Magazine article Personnel Journal

Optimas Reflects Changes in HR

Magazine article Personnel Journal

Optimas Reflects Changes in HR

Article excerpt

We created the PERSONNEL JOURNAL Optimas Awards(R) in 1991 to support an ambitious agenda: to increase awareness of superior HR management's value to the general business community. By calling attention to 10 exemplary functions each year, these awards challenge the traditional assumptions about the role of human resources. They also make it clear that the leaders in HR are exploring new frontiers in the profession and are playing a more active role in determining business success.

From the outset, the winners have been found outside the boundaries that delineated human resources for years. In creating the awards categories, we deliberately avoided honoring the best benefit plan, training program or recruitment tactic. Instead, the awards have honored efforts in which imagination and bold initiative have been applied to meeting business challenges.

During the first three years of the Optimas program, therefore, the winning achievements included the creation of an independent--and revenue-generating--HMO that has been marketed to other employers, the development of an online computer system that allows retail-store managers to interact with the corporate headquarters in making hiring and training decisions, and a management-development program that lends employees to inner-city nonprofit agencies for 30 days. These efforts, and others, weren't made simply because they were a good idea; each supports a specific business objective. Winning initiatives have supported goals as diverse as launching a new product line, mitigating the employee displacement of downsizing and reopening a utility plant closed down by regulators.

This celebration of the direct link between business goals and HR strategies all but mandates that the awards change as business changes, and this year's selection process made it clear to us that the 1994 Optimas Award program is very different from the program we introduced in 1991.

At the most obvious level, the parameters for selecting winners have changed because initiatives that were truly at the profession's cutting edge in 1991 are no longer so unique. During the program's first couple of years, for example, we recognized contributions to the public school system, child-care programs, health-care cost-cutting measures and work-force diversity efforts, among others. It's a credit to both the profession and to corporate America that these ideas have since been embraced by the mainstream and now are routinely discussed in boardrooms and in the general business press.

This phenomenon, by itself, is hardly enough to change how we look at the program. Certainly there's no mandate that the awards will only be given to efforts that are unique or new. We understand that wide acceptance of a strategy does not imply that implementing it is easy. Even the 10,000th company that undertakes a restructuring around autonomous work teams or an initiative to slash workers' compensation costs must struggle to succeed, and any that meet their goal merit our admiration.

Instead, something more subtle has had profound implications on our selection process. To oversimplify, the first group of winners was characterized primarily by successful programs or initiatives; the fourth year is characterized primarily by philosophy or approach.

During the first couple of years, it was relatively easy to see the parameters of the HR-driven efforts we were looking at. One of the winners, for example, was US Steel. The organization had developed a successful program to help the company conform to tighter environmental standards by teaching employees how they could contribute to reducing emissions of hazardous gases. Although the CITE (Continuous Improvement to the Environment) Program has offered US Steel many long-term benefits, the program itself had a clear beginning, middle and end.

When it came time to select this year's winners, it was much harder to isolate specifics. The eventual winner in the Global Outlook category, the Coca-Cola Co. …

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