Out of Many, One
By Carla Garnett
On the Front Page...
If the staff of your human resources office seem a little distracted lately, try to be understanding. For the past 11 months, human resources at NIH has been in the midst of a major, fast-tracked reorganization that was scheduled to debut on Oct. 6. Although a few issues remain to be settled, it is a testament to the hard work, creativity and flexibility of the 300-some employees involved in NIH's HR enterprise that the restructuring appears seamless to most of us.
NIH Acting Director for Human Resources Fred Walker, who served as project co-manager for the restructuring, would like all staff to be open-minded, considering this an "opportunity to enhance your career growth, pursue new knowledge and gain new experiences. I also hope that people will share their ideas by telling us what's working well and give us input on what helps them to be successful."
Concept to Completion in 11 Months
Last November, HHS and the Office of Management and Budget mandated that HR activities be centralized, citing a need for department-wide consistency in such procedures as handling job applications, according to Lori Thompson of NIAMS, who led the reorganization's communication effort. Officials felt that many people hoping to work for HHS found it difficult to navigate around the dozens of departmental personnel offices. NIH, for instance, was home to more than 25 different HR offices nearly one for each institute and center. The longterm HHS goal is to reduce the number of personnel offices in the department from 40 to 4 by October 2003. The implication for NIH was particularly keen. Because its IC HR offices were not even considered part of the 40, NIH's first hurdle was to restructure the individual IC units into a central Office of Human Resources (OHR).
E Pluribus Unum
As early U.S. leaders no doubt discovered, the simple Latin phrase e pluribus unum (English translation: out of many, one) is complicated to implement. Reorganizers, working under a tight deadline, sought to make NIH's new HR as effective, efficient and painless as possible.
The reconstituted central OHR contains six divisions: information systems, program effectiveness, employee services and benefits, workforce management, employee relations and training, and human resources operations. Following feedback from dozens of HR focus groups, planners hope most employees experience a nearly invisible transition to the new structure. For example, even though personnel officers are no longer under the ICs, employees will still have a designated HR staff to handle their personnel issues. In other words, the paper trail for your step increase will still be ushered through official channels.
For staff who work in HR, however, the changes are substantial. An operations branch chief will be responsible for the HR issues of many more employees. Workloads may shift or expand; some workers will move to new locations. Some top-level professionals many who have labored in the HR field for a number of years and had established themselves in key leadership posts suddenly find themselves contemplating competition for the reduced number of lead roles in the slimmed-down OHR.
Chris Steyer, a 23-year federal employee who was serving as HR officer at NIAMS and is acting deputy director of the new OHR, sees several benefits in the unified structure.
"Currently each IC handles things differently and we have different procedures everywhere," she says. "There have been problems with that and with the new consolidation there should be more oversight while hopefully still maintaining close relationships with our customers. We hope to be able to draw on our combined strengths and knowledges more. We also will begin to think more corporately as an NIH rather than just as institutes. For example, recruiting for the 'NIH' rather than 'NCI,' which I think will market NIH and ultimately the ICs better."
Bagley agrees, "I believe this reorganization will bring NIH closer to achieving its mission by further developing our corporate image, which will help us in recruiting and retaining the best talent through our outreach efforts. We will be able to gather various IC ideas, share past successes and invent new approaches to recruiting and retaining the elite NIH scientific and administrative staff."
HR Staffers Step Up to the Challenge
As would be expected, reactions to the department's mandate have varied among HR staffers. Describing the brown bag sessions, web site and newsletter devoted to the reorganization, communications chief Thompson says that is why a great deal of effort was put into keeping everyone informed along the way: It's the workers ultimately who will determine how well the new OHR fares.
"This is going to require a lot of teamwork in order for it to be successful," she predicts. "A lot will depend on how employees work with new colleagues and new assignments. There will definitely be an adjustment period."
Best Practices Revealed
As HR staffers brace for the next phase interdepartmental consolidation advice from employees offers comfort and encouragement for what fiscal year 2003 may hold.
Horwitz emphasizes that involving the HR community the human element in reorganization efforts is key and hopes the same strategy serves well for further restructuring down the road.
"Communicate all the time," she advises. "It is the most important action you can take. Be honest about what you know and don't know. Get input from all your stakeholders. It might take time upfront but it quickly helps in the design. Get assistance from those most affected by the reorganization."
In fact, Walker says one of his top goals is to improve communication and collaboration between the Division of Human Resources Operations and the other OHR divisions.
In trying to build an effective HR organization, Walker says he is reminded of something a former supervisor once told him: "This is not the National Institutes of Personnel Management. We derive tremendous benefit from our participation in a great humanitarian mission. We must not lose sight of why we are here and the contributions that we all make to further the NIH mission."
Up to Top