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HR in Lotusland

May 30, 2000
Related Topics: Behavioral Training, Basic Skills Training, Featured Article
VANCOUVER, B.C.-Starting a new job is like crossing the Capilano Suspension Bridge. At first, it seems scary. After all, the 111-year-old bridge is 450 feet long and hangs 230 feet above a deep canyon. Whitewater rushes over rocks far below. And even though it sways and creaks, who could resist the lush view of giant plants and towering red cedars-10 minutes from downtown Vancouver? Besides, the bridge is very, very strong.

Similarly, Catherine Deslauriers is crossing a human canyon. As the city's staff and organization development coordinator, she treads lightly in the HR position she's held since January. One could say she's often suspended between various parties. Learning about a new corporate culture--and training management--are her biggest challenges. "It's all about building relationships," says Deslauriers. "I can't just come in and tell people what to do." But once assimilated into the municipal culture, she hopes to leave her mark on one of Canada's most beautiful and green cities. With measured steps, she's inhaling the breathtaking view.

There are jagged mountain peaks. Sandy beaches. English Bay. The Haida and Tlingit cultures and a multiethnic population of 543,000 locals to seduce both residents and tourists alike. But from an HR standpoint, Deslauriers and Kim Froats, manager of health and safety, can't walk down a street without first noticing the city's employees-the parking-meter trainee writing up her first ticket, construction workers operating cranes in the distance, and bus drivers hauling passengers up and down Cambie Road. They are among the 8,500 public employees of Vancouver, a city of 23 distinct communities.

HR's current focus is an ambitious leadership training program intended to make managers more accountable for the quality of city services and ultimately increase customer, or in this case citizen, satisfaction. It's an approach that starts at the top with management leadership and accountability and works its way down to those who provide services directly. Understandably, how HR rolls out the curriculum is a sensitive matter. After spending a day shadowing Deslauriers, I could see why.

Improvements in running city government will also require increased employee recognition and public involvement. "That's why I love HR," says Deslauriers. "Human behavior is unpredictable, and you always have to think of new ways to solve people problems." Moreover, when you work for a municipality, your product-human services-is always on public display.

We begin our day with a visitor's orientation at 8:30 a.m. in City Hall, second floor, overlooking 12th Avenue.

Respect the history and corporate culture first

I first ask Deslauriers to explain the state of training upon her arrival. The city, she says, has provided ongoing training in a number of areas, including leadership and change management. But even though individual training sessions have been of good quality and the participant feedback has been positive, training hasn't been strategic-that is, planned and well integrated across all business units. "Each business unit has its own culture," she says. "How fire and rescue workers think and operate is quite different from those in engineering and public works."

The new training initiatives, she says, will be delivered through a series of modules that will outline corporate values and expectations for approximately 300 exempt managers and another 400 within 12 bargaining units. The training will provide skill development opportunities, review city policy, procedure, guidelines, and practices, and support managers with tools that can be used in the workplace.

"Our anticipated training outcome is a corporate culture whereby managers will have a common understanding of the expectations of their roles and the necessary skills to be effective," she says.

The city is looking at a three-year plan. In addition to the actual training curriculum, Deslauriers is mindful of other complexities. "We have a relatively new city manager and corporate management team," she says. And Mike Zora, general manager of HR, has been with the city of Vancouver for two years. She credits him with urging her to apply for the staff and organization development position. As she eases into her new job, Deslauriers is well seasoned by the cumulative knowledge and skills acquired as an HR generalist since 1979. "I've done recruiting, training, labor relations, occupational health and safety-and a little bit of compensation."

When asked how she entered the HR field, she laughs: "I got the idea from my old boyfriend's mother." The two were sitting one day having a chat. Deslauriers told the woman that she was thinking of becoming a schoolteacher. When her boyfriend's mother observed that Deslauriers could be successful in human resources, the latter replied, "Human resources? What's that?" Afterward, the young Deslauriers, a native of England, said, "Yeah, it sounds like something I might be interested in." She subsequently transferred from a university to the British Columbia Institute of Technology, completing a two-year program specializing in human resources.

"I got my degree on a Friday, and I had my first job on Monday at Vancouver General Hospital." Later, she worked for the British Columbia Cancer Agency, and more recently, the city of Langley, British Columbia.

Although she favors the softer training functions of HR, she also pays attention to the city's $25 million investment in SAP Canada, an integrated software product using client/server technology. "It's part of my HR mandate."

Searching for an enterprise-wide technology solution

Our first meeting of the day is with Jim Hendersen, a temporary consultant coordinating the SAP training project. In October 1997, a project team of city staff and consultants from Ernst & Young and SAP began implementing the client/server technology at the city of Vancouver. The city chose to implement the modules that would help it manage financial accounting, project costing, purchasing and inventory, human resources, and payroll processes.

There are approximately 850 system users across the organization involved in all the modules. The city has been using the financial collective agreement obligations and the inability of legacy systems to deal with Y2K issues as part of the criteria for identifying a process as mission-critical or not.

In addition, the HR/payroll team spent nearly a year defining the city's requirements and turning its 12 collective bargaining agreements into "rules" that the system will use to calculate employees' pay. "Basically, the SAP training is an enterprise-wide computer system," says Deslauriers. "It requires a great deal of training and relearning in the organization, and it has to be configured to meet the needs of our city."

In the meeting with Hendersen, Deslauriers asks a lot of questions, seeking information about how HR will continue SAP training after his contract expires. During another meeting in the afternoon, Deslauriers learns that Hendersen may be interested in ongoing work. She takes her cue from a senior manager, again keeping her intuitive judgment turned on high volume.

Employee recognition and public involvement

After a leisurely lunch at a local Italian eatery, Deslauriers walks back to City Hall for three more meetings. The first one is with an employee-recognition vendor. He admires the city's seal and offers to draw a mock-up of a pin that would recognize employee achievements. With semiprecious stones to boot.

Deslauriers is enthusiastic but cautious. The city recently eliminated some forms of flexible work schedules. Morale has been low. Would the pins be perceived as pacifiers, she wonders? Timing is everything. The meeting is short and cordial. But she eventually takes him up on his offer to draw up some tentative ideas.

Her next meeting is of a more serious nature. Her HR predecessor, she says, told the City Council that HR would do several things to improve public involvement. Deslauriers is a bit worried because she found out about it only recently. "Things are popping out of the woodwork as we go along," she says with a plucky grin. "Obviously, if we told Council we'd do such and such, we'd better have done it or explain why it hasn't been done."

Among some of the commitments:

  • Create a multicultural outreach and translation strategy.
  • Improve public involvement skills.
  • Improve community contact.
  • Create better civic awareness and understanding of how the city works.

And if there's any city that takes public involvement seriously, it's Vancouver. For example, in the fall of 1992, the City Council asked citizens for ideas about the future. Over the following three years, more than 20,000 people participated in developing "CityPlan" as a shared vision for their city's future. Its highlights include neighborhood centers, new housing downtown, a healthy job mix in the city, community services delivered locally, greenways to walk and bike across the city, and moving people-not cars-to ease congestion and improve the environment.

Clearly, change in Vancouver is occurring everywhere, and on all levels. Citizen activism will continue to compel the city's employees to provide quality human services. For human resources, it means proceeding with change management on the higher levels of municipal government. Granted, there will be lots of questions and some resistance. Deslauriers experienced this at a previous meeting at which she presented a proposal for management accountability. As senior managers spoke up and raised questions, she quickly realized that she needed to seek further consultation.

A meeting with Jacqui Forbes-Roberts, general manager of community services, bore fruitful advice: be careful how the initiative is titled, positioned, and rolled out. Not every manager needs retraining. In some cases, the training should be voluntary. For others, it is strongly recommended.

Deslauriers leaves the office reassured. Checking in with key senior managers keeps her well informed, especially in learning more about past practices. Change is difficult. "I have to be very careful." But even though obstacles may appear along her path, she can't resist the lush vision of Vancouver as an improved "village at the end of the rain forest." Besides, Deslauriers's determination is like the Capilano Suspension Bridge: very, very strong.

Just the Facts

Organization: City of Vancouver

Responsibility: Staff and organizational development coordination

Headquarters: Vancouver, British Columbia

Employees: Approximately 8,500

HR Staff: Approximately 45, including HR support staff

HR Challenges:

  • Training is a major focus point for Vancouver these days, particularly for management leadership and accountability.
  • Link the city's individual training initiatives to a greater common business goal.
  • Improve how the city government operates by requiring increased employee recognition.
  • Encourage public involvement to create better awareness and understanding of how the city works.
  • Change management holds great importance in this growing city.
  • Discover and learn the corporate culture.

You should know: "The City of Vancouver is one of the most beautiful and liveable cities in the world," says Deslauriers.

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