Over the last six months, technology has become the key organisational facilitator in a remote working world – but is there a danger we’ll forget about the people? Investigo Partners held its latest roundtable event on Thursday 24th September to find out. Hosted by Director Michael Thornton, Principal Consultant Grainne Costello and Senior Consultant Joe Bridger, the event was attended by leading interim transformation experts from across our Partner community.
“At the moment there are more questions than answers,” said Graham Dash, a leading interim change manager. “Is COVID ushering in a set of changes, improvements for us interims, trends in tech, an approach that’s any different to the global processes already underway? Are the global banks simply further ahead of the curve or is this a nexus point for a change of trends we need to be aware of? There could be important new dynamics we might all want to contemplate.”
Kate Huselbee, a people, organisational development and corporate services leader, stressed the importance of evolving company culture in line with any technological or organisational changes. “There’s naturally always a move towards culture,” she said. “Whatever the sector, everybody’s responsible, whether they’re an innovator or a techie. One of the risks of moving ahead with transformation so quickly is that culture becomes an afterthought, and culture needs to become a key part. The purpose of the organisation needs to be embraced in terms of the digital side. We’re all at a different stage of the journey when it comes to embracing digital technology. If you think about talent and your employer brand in the way I do, it’s about remaining competitive. If you embrace the cultural aspect of a digital trend, it will be attractive.”
“I think it’s three years late,” said Charlie Whinney, an interim CFO. “If you’re not on the curve, you will spend more time doing transformations. If we’re not installing Power BI, Tableau tools and changing our reporting from historical monthly reporting to real-time reporting, companies will be in trouble.” Mark Aikman, an experienced CIO, felt that while the importance of digital has undoubtedly increased exponentially in recent months, it ultimately doesn’t change a company’s primary function. “I don’t buy it,” he said. “It depends on the organisation and sector you’re in, where you are on the journey. The Googles, Yahoos, Amazons always talk about being digital corporations. Most companies sell a product, have been for hundreds of years and will continue to. Digital won’t make a difference for revenue. It will make a massive difference in the back office, simplification. Tech can provide massive enablement in revenue, people reduction, but 80% plus of companies doing digital transformation don’t even know what it is.”
He continued, “For me, transformation is just a posh word for change, digital a posh word for tech. It’s the marketing teams trying to sell it, but they have no idea what it is. We’re not all a Google. It’s completely apples and pears. Understand the purpose, what you’re trying to do, then assist with transformation – and it has to be digital-led.”
A digital generation
Certainly, the business world has become completely 24-hour. No longer is retail restricted to traditional shop opening hours, for example. Lisa Garner, an executive consultant and programme director, has seen many previously digital-averse clients getting to grips with online tools such as real-time reporting, and enjoying the benefits of seeing business performance day by day. But in a business world that never sleeps, there has to be a customer experience to match. “Those experiences don’t change the status quo for people. People are time-poor, they want a service as quickly as possible when they want it, not when businesses are open.”
The same applies to the workforce. “As our demographic changes and moves into a more millennial mindset, it’s expected,” said Ross Nichols, HR transformation programme director at a global automotive company. “People have grown up in that world. If they’re not getting the tools and support they need from an employee experience perspective, they will go somewhere they can. Somewhere they’ll have the culture, tools and infrastructure at their disposal.”
Duncan Johnson, Group Chairman of a large estates and property group, added, “The culture is the most important thing in how those businesses change and keep up with trends, whether the leaders are equipped to embrace that tech. People say this tech will change your world, the company gets it and no one teaches them how to use it and get the most out of it. You can’t have one without the other. It’s not just a tech revolution, it’s a tech, people and culture revolution and you need to get the three aligned. There’s a lot of inertia to overcome. How you get to the tipping point that combines tech, cultural change and new ways of working will make businesses successful in future. It’s a wrench getting people away from the traditional way of doing things. The current crisis is one of those big triggers that’s moved people on significantly. What will be the next big trigger to move people on to the next level?”
The meeting-point of people, tech and culture
“During COVID, the organisations that dealt well with it were those with a clear sense of purpose,” said Kate. “It’s the same with digital transformation, getting that critical mass on the journey. Without a sense of purpose, there are problems with accountability, business frameworks.” Joe added, “It’s how to strike a balance with getting all three at the same time – tech, people and culture – without losing that sense of connectivity across the business. Hallway chats, chats in the kitchen. How do you keep all three together when one, people in the office, is dragging behind? It’s keeping that cohesion between complex moving parts.”
Dion Kalimeris, an interim senior advisor, CIO/CDO and programme director for FTSE 100 companies and private equity funds, warned that homeworking can actually lead to an increase in working hours. “The assumption is of everyone working very long days. The day blends in with the working day even though you’re in a more comfortable environment. At the start, we were flexible as we knew people were committed for a longer day, but it’s their quality of life. It’s more managed when you’re in the office. You allow people to flex to go to the gym, pick up their kids from school. People still have those water cooler moments on an online basis, blended with lunch. But I don’t think it replaces face to face. There’s the consensus that people miss being in the office.”
“I don’t believe the office has gone forever but five days in the same office has gone forever,” said Bilal Shaykh, an experienced chief procurement officer. “How do we get all three to change at the same time? I’m not sure we can. There’s WhatsApp and other informal ways for colleagues to stay in touch.”
It’s with this in mind that the property group where Duncan works is trying to physically connect its people again. “We’ve posted personal packs to people to connect them back to the office,” said Duncan. “People felt lonely. All they had for company was a screen.” Duncan believes that a mutual purpose is key to a company’s success. “A lot of people reflected over the lockdown on what their life is all about. They don’t want to live in the city anymore, they want to live in the country. A lot of people have gone through this. The purposes for companies are changing as well. Without those being connected, there’s a mismatch in what companies are looking to do and the people employed to achieve it. Purpose is fundamental in connecting all those integral parts.”
The trend has been building for a while – Lisa’s been remote working for over 20 years – but in recent times, has been further facilitated by collaborative tools such as Teams, and accelerated by COVID. This is “important for a strong, inclusive and collaborative culture and really important for innovation, encouraging chats and meet-ups,” she said. Ross added, “one thing to come out of COVID is daily crisis management meetings. In the future, those roles may get more of a seat at the table. Put programmes in place to support employee wellbeing in this new world.” He sees that new world possibly coming full circle as professionals spending 10-11 hours a day on Teams calls decide to start having phone calls. “I do think we’ll be back in the office, maybe a three to four-day week rather than five. Companies are trying to escape their leases in big London offices. Maybe we’ll move to more of a WeWork-style environment.”
“The last six months have given us a mass platform for tech enablement,” said Mark. “Companies were embracing Teams, Zoom globally before. This is just an extension of that. It’s bizarre when you go to a bank or insurance company and they apologise that their staff are working from home. They should be grateful their people are working from home, start celebrating the fact that they’ve changed their business model so staff can work from home. With companies in survival mode and coming to the table in a stressed state, who wants to innovate at the moment? It’s the worst possible moment for a sell point, but the best for what tech could potentially do for you as a business. We’ve had six months, we might have another six. Now, how are you going to prosper? How will you change your business model, develop yourself? Now is the time to start thinking about how to explore and build upon the capabilities that are out there. If you start a transformation, you’ve got to have a clear purpose. If it’s about business growth or about using tech, it’s about how you do it.”
The changing battlefield
“It’s a question of global team enablement versus work life balance, how you assist teams with that, making sure the working environment is suitable for them and they’ve got the facilities they need,” said Graham. “Looking at tech from effectiveness and enablement on one hand, and enabling a paradigm shift on the other. Asset managers’ future competitors are not other asset managers, they are tech companies. If they don’t sort themselves out, they will not be the market leaders in 20 years. They will be overtaken by tech-based, paradigm shifted equivalents. If working from home has really taken off, does that mean a problem for commercial real estate? Does that mean high cost locations are in for a difficult time through offshoring, unless they’re able to bring creativity and thought leadership to the table?”
Charlie pointed to the cost of capital as a key factor driving the big tech companies. Thanks to the lower return they have to pay to their shareholders, these organisations operate under “different rules, breaking the paradigm we have to work in. Now is the time for CEOs and shareholders and boards to think about where they want the organisation to go in five to 10 years’ time, or it won’t be here in five to 10 years’ time. Amazon will be the world’s leading logistics company. You think they’re a retailer, but they make money out of IT and logistics, and that’s our new normal.”
“It feels like we’re going through a seismic shock,” said Dion. “Can companies have the start-up mentality of agility, pivoting consistently? Companies have to rediscover themselves. Pharma will be pumped with enormous funds to find a vaccine. The next two to three years we’ll be living in this health management situation. Companies will be looking at their core business operating models which need to change. It’s not about how people work with tech, it’s about what kind of company you are, how you serve customers. The clear winner will be digital. What will the next six months look like? How can you change your company? I still see ambiguity and lack of leadership from companies.”
When the battlefield changes, the participants must adapt their approach in order to prosper under new conditions. Bilal added, “COVID forced remote working and tech has enabled it. But many jobs are location independent. Why pay someone a salary to sit in a flat in London and do a job from home when I can pay someone in Bangalore to do the same job? We could see a lot more offshoring to lower cost labour countries.”
The word ‘transformation’ doesn’t just refer to evolving corporate practices, to new ways of working, to technological advances. It applies just as much to a company’s people and collective mindset. For any technological or organisational shift, there must be an accompanying cultural shift. They are like beads on a necklace. It is through the effective alignment of this organisational triumvirate – its people, technology and culture – that a company can continue to prosper in a world where nothing stands still.
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