24 October 2006
From a former Shell insider
I would just like to make some comments on the recent email regarding Shell’s international mobility policy. I leave it to your judgement as to whether they are worthy of publication.
The email demonstrates that virtually everything is cyclical; these studies have been done previously and they are usually a lagging indicator of a business problem. This one can probably be summarised as saying – we intend to spend more on people in hardship locations (eg. Nigeria) and less on those in nice locations (eg. Oman) whilst making irritating changes to travel policies.
What is alarming is that it again seems to show a continuing lack of acceptance that most of the Group’s problems in the last decade have their origins in HR and organizational changes. The core issues around international mobility revolve around the planning and management of staff on an individual basis – something which Shell did exceptionally well (on a comparative basis) until the inexcusability stupid introduction of Open Resourcing. Having HR planners, who were often from the line, planning individuals meant that you could balance out assignments between good and “challenging” assignments, place people back into base countries when needed for children’s education or health reasons. It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was and is the major key to retaining quality staff on a fair and equitable basis – not having location allowances rebalanced on some theoretical “zero sum” basis which is akin to “moving deckchairs on the Titanic”.
The fact is that these sort of changes are a distraction in an environment where Shell is challenged to simply retain rather than attract quality staff – and where, from a shareholder standpoint, there are an inordinate number of more important technical and commercial issues. Expatriate costs are an order of magnitude below the cost of getting project planning and implementation right first time, which should be the number one priority.
As regards Americans, they only have their fair share of the world’s creativity and experience – it is a mistake to build HR and other systems to try and accommodate their specific, often expensive requirements. There are disproportionately few Americans to be found in developing environments for many reasons – better to look for your staff in other places.
Finally, while I was often uncomfortable with the amount of intellectual time devoted to scenario planning within the Group I find myself wondering how the strategy of a company the size of Shell can apparently be distilled down to “more upstream and profitable downstream”. Perhaps it’s an attempt at providing a clear focus, I hope so. In reality, Shell’s problems are diverse and complicated , but they appear to be largely self inflicted consequences of misguided HR/Change initiatives – and it behoves its CEO to lightly embark upon another series.