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i Optimas -i Update The Best Get Better

A roundup of what's happened with a few Optimas winners since their awards were given.

September 18, 2003
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If there's one constant in today's business environment, it's thatyesterday's award-winning initiative is today's old news. The rapid pace ofchange--and the enormous influence of technology--has forced organizations tocontinually evolve and adapt.

    Nowhere is this fact more apparent than in human resources. Since Workforcebegan recognizing best practices in human resources with Optimas Awards in 1991,the world has changed immeasurably. The Internet has obliterated paper,diversity and equality have become more than buzzwords, benefits have evolved,and human resources departments increasingly are assuming strategicresponsibilities. Not surprisingly, many past Optimas winners continue to embrace change. In some cases, they've refined existing programs. In otherinstances, they've created new programs and adopted an assortment of HRtechnologies to ramp up performance. All of those contacted for recentinterviews recognize that today's competitive landscape demands ongoing effortand innovation.

One of the most prominent themes among these exceptional companies is anemphasis on developing human capital--through avenues such as training,e-learning, succession planning, and knowledge and performance management."Today, developing skills and competencies is essential," says LyndaSpielman, deputy director of deployment at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. The firm,the 2002 winner in the Global Outlook category, recently has established aGlobal Professional Readiness Program to "prepare a 'farm team' of youngprofessionals to work overseas, well in advance of their actual transfer."The goal: "Unleash the full potential of our people to be successful intheir assignments." Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu has added the program to analready robust global-development plan.

    The same thinking permeates WellPoint, a 2002 Competitive Advantage winner.Over the last year, the health-care company has refined itsperformance-management system to include more specific metrics and more detailedobjectives. Employees can monitor their progress, and the organization can trackprofessional development more closely. "It is helping us create a moreobjective and uniform way to measure performance based on clearly definedgoals," says Barbara McNamara, vice president of human resources.

    The 2000 General Excellence winner, SAS Institute, has turned to performancemanagement and enhanced succession planning, using a combination of technologyand business process re-engineering. Human resources director Jeff Chambers saysthat the idea is to have "the entire organization line up to the same setof common goals and ensure that everyone is rowing in the same direction. Thatway, we can achieve a higher level of organizational performance." Thesystem complements expanding training and e-learning initiatives.

    Synygy, which captured the 2001 Vision award, has added refinements to itsthriving performance-management system. Ed Steinberg, vice president of humanresources for the software and services firm, has tweaked the system so that theorganization can measure collaboration and team skills--two of the underpinningsof today's evolving workplace. "We're using the system to make keydecisions about which employees to invest in and how much to invest,"Steinberg says. "It's also factoring into hiring and firingdecisions." Synygy also enhanced its mentoring process and added trainingand development for its 400-plus employees-up from 260 in 2001.

    At First USA--now a subsidiary of Bank One--career development has alwaysserved as a central theme. The company, a 2001 Quality of Life winner, used tohave an employee-development adviser to help employees stay on a career trackwithin the company. Last year, the bank eliminated the position and askedemployees to take on the responsibility themselves. It recently added managerialtraining focused on satisfaction and retention and is currently in the processof adding a knowledge-management component "to better manage employeetraining, development, and professional growth," says Jane Trice, vicepresident of performance improvement. A December 2002 poll found that 81.2percent of the firm's employees were satisfied or highly satisfied with thecompany.

    FedEx, a 1992 winner in the Competitive Advantage category, has pumped up itstraining to reflect its commitment to quality. FedEx University offers extensiveclassroom instruction and e-learning, the latter through a 24/7 Web portal. Thesystem links to a performance-management application. The company also hasimproved skills testing to better match applicants with jobs--and cut down onturnover. Finally, an automated recruiting system is helping the firm to findbetter applicants faster than ever before.

    Solving the recruiting puzzle is no simple task. Yet several past Optimasrecipients have achieved solid gains through a combination of vision andinnovation. Texas Instruments, a 1998 General Excellence winner, now offersemployees a $3,000 reward for successful referrals. It also began using a teaminterview approach for critical hiring decisions in 2002. "HR has helpedour leadership understand that people are our most important resource,"says Steve Lyle, director of worldwide staffing.

    Others, such as 2002 Partnership winner Blue Valley School District inOverland Park, Kansas, have been hit hard by the lagging economy. A staggering86 percent of the district's budget is tied up in human resources, and cutbacks have created anenormous challenge. Assistant superintendent Al Hanna notes that the districthas trimmed new-teacher orientation, has scaled back a successful mentoring program, and was forcedto find a new partner when the University of Kansas dropped out of ateaching-development program. Nevertheless, Hanna says, "our program isstill making a difference for new teachers." During the 2001-2002 schoolyear, Blue Valley managed to retain 95 percent of new teachers--far aboveindustry norms.

    Some past Optimas winners have used the downturn in the economy to theiradvantage. Qualcomm, which captured the 2000 Optimas in the Service category, isnow able to hire from a deeper pool of available talent. Dan Sullivan, executivevice president of human resources, reports that the acceptance rate for newhires has increased from 70 to 90 percent. "We're in a better position tocompete, particularly when the economy heats up," he says.

    A number of Optimas winners have increased benefits for employees. Bank ofMontreal, a 1997 General Excellence winner, has expanded a job-sharing program,allowed a greater number of employees to work reduced hours or alternativeschedules, and added an employee assistance program. "We want to provideeverything needed to help people balance work life and family life," saysRose Patten, executive vice president of human resources. Likewise, TheContainer Store, the 2001 General Excellence recipient, has boostedcontributions to workers' 401(k)s and added domestic-partner benefits--whilemaintaining pay rates 50 to 100 percent above industry averages. "We lookfor creative ways to build the business and attract and retain greatpeople," says CEO and cofounder Kip Tindell. SAS Institute has added hairsalons, car-detailing facilities, on-site dry cleaning, and coverage forexperimental cancer treatments to an already extensive list of amenities,including free child care and exercise facilities.

    Some organizations, such as the City of Hampton, Virginia, a 1995 GeneralExcellence Optimas recipient, have pushed forward with Total Quality Management.Within human resources, it has expanded training "so that employees areexposed to all functional areas of HR," says Dianne Randall Foster,director of human resources. The city also added performance-based rewards andpay, and uses human resources teams to solve employee issues. That has helped itachieve a 90 percent satisfaction rate with citizens and distinguish it as anAll-America City--one of only 10 in the United States to receive the distinctionfrom the National Civic League.

    There's no single formula for success, and past Optimas winners understandthat the quest for excellence never ends. On the front lines of business, it'sall about rethinking and reinventing human resources on a daily basis.

Workforce, March 2003, p. S1 -- Subscribe Now!

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