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Unlock the secrets of a flexible business universe, by John O’Reilly

How can a logistics operation gain the skills needed for smooth growth in an environment of uncertainty? John O’Reilly, Operations Director at FlexPlus, explains the ‘Flex Way’ for achieving a ‘flexible universe business model’ to mitigate risk and future-proof your business.

A sustained period of growth is seeing the UK economy emerge from the mire it had been stuck in since the global financial crisis. However, the post-recession period brings its own dangers for companies striving for expansion. Having become lean during the trough, operations are stretched when competing for the fruits of a more bountiful market – while the need to satisfy customers remains paramount.

An agile way of recruiting to facilitate expansion is needed, one that acknowledges uncertainty, mitigates risk and future-proofs the business.

Simply looking to draw more labour from a dwindling available talent pool by increasing pay and recruiting people permanently will lessen agility. And any subsequent slip back into recession will see companies – particularly in the logistics sector where margins are getting smaller – struggle with higher payrolls, making it more likely that they will need to make people redundant. A glance at the redundancy bill from 2009 is a shocking reminder of the costs that can ensue.

While the UK is doing comparatively better than our key trading partners in Europe, geopolitical factors such as the Eurozone recession and deflation, falling oil prices and Chinese debt could drag us back into the mire. However, like an ocean going tanker, which takes a long time to turn around, a growing company takes quarters rather than the weeks needed to adjust to changes in the economic climate.

Growing markets can also change suddenly due to ‘disruptors’ appearing on the scene. Before the days of the iPhone and iTunes, for example, few mobile phone manufacturers and music publishers will have foreseen computer manufacturer Apple as a competitor. What if 3D manufacturing and drones suddenly move from tomorrow’s world to today’s, thus decreasing the need for delivery vehicles?

Uncertainty is one thing that we can be certain about. So it is vital for any company seeking to grow with confidence to have an agile approach to recruitment, one that takes the form of a ‘flexible universe business model’. The first step to achieving this ‘Flex Way’ to growth is for a company to understand its own structure, processes and, critically, its core competence. High skills levels should be maintained within the area of core competence, as it is the ‘planet’ at the centre of the flexible universe. This core competence should also be the focus for rewards, as retaining staff in this area is paramount.

People development is the key to staff retention, however, few companies appreciate the views and objectives of an employee. While logistics businesses want to attract and retain the best people for the long term, most potential employees tend to view a job as a stepping-stone to the next opportunity, gaining experience on their continuing career journey. Businesses need to acknowledge these dynamics and create counter strategies that enhance talent retention and deployment.

Having found staff they wish to retain companies need to understand what makes them tick. They should have a development plan in place to ensure that the individual’s horizons are not constrained and that opportunities are made available to them – not only upwards but also horizontally, so that they gain wider experience that allows an individual to progress. Importantly, this approach will help increase the level of multi-skilled people within the organisation.

Having dealt with the core and ‘capped’ permanent staff levels, a company can then look at the flexibility surrounding that core.

For a start it can take on temporary staff to work on new projects to help the business grow. This will often require the use of ‘Supertemps’: highly skilled individuals, such as self-employed professionals and technicians, who can be parachuted into new projects where greater skills and expertise are required. They will be involved in roles such as marketing, sales and business expansion – areas that can create strategic change within a company. Systems therefore need to be in place to maintain this change after the supertemp leaves.

For essential support roles – such as payroll, HR, legal and recruitment – that will not affect the core business, a company can establish partnerships with external contractors. In so doing, a company will benefit from the specialist expertise from these business partners that is not available internally.

There will be other processes outside the core that can be ‘deskilled’. Simplifying these processes will allow a speedier training curve for flexible workers in non-core roles – primarily lower skilled agency workers and individuals on fixed term contracts. With effective recruitment, induction and training they can become productive quickly allowing a company to react faster to changes. Therefore, if retention is not so strong in this area it will not have a negative impact on the rest of the business.

In the fabric of the flexible universe model, the ‘satellites’ of business partners, flexible workers and supertemps orbit around ‘Planet Core Competence’, providing close support without impacting upon the core business.

There is a strong correlation between the UK’s relatively strong ranking among EU nations for growth and employment and it having the most agile work force. Businesses facing an uncertain future need to develop and maintain agility.

In summary, gaining the skills needed to achieve a smooth journey to growth in a universe of uncertainty requires a new, agile mindset. The ‘Flex Way’ to achieving this is to have:

Highly skilled staff working on the core competence
‘Supertemps’ where more skills and expertise are required
External expertise by contracting out non-core functions to business partners
Deskilled processes that enable the use of flexible workers

Some companies may well be taking these steps unconsciously, in an unstructured way. However, implementing the ‘flexible universe business model’ using the sound principles and proven methodology of the ‘Flex Way’ will enable a company to grow with confidence.

John O’Reilly is Operations Director at Flex Recruitment Plus

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