HR and Recession: The Role of HR as Change Agents in Developing Continuing Professional Education (CPE) Programs during these recessionary period

Balan Dass, PhD

Introduction

Organizations are facing gloomy times. The financial crises, recessions, and economic depressions are not new phenomena, but their occurrence is definitely a cause for great concern among many. This is because no matter how well we study the history of downturns such as these, dealing with them when they do happen again is still just as difficult. Most organizations will wonder, for instance, how to control recession effects on human resource performance, and employee performance in general. For the most part, this would fall to the efforts of the human resource department. In fact, the human resource department would probably need to handle the most important part of the recession coping strategies, but have the human resource department informed the employees that we are in recession or are they in denial. Only when the organization faces reality and informs the employees on what is going on systematically, the employees will know how to adapt to such crisis.

This is because, essentially, what crises force organizations to do is to go back to the basics and try to maintain an intact, dynamic core. This core consists mainly of the organization’s leaders and employees – all united towards accomplishing their mission and achieving their vision. The panic and worrying induced by uncertain, or worse, poor economic conditions will tend to obscure this simple fact, but human resource departments should strive to realize this, better sooner than later. Human resource should concur with management and come out with a plan on how they are going to survive this crisis with the help of all the employees. As such human resource could take stock of the crisis and work out a plan. HR departments truly do have their jobs cut out for them in times of crisis, but with a smart and sensible plan, managers can effectively control recession effects on HR performance by changing their roles to Change Agents.

HR as Change Agents

Many continuing education programs are designed to help individuals to change. Change is likely to continue to dominate our future lives, institutions and society. It is the responsibility of continuing educators and educational agencies, as change-agents, to help people understand change as it affects their lives especially during these period of uncertainties.

Change means to alter or modify something and can evolve naturally or deliberately planned. A natural change is automatic and follows the path of history and evolution. That change is not managed, does not have (proper) direction and goal, and does not use valid knowledge and available resources. Change that evolves naturally can have either a positive or negative impact on development.

The idea of planned change refers to the deliberate efforts made to alter behavior of an individual, a group or a system. Bennis et al. (1976) view planned change as a deliberate and collaborative process involving a change-agent and a client system. It is a method that employs social technology and available resources to help solve problems of man and societies. Houle (1972) describes planned change as a purposeful decision and deliberate effort to improve a system. In making the improvement, he suggests that the help of an outside agent be solicited.

Some key elements related to planned change are: conscious effort to alter performance, desirable goal, collaborative effort between the change-agent ( the party who provides professional guidance) and the client system (the party whose behavior is to be changed) and, employment of all  available resources. Planned change may be conceptualized as a conscious and purposive effort (collaborative between the client system and the change-agent) to alter performance or behavior of a client system towards desirable goals by using available resources.

 

Promoting Planned Change

Key elements that are critical for the success of change in a program may be promoted through planned change and involves the following strategies: developing the needs for change, zeroing on change problem, establishing goals and intention of action, committing to action, and stabilizing the change.

  1. Development of a Need for Change

In order for change to occur, the potential client usually experiences problems that create tension within the system. To trigger the change, the client system must be brought into the state of problem awareness. Once the client is aware of the problem, they can be motivated to desire a change and recognize the need to seek outside help.

  1. Zeroing the Problem This phase of change usually deals with the collection, analysis and interpretation of data about the client system’s problems. The change-agent will work with the client system to clarify problems and make diagnosis. The process of change will depend upon the understanding and acceptance of the diagnosis by the client.

c. Establishing Goals and Intention of Action

The change process usually involves translation of the diagnostic insights into ideas of alternative means of action followed by the direction of change being defined. This phase denotes the program designing stage which includes committing resources and identifying action steps to be taken.

  1. Committing to action

This refers to the implementation process in affecting change. Plans are launched into practical and actual situation.

  1. Stabilization of ChangeThis is the phase where change has been accomplished, stabilized and remains a permanent character of the client system. The mechanisms involved in the process includes the confirmation of practice or behavior change by other members of the client system, feedback and reinforcement. The planned change may be stabilized when it is supported by the structural changes of the system. At this stage, the role of change-agents are critical to ensure planned change takes place smoothly.

Institutions are important aspects of structural-functionalism. Important social institutions such as religion, youth club, professional association and providers, etc. can help to promote social change in coping up with these trying times. Since each of these institutions are established based on similar interest, conflict perspective can promote change that appeal to the interest group.

Another aspect that can be identified in a society is the communication process and structure. There is a need to identify key communicators to help the change-agent promote change. Authority and opinion leaders can help extend new ideas to the rest of society. Key communications can be established at various locations in the society to provide a system of interpersonal communication network.

Training the Trainers

In order to achieve the constant support which the change-agents need, there is a need for more training for supervisors and project officers-training appropriate to their proper role of resource persons working alongside their development workers and instructors. Those concerned with programmes of ‘staff development’ have identified two main models: a ‘developmental’ (bottom-up and problem-solving) model and a ‘deficit’ (top-down, input-based) model. The former is more concerned with the needs of the person, the latter with the needs of the organization he or she serves. Much the same is true of the training of supervisors. They may be molded to fit the needs of the programme and the agency, or they may be made innovative and free to exercise judgement in the fulfillment of their role of helper of change-agents.

Such training, if it is really to help the change agents, needs to be pragmatic and practical rather than textbook and academic. Supervisors exist to serve rather than control and instruct the change-agents. In this capacity, they need to have had some experience of development to be good practitioners rather than good theoreticians. Theory and development, as in adult education, grows out of practice more than practice out of theory. Supervisors and project officers thus need to be trained practically in development. And this in turn creates demand for new patterns of training the trainers for development: training is best conducted by those who are themselves experienced in the problems of being supervisor and of being a change-agent rather than by experts in the theory of Development.

Unfortunately, this bottom-up approach to training is in many cases a long way off. What usually exists is a top-down model, in which academics tell the supervisors what they should know and these in turn pass it down to the change-agents. The trainers set the format, the timing and the content of the training rather than helping the change-agents to plan their own training.

Training is Development: during a recession

Most training programs in Development (even those which call for participatory methods) seem to be designed to limit initiative, to discourage decision-making by the trainees, and to encourage conformity to an ideal. They set out to create a model extension worker or change-agent, to foster the adoption of approved methods of animation (demonstration, role play or simulation, etc.); they try to ‘give all the answers’. Rarely do training programs set out to encourage the change-agents to innovate, to solve problems, to identify for themselves resources which can help them.

But the demand for innovative change-agents on a mass scale is bringing about changes in the content and methods of these initial and  in-service training program. These latter training programs may be analyzed in terms of our Development model.

  1. They start with the existing state, the intentions and aspirations of the change-agents, with what they want to learn rather than with topics chosen by the supervisors, trainers and agencies.
  2. The articulation of these concerns by the change-agents will serve to heighten their awareness as they reflect critically on their role as change-agent, the resources available to them, and their own needs and aspirations.
  3. Such programs seek to develop the knowledge, skills and understandings necessary for an effective change-agent – not just a limited range of communication skills and extension techniques, but a deeper understanding of the process of changing society, including identifying barriers and resources in their environment. They pay attention to attitude formation as well as knowledge change-attitudes that the change-agents hold towards themselves, towards the task, and towards the participant groups.
  4. They practice decision-making by the trainees, building confidence in the change-agents to plan their own learning.
  5. And they build in programs of active learning (instead of merely listening and watching) during the training programs-activities which will help the trainees to become more effective change-agents.

Conclusion

To be effective, change-agents need to become the participants in a Development process themselves; and the supervisors, academics and ‘experts’ who train them also need to experience Development as they in their turn learn how to train. For education and training is a form of Development-and those who experience it will make the best development workers. Therefore, HR in recession becomes an advantage towards a recovery process, with employees raring to outperform. According to Dr Prince, CEO and Founder of The Perth Leadership Institute, delivering his white paper at a conference argues that, in order for HR to cope with the recession and act as change agents, they need to undertake a number of initiatives. They are as follows: a) de-emphasis traditional personality and competency based approaches, b) focus on programs that will have fast behavioral impact on cost and margins, c) introduce into all programs the concepts of an ownership culture, d) implement programs to develop business acumen, e) integrate business acumen programs with traditional programs, f) map business acumen to traditional personality and competency approaches, g) emphasize the financial and hard side of programs in internal public relations, h) train HR and leadership development professionals in business acumen approaches, i) position HR and leadership development as business focused innovators in their own areas, j) view recession as an un-paralled opportunity and not as a problem

The recession increases the courage of the top management to implement the changes as they see clear benefits from the changes to be implemented. The employees are willing to accept the changes and the HR, functions as a change agent, has a unique opportunity to become one of the winners, after all, the recession will not last forever.

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