles. HR has to know what views dominate in the organisation, and whether the balance is healthy or unhealthy; and it has to know how to foster movement towards a healthy appreciation of the value of the different types of contributors.

HR has to take on responsibility for fostering a positive organisational culture. The danger is that HR is not up to this task, that it does not have the skills either to assess the status of the culture, or the credibility and skills to influence things for the better.

Threat No. 2: Losing the values of respect, fairness and decency in industrial relations

Of course I don’t believe that most employers have jettisoned these values in the wake of the Work Choices legislation. But a review of recent IR stories shows that some employers certainly have, and they feel that they now have licence to treat employees in any way they want, with impunity. For example:

1. Work Choices means hard labour for pregnant women

2. Fairness test approves big cuts for meatworkers

3. Company, director and manager all penalised for duress

4. Fixed term contracts for core business not legitimate

5. AIRC rejects “operational reasons” for dismissal

6. No operational reasons despite end of project

Some of the main hot spots that suggest an erosion of employers’ commitment to the values of fairness and decency are:  where employers have sought to force employees onto AWAs, generally accompanied by significant reductions in pay and conditions, and using the unequal “bargaining power” that the employer has  the discouragements to collective representation for employees shown by the restrictions on unions and the push towards individual agreements  the use of “operational reasons” as a justification for dismissals, that is, sham redundancies, in cases where the employer’s real reasons are harsh or unfair  the blanket extension of probationary periods, or qualifying periods, to six months, and the expansion of the types of employees who are excluded from applying for a remedy for unfair dismissal.

Threat No. 3: Failing to deal with employee engagement

The problem that is deemed to be the number one issue in organisations today is skills shortages. But when you look at the solutions being offered to address skills shortages, it is apparent that if employee engagement was addressed, organisations would be making substantial progress towards dealing with skills shortages.

Lack of employee engagement leads to two major problems – lowered productivity and higher than necessary staff turnover. Addressing these two problems will not eliminate all the pressures being created by the ageing workforce, but it will significantly alleviate them. There is a growing number of large-scale studies that are adding to our knowledge about the extent of the problem of employee engagement.

Keith Ayres, from Integro, says there are four managerial obsessions that disenchant employees:

  1. an obsession with financial performance – managers are so focused on immediate financial outcomes that they ignore human dynamics in the workplace
  2. an obsession with logic – managers create logical plans with no regard to the importance of employees understanding them and committing to them
  3. an obsession with avoiding responsibility – blaming others is a chronic organisational disease, with disastrous consequences for engagement, commitment and morale
  4. an obsession with control – managers commonly lack trust in their employees, and tend to micro-manage them.

Managers, says Ayers, are frequently oblivious to these faults and have no conception of the damage they cause. Their obsessions with numbers, plans and control mean that they simply do not notice how poor employee morale is. Nor are they aware of the strong links that apply between morale and corporate performance.

There are other managerial qualities that are important as well. Engagement is generally absent when managers are perceived as:

  • not being consistent towards their team members,
  • not respecting them,
  • not giving feedback on performance,
  • not giving recognition of effort and achievement, and
  • being overly critical.

Broader organisational factors also play a role in disengagement – absence of clear career paths or progression, and absence of recognition or rewards.

Creating engagement is neither difficult nor expensive. What it requires is the engagement of managers. If employees are to be expected to be emotionally engaged in their work, then managers need to be emotionally engaged in supporting employees, rather than staying distant and trying to “press the right buttons”.

HR managers have a responsibility to create the right conditions for employee engagement. Most of the challenge is about educating and supporting line managers about their responsibility for cultivating productive relationships with their team members.

HR managers also need to be open and accessible to both line managers and employees. With the emphasis that is currently being placed on their role as strategic partners in the business, the danger is that HR becomes remote from employees.

The impact of that remoteness may be that HR fails to foster employee engagement, and thereby fails to assist the organisation to achieve the strategic goals it seeks.

HR Audit

Ulrich says the audit should investigate the links between all of the organisation’s stakeholders. There are four stages:

  1. Keep your promises – do employees, and does the organisation, keep commitments to others (eg employee commitments to customers)?
  2. Create a compelling strategy – what is a convincing approach to creating value and extending that ability into the future?
  3. Build core competencies – can employees bring the firm’s value creation potential to fruition, and continue a track record of keeping promises?
  4. Build organisational capability – can the organisation keep developing its internal ability to make things happen efficiently and effectively, now and into the future?

We also have to recognise that people operate at different levels when it comes to ethics and values. It is helpful to distinguish between three broad levels:

  1. compliance with the law
  2. the quality of relationships (fairness, decency, respect)
  3. development of a deep sense of identity and purpose.

Steps towards positive ethics and values

1. Articulate the values that are important in the organisation, which includes a statement of vision (the end-state towards which the organisation is working) and a statement of the values the organisation and its members will live by in pursuing that vision.

2. Communicate the values around the organisation.

3. Translate the values into guidelines for behaviour and performance so that people understand what they mean in practice.

4. Leaders must lead by demonstrating the values in their own behaviour, especially in situations where it is tempting to take short-cuts.

5. Leaders need to encourage employees to participate in building a culture based on the values, and deal with violations of the values where they occur.

6. Leaders must be openly accountable for their own behaviour.

7. Leaders must be aware that some situations are ethically complex, and know when to forgive and how to learn from bad decisions.

Although it is true that people tend to operate primarily at one of the three levels, it is also true that there is an underlying human drive towards what we might call higher human values.

Conflict of Interest

Let us not forget the Conflict of Interest that exists for For-profit VET System business owners, promoters, advisers, providers, etc. They are in a position where anything or anyone who might cause their business profit making to be reduced will be met with derision and spin-doctoring justification, despite the hijacking of educational theories to suit their own business related purposes, despite rhetoric in marketing and promotions that include greater good for the community and individual purposes.


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