The case Background
Mercia Systems is engaged in the business of precision engineering, including the development and manufacture of specialized mechanical devices primarily for defence purposes.Two major factors have affected the company: first, the contraction in the defence industry and, second, the change in government policy from cost-plus contracting to competitive tendering. This compelled the company to develop an entirely new business strategy and to carry out a comprehensive re-engineering process.
Critical success factors
The Managing Director, stated unequivocally in his report to the shareholders that:
The one factor that drives us is technology know-how. This means we offer solutions, not prODucts. That is really what we have to sell and it depends on people strength. We have a vision of what we want to be and are advancing more quickly than the rest of the competition. CIM (computer integrated manufacture) is at the heart of it. We have tackled MRPII (manufacturing requirements planning) and this means that we are faster than our competitors and are more likely to deliver on time than them.
The Operations Director supported this statement by commenting that:
We are characterized in the marketplace as a high-tech company with specific expertise in our field of mechanical engineering. We are known for the excellence of our technical solutions and the quality of our products. In the past we have been criticized for asking a premium price for high-technology products. Part of the message we are now getting across is that we can BATtle it out on value for money as well… People like working with us because they get strAIght answers to their questions including 'We don't know' if we really don't know. So our basic competences are high-technical quality and people with the skills needed to forge good relationships with customers.
Business strategy is stimulated and reviewed centrally by a business strategy group, chaired by the Managing Director, whose membership consists of the directors of operations, research and development, marketing, finance and HR. The business is split into a number of sectors (three in Birmingham) and each sector submits its business plan to the strategy group. This is a simple three-page summary that describes the broad objectives of their business sector, discusses the key competitive factors affecting it and sets out specific short- to medium-term objectives that are then translated into an operating plan. The plans look at a horizon of 10 years but for practical purposes there is a rolling three-year budget. This means that besides looking at the immediate budget the two key questions asked are: 'Where are you going to be in three years’ time? and What are you doing now to get better?' And this, as the Operations Director said, 'is a very demanding discipline'.
The formulation of business strategy is very much a team effort. As the Managing Director said:
I tell all the top executive people, including the HR and finance directors, that they are directors first and foremost and all must make a contribution to strategic planning.
The overall approach to the formulation of HR strategies was summarized by the Managing Director as follows:
The main thing we have to do is to ensure that we have the right core technologies and the right competences within the company to achieve the vision and strategy.
The Operations Director commented that:
Within the board one of the things that is constantly reviewed is human resource strategy. We have the long-term view of the type of organization we believe we need as a technology company and we have evolutionary plans of how we are going to get there. In the early stages we had a very strong functional organization; our evolution process now invoLVes the development of problem-solving teams which are set up at a high standard to encourage getting it right first time. In manufacturing we have mixed discipline teams with a team leader and a much flatter structure than we used to have. We have two pilot projects where research and development engineers are part of the team on the shop floor with a common team leader. The eventual aim is for all engineering and manufacturing to be organized in this way. The next step is to develop product families in which business generation and sales are brought into the team as well. So the team leaders almost become general managers.
The Marketing Director explained that:
We do not think of ourselves as having an HR strategy per se. We just see it as one aspect of our overall business strategy. From what I have observed going on in the business I find it quite difficult to separate a strand of activity which I could call HR strategy because it is so integral to everything which is going on. HR strategy is effectively part of the overall vision.
He also remarked that performance improvement was a constant priority for everybody and that they are ‘going through a lot of effort to ensure that we have the correct level of performance in what we do and underpinning this with financial and commercial stability’.
The HR Director explained that business strategy defines what has to be done to achieve success and that HR strategy must complement it, bearing in mind that one of the critical success factors for the company is its ability to attract and retain the best people. HR strategy must help to ensure that Mercia Systems is a best practice company. This implies that:
The HR strategy must be in line with what is best in industry and this may mean visiting four or five different companies, looking at what they are doing and taking a bit from one and a bit from another and moulding them together to form the strategy.
In the light of the information given in the case, set out the essential elements of the HR strategy you would devise to support the achievement of the business strategy.
In this case there is a clearly defined business strategy with a number of significant people implications. In the actual company on which it is based, the HR function, as the HR Director said, is ‘very much a partner with engineering and manufacturing in the strategy for developing computer integrated manufacture’ (this was before the concept of business partnership was invented). At board level he participated in the development of the strategy and the joint EVAluation of the people management implications. At operational level the HR Manager worked with the Engineering Manager in drawing up competency maps showing for each activity the competencies available now and what would be needed in five years’ time. These formed the basis for long-term resourcing and learning/development plans. The methodology of occupational analysis used to meet the company’s business needs was:
The HR Director emphasized that:
We have technical ability which makes us a winner, and this depends on the competences of our people, which are growing all the time. What is critical to our success is therefore the ability to attract and retain the right calibre of people. Our HR strategy is basically built round competences.
Note that when he refers to ‘competences’ he is describing what are also sometimes referred to as technical competencies, ie what people have to know and be able to do to perform effectively.