Chris meets Nexus Group’s Organisation Development and Learning Partner, Rebecca Watts

The growing importance of Organisation Design and Development in businesses today is underscored by a recent CIPD HR outlook survey, which revealed that one in five organisations are using HR analytics to develop their Organisation Design and Development Strategy. I recently caught up with Rebecca Watts (b. Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland), an OD practitioner who has led a number of OD projects in both the public and private sector in England, to find out more about what attracted her to this particular area of HR and what the future has in store.

 

Chris Deary: What is your current role within Organisation Design and Development and what are your main HR responsibilities?

Rebecca Watts: I am currently working with Nexus Infrastructure plc as the Group Organisational Development and Learning (ODL) Partner. Nexus is a leading provider of essential infrastructure services to the UK housebuilding and commercial sectors, and comprises two businesses: Tamdown, a provider of specialised infrastructure, civil engineering and reinforced concrete frame services; and TriConnex, which designs, installs and connects utility networks to properties on new residential and commercial developments.

Our HR team is divided into generalist HR, Recruitment and ODL within Corporate Services, and the ODL team supports the Group’s subsidiaries in a consultancy role. My key priority for this year is carrying out a full learning needs analysis for our Tamdown site managers and engineers, and designing and delivering a development programme to upskill these individuals both personally and professionally for the growing business requirements. I also undertake every aspect of the learning and development cycle (learning needs analysis, design, delivery & evaluation), and drive the creation and embedding of ODL initiatives which improve the capability of our people to deliver the Group Business Plan.

 

Chris: How did you get into Organisation Design & Development?

Rebecca: Initially, I studied theatre at university so all I had wanted to do was to act, perform and sing, but little did I realise at the time that a fulfilling career in Organisation Design and Development lay ahead. I began my HR career in 2009 with the NHS East of England Strategic Health Authority, and shortly after securing this role, we were told the organisation would be closing. This was a steep learning curve in terms of HR, and in 2011, our team welcomed Paul Taylor-Pitt to deliver a staff support programme for the closedown, as well as designing and developing the new Local Education and Training Board for East of England which would be part of Health Education England; a brand-new organisation.

I quickly became interested in OD and engagement, and was given the opportunity to work closely with Paul who inspired me to always make a difference with everything that I do. Paul now drives OD in the NHS nationally with the Do OD campaign. I was fascinated with the various ways individuals dealt with change, and I worked hard to design different elements to support different mindsets, skillsets and career aspirations. Our staff support programme actually won the Bevan Brittan Award for HR contribution to organisational transition, reorganisation or turnaround at the HPMA Awards in 2013 which was a great testament to the work we did, and the impact it had on our staff.

 

Chris: What skills did you acquire and what behaviours did you develop throughout your studies?

Rebecca: To be honest, I started my Postgraduate Certificate in HR management in 2012 because I had been strongly advised not to ‘lose HR’ from my skillset as many jobs at the time were generalist HR. I knew that having this CIPD qualification would give me credibility in the workplace and I actually learnt so much that I have since put into practice in my OD career.

 

Whilst I am in a fairly specialist role, the background knowledge and leadership theories are really important in my day to day role to ensure a strong link between HR and OD. I really enjoyed the modules on Leading, Managing and Developing People, and Designing and Delivering Learning and Development in particular – they gave me a lot of insight into best practice and the ‘how’ we should do things effectively. As a drama graduate, I also find it fascinating how OD and theatre have so many similarities, and how we can use elements of theatre in our OD solutions – you can read more about this on my blog: http://oddiamond.blogspot.co.uk/

 

Chris: How important is Organisation Design and Development in the organisations you’ve worked in within the public and private sector?

Rebecca: Organisation design and development is so important in the NHS and public sector – they are constantly facing funding challenges and restructures, and our role as OD practitioners is to ensure we have significant input into shaping the organisation’s culture, values and workforce to be flexible and adaptable for the future challenges, as well as enhancing performance and effectiveness. We need to support a learning organisation and continuous improvement in an ever-changing and dynamic climate. The Do OD team at NHS Employers and NHS Leadership Academy do a fantastic job in professionalising the role of OD in the NHS and provides a network for leaders to connect, share, learn and grow. I was fortunate enough to have a secondment into this team in 2014, and learnt so much about the importance of appreciative inquiry, and the role of OD professionals as positive disruptors in an organisation.

In my current role in the construction industry, organisation design and development is still important but is a relatively new concept. This business is growing and has recognised the importance of good design to deliver its objectives, and development to ensure the workforce can meet tomorrow’s goals. Whilst I am now working in a different sector, I still have my NHS hat on when designing solutions – what can we do that will make a positive difference at minimal cost? Where can we draw experience and expertise form our staff? Can we create suitable solutions and initiatives that are sustainable?

The one thing to remember no matter what industry or what sector, is that we are dealing with people. People can often be unpredictable, and they each have their own individual motivations, needs and wants; but ultimately, they want to do a good job and make a positive difference. We need to give them the right tools and resources to do just that, whilst supporting and enabling them to be fantastic.

 

Chris: What sort of challenges have you faced as an HR professional and how have you equipped yourself to deal with these?

Rebecca: In my first HR role I had to lead an organisational closedown so I quickly learnt about consultations, trade union negotiations, communications and engagement, recruitment and redundancy, but also the support people need to deal with uncertainty and change.

I have been lucky for most of my career to have fantastic managers who mentored and coached me, as well as giving me the creative freedom to try new things to make the organisation better.

 

I have learnt that OD is never black and white in practice, and you can never follow the textbook to the letter – but I love dealing with the ‘grey’ areas. Every OD issue is different, and it reinforces the need to understand the specific background and context of a single issue via both diagnostic and dialogic methods before designing solutions. One of my tutors at university taught me to always question, and always challenge the ‘norms’ and I think this is something I continue to do today – be the positive disruptor of the status quo.

It can be daunting to try something new, or to challenge the culture, but I have developed my influencing skills, as well as being open and honest about issues – I have done many rounds of staff surveys, focus groups and dialogic research requested by senior teams to gauge the temperature in the organisation, and people may not like to hear an issue in their team or department, but when you’re there to support them and help to drive a solution, they are grateful for your input and become open to ideas.

 

Chris: Finally, what do you envisage to be the greatest challenges/opportunities for HR/L&D professionals in the coming years and how are you approaching them?

Rebecca: I think the key challenge and opportunity is the changing demographics in our workforce in terms of each generation’s wants, needs and motivations. How can we as an employer attract and retain different generational employees to drive the organisation forward? We also need to retain and spread the vast knowledge and legacy that those considering retirement in the next few years hold – without a succession plan in place, we could lose valuable expertise and business relationships which could have a negative impact. With my site manager and engineer development project, we are bringing these groups together to learn from each other regardless of how long they’ve been doing the job – we can all learn something new from every person we meet and one conversation can make a huge difference to someone.

 

My studies and professional experience have enabled me to create a network of professionals from whom I learn every day and I’m always keen to reach out and connect with new people to engage in discussions and gain fresh perspectives. If you do want to get in touch about anything, please do so via LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/rebeccawebberwatts

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