Learn How an Agile HR Tech Strategy has Created a Transformation Culture in 2 Diverse Organisations

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For mid to large scale organisations everywhere there’s an increasingly mobilised workforce with the growing demand for richer remote and flexible working capabilities.

Ahead of UNLEASH World, in Paris, we spoke to two senior practitioners speaking at the event, Kim Atherton, CHRO, Ovo Energy and Marisa Santisi, Head of HCM Digital Strategy & Technology, Booz Allen, both of whom have experienced the challenges and benefits of creating and operating an HR tech structure that supports a geographically diverse workforce. What are the key challenges they’ve overcome to implement, and what guidance would they give to those looking to create the same experience? 

Kim is a quick-talking executive at Ovo Energy, a Unicorn business serving primarily the UK market, who readily admits that her achievements in transforming the company, and subsequent success as an entrepreneur, are enabled by the people she works alongside. 

Her story starts following her promotion to the Chief People Officer role for Ovo, which was already at a stage of employing 1,000 people, she set about optimising the value created by the organisation via its talent. She realised to continue being an agile and nimble organisation rather than growing to be just another energy utility they needed to look elsewhere for inspiration. The Technology sector drew Kim’s attention, and she took on board Agile, Lean, and Design Thinking principles to help her with the task ahead.

Agile - From One Ship to a Flotilla

Kim used these processes to transform the company to a structure of networked teams and organisational design, in part inspired by the approach of Spotify which, like most Internet companies, was founded on cross-functional teams as an approach in software design.

“We talked about the transformation as instead of being one ship with a Captain setting the direction, like most companies, and everyone having a role to play, we wanted to move to a flotilla of little ships”. She goes on, “each little ship would be empowered to make the decisions that were right for them; they know the environment, they remain focused on the customer need. For example, how do we take payments best from our customers? In a big ship model that question can fall by the wayside. In an empowered team model that becomes their life so you can end up with a much better customer journey overall.”

“The challenge is, how do you keep everyone pulling in the same direction? Looking across the market, I saw goal setting software, but there was nothing optimised for a cross-functional network of teams.” At this point, Kim set about working with a software team to develop what is now called Just3Things

The software which is transparent to any employee in the company gathers the company strategy onto a single page. An approach that allows all the product teams to come together and declare themselves as cross-functional teams aligned to delivering that strategy – The Customer Acquisition Team, The Paper Squad etc. They can then use the software to record, for everyone’s benefit, who’s in the team, what they are working on, and the goals and outcomes they are working towards. Progress is also measured within the software, and this flags up if teams start to work on similar elements, or if teams should be collaborating.”

While on paper, the project delivered a utopian vision of work; empowered teams working to shared goals and accountable for their actions. Kim asserts that it managed to overcome most employees fears of change quite quickly as they’d spent time before building a psychologically safe space and an open culture. She did outline the most significant challenge “We really struggled with the line manager, for example, a Software Engineering Manager with about 50 reports, they would typically have set the team goals, conducted one-to-ones with their direct reports and told people what to do. Understandably this kind of person had a sense of power. Whereas, in the new world, goal setting has moved to product leaders and cross-functional team leaders. The manager’s responsibilities now extend to team well-being, and we’ve retrained and reskilled to meet that need.”

Kim believes “this software supports companies who’ve already committed to being Agile, or Lean, in their transformation. Software itself can’t deliver all of these things and there are not many tools on the market that can support this way of working”.

Hitting a Target at Scale

At the other end of the scale. Booz Allen, a global consulting company with over 24,600 staff, which hires in around 6,000 people per year needed to begin updating the foundational technology to allow the company to engage with a more comprehensive Digital Transformation and enable the next wave of growth and management in the company. Marisa Santisi is Head of HCM Digital Strategy & Technology for the company, and she outlines how their move to Workday some three years ago which has led to a full transformation of the HR function and is now having a knock-on effect across the business. 

Marisa says, “The transition allowed a 40% reduction in the HR Business Partner population which has seen the function move to more strategic conversations and organisational change management.”

She goes on to outline how the change needed a redefinition of the CIO role to align the Information Services function to the broader goals of the organisation. This approach though only started to snowball when the CHRO supported the IT function in pushing for Digital Transformation and acted as the sponsor for the project at the leadership level.  She said

“It wasn’t until the CHRO at the time said, all right, I really need this, it’s going to benefit my people, it’s going to give us the insight we’ve never had before. It’s going to help me with the goals I’m being held accountable for. And now we’re starting to see a similar thing with Finance and the supply chain side”.

Following the redefinition of the CIO role, a new CIO subsequently joined 12 months ago, who has completed a reorganisation of the Information Services function; introducing a strategy team, headed by Marisa, and ensuring the rest of the function partners with HR, Marketing, Communication and Finance to get serious about driving digital transformation across the enterprise.  Marisa outlines the approach “That simplifying process of creating a targeted experience from both a technology and process standpoint for our employees and supporting it with investment decisions that tie back to the different personas that we serve at Booz Allen. So, it really has changed the way we think about technology. It’s not a one size fits all and is dependent on where you work. For example; are you in HQ or client site? What kind of work do you do? Are you an Engineer, a Developer, an Executive? Each of these drives how we serve process and technology to you.”

In dealing with the challenges, Marisa outlines two that stand out “At times it’s not felt like everyone’s on board. An early mistake we made early on after the HR implementation was that we portrayed the goal for the technology was the transformation. That was likely a mistake as people quickly found things weren’t what they expected. Over time we’ve changed the message to one that is more of an evolution. It’s now a journey.  To say ok, well we’re starting here, we’re committed to feedback and refinements. Not just the organisation, but the process and the technology…” The other challenge was on the HR side. “People went back to their regular jobs. They went back maybe 30 days after we went live. And I do think we could have benefited from keeping the project team for a good six months after.”

From the point of view working with vendors, Marisa did feel that at times it took a leap of faith to deliver on some the KPI’s that were in place for the project. “The 40% reduction in headcount was a KPI identified by the vendor as part of the process… It just felt like, how do you know that’s going to apply to our business. But the reality was if we did not come together like that, we weren’t even going to get approval to start.

Marisa’s final guidance from an internal perspective is that the project and driving change really does need to be led from above.

“it has to come from the top; otherwise, everybody feels the pressure to change something, and quite honestly some people don’t even know how to change. They haven’t experienced life differently, so you’re asking them to come up with new ideas when they haven’t seen anything different than this.”

In summary, the key takeaways from the two experiences as a medium and large-scale enterprise are that for each project to succeed: 

• They required strong leadership, either committing to transparency or setting the strategy. 

• Roles needed to be redefined to meet the needs of the project 

• The project had to take place within a psychologically safe space; for employees and team members. 

Finally, sometimes you’ll need to look to within to develop your solution, and sometimes you’ll look externally. In both cases, you need to be sure your solution can deliver real change, and vendors need to be pressed to evidence the changes they are asserting as being possible within the project to better support leadership buy-in.

Kim Atherton will be speaking at UNLEASH World in October on developing high-performance teams and putting innovation at the heart of business strategy

Marisa Santisi will join the panel on developing high-performance teams and also speak on aligning HR and IT.


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