Cultural Change



Some comments from Nigel Broome, HR Director, Sainsbury and Judith Evans, HR Director, Homebase may set the context:

‘The changes in the role and culture of Personnel were initiated by a number of factors. One was the increasingly competitive retail environment within which the company has been operating. Sainsbury’s had had a remarkable history of successful growth and profitability over nearly 130 years but by the early 1990’s it was apparent that we needed some radical changes to respond to our competitors. These included reducing the cost base, which was addressed through a business process re-engineering exercise which reduced costs considerably and transformed business processes to be more customer facing. As a company we also needed to move away from a rather over directive style of management which had inhibited creativity and innovation.

A key dimension of the changes needed affected the Personnel function. With over 120,000 employees Personnel/HR was (and is) a vitally important activity in the company. However by the early 1990’s it was apparent that the function had not responded adequately to the needs of the business in a number of areas. When we surveyed managers around the business they told us a number of important things about the changes they wanted to see.’

The main changes that were needed included Personnel moving away from being a fragmented and bureaucratic function to one that acted more like an internal consultancy supporting managers in developing a more coaching style of leadership.’


The programme was designed to facilitate a major shift in the way the function and all 700 HR professionals worked. An externally facilitated two-day off-site meeting, with the two Directors and their senior managers, was held to develop a clear strategy for the changes. From this came the criteria by which the changes would be judged. These included aims such as:

  • Personnel professionals have the confidence to challenge line managers, and the professional competence to address issues
  • The function, and personnel professionals in it, are more respected, valued by line and seen as a ‘one-stop-shop’
  • Managers and personnel professionals work in partnership to solve business problems
  • Line managers are more actively involved in training, selection, coaching, managing absence, etc.’


  • Designing and developing the programme
  • Off-site workshops re new roles required
  • 360 degree feedback (devised by each individual)
  • Development of internal Learning Group Advisers
  • Six Learning Group meetings over a period of 9 months with internal Learning Group Advisers
  • Rolled out to 180 managers initially and subsequently 520 HR professionals over the following 2 years

Evaluation & Achievements

Evaluation Methods

Sainsbury’s carried out an internal evaluation, with design assistance from Ian Cunningham, at the end of the first phase. This evaluation study included:

  • Questionnaires to participants
  • Interviews with a sample of participants
  • Interviews and focus groups with line mangers of participants

Quantitative measures were devised against all aims. A ten-point scale was created and the mean scores prior to the programme were around five.


After the programme all scores against the nine criteria had improved significantly, the mean being around 7.5 i.e. a 2.5 average shift in a positive direction. This was in addition to all the personal learning that had taken place.


Nigel and Judith summarised their own conclusions as follows:

It is easy to take for granted the function we have now, as having always been there, but the Personnel Development Programme was a key stepping stone in helping personnel/HR people take responsibility for their own development. The function and the individuals within it are much stronger as a result. They both need to be, in order to help the organisation meet the needs of an increasingly competitive environment.’

‘The value of the programme has been enormous to the company in times of change and turbulence in our markets. The principles of Self Managed Learning, such as using real work as a basis of learning, have underpinned a major change management programme for Directors. Without the success of the Personnel Development Programme we would not have been able to pursue that and other new projects. We have also incorporated the thinking coming out of the programme into our strategic business planning, so the principles again live on in these new modes.