Joe Ales & Jason West are joined this week by Mari Milsom and Simon Brown.

Season 2: Episode 20 – The Future of Work: Finding the People to Lead Your Digital Transformation Part 2

Jason West: Welcome to the Underscore Transformation podcast. My name’s Jason West.

Joe Ales: My name is Joe Ales.

Jason West: And together we’re the founders of Underscore. This is the seventh episode, and third round table discussion, in our bonus miniseries on the future of work. Last week our roundtable panellists were Mari Milsom, Resourcing Transformation Consultant at Capita, Simon Brown, Freelance HR Transformation Consultant, Underscore’s Joe Ales playing expert panellist, in what has to be the standout performance of the year.

Joe, how did you find the role of informed panellist? It must have been a stretch after talking to me for so many weeks [laughs].

Joe Ales: Well, it was certainly different. Actually it was really fun to be on the other side of the fence, primarily because we’ve done transformation projects for a long, long time so we’ve got a lot of experience and knowledge in this space, which I’m quite happy to share with our fellow listeners.

Jason West: It’s interesting that there’s been a lot of consistency in the conversations that we’ve had between the three different panels. There’s definitely this need to focus on things like data, and Simon mentioned that again around data integration as a really specific skillset. And he was right to do that because you don’t need, unless you’re huge with 100,000 employees, it’s unlikely you’ll need to do a huge amount of data integration on a regular basis.

Joe Ales: Yes, and the reality is that a lot of these new systems are enterprise-wide systems, so they will connect with other systems across the organisation. Long gone are the days when functions would implement a solution that’s standalone for their own function. So, these cloud technologies will actually start to integrate into the enterprise eco-system, as people call it, so it’s natural that there’s a high demand for those skills.

Jason West: Yes, and staying on a point that Simon made, I like his point that you really need a blended team to implement these technology solutions. It can’t just be consultants, or it can’t just be contractors, or just permanent staff – well I suppose it could be – but the best outcome happens when you have a blended team when you’re implementing because there are strengths and weaknesses of people coming from those different parts of the market. So the best outcome is to use a blended team.

Joe Ales: Yes, and he made a point that for many this will be new, they won’t have done this type of work before, so leverage the knowledge and experience of people who have been there, done it, and know where the trap doors are, and engage with them so you don’t make the same mistakes. They can help anticipate some of those recurring issues that happen with every single programme that can be anticipated and prevented if you’ve got the right partners and advisers with the right skills, and the right knowledge around the table. So, that was a key point there and well made by Simon.

Jason West: And I think Mari made a really good point about opening up project opportunities for internal staff. Because it’s going to help them with their development and capabilities, and it’s going to help their career and that’s not necessarily something that happens that often.

Joe Ales: No, we don’t often see it, do we? But actually there is a scarcity of skills in the market around some of these things, so if you’ve got capability internally, even if it’s in different parts of the organisation, if you’re able to tap into it and bring that capability onto your project, why not? Absolutely. The idea is a great one, but it’s not something that we often see, maybe we will start to see a lot more of that as data and insight around people’s skills and capabilities become more widely available. A lot of organisations probably don’t do that because they don’t have that information at their fingertips. So, as talent solution get deployed, as skills and capabilities get deployed across the organisation as more as a BAU, I can see that in the future organisations will leverage that data and all that insight, to do exactly that. To say “well actually, what capabilities do we have to do programme management, data integrations – we know we’ve got capability because it’s in our skills database. Let’s tap into it”. And I think it would be a great world to be in if organisations were leveraging that data and insight from the software that they have procured.

Jason West: Yes, and it’s often said that LinkedIn knows more about the knowledge and skills of your staff than you do because there’s a real incentive, a decent AI, and user experience and a reason for people to keep their skills and experience updated on LinkedIn, more than for internal systems. They know more about your people than you do.

Joe Ales: Yeah, actually having projects like that internally, that encourages people to record their skills in the database, because they might be tapped up to do something really interesting in the business, they might feel encouraged to do it.

Jason West: To the point that both Simon and Mari were making about the impact of not having this technology, and not having the design skills and user experience skills within an HR function, is that people aren’t going to get those experiences internally which is going to affect your retention. And if you don’t have digitally savvy HR function, then you’re going to suffer when you’re trying to attract people in with the skills that you need to be successful as an organisation. I think it really talks to that point. Finally, I think Mari’s point in that a lot of the discussion up to the roundtable last week had been around skills and capabilities, but actually it’s just as much about mindset when it comes to this digital transformation and being able to respond to rapidly changing markets, as it is about skills. And she was making the point that there’s a difference between the people who can see the forest, and those who can only see the trees.

Joe Ales: Absolutely. So, why don’t we pick up where we left off. Now it’s over to you Jason to pick up on the debate.

Jason West: So if you’ve identified that you’ve got this enduring need for design thinking, for data and analysis, for project and change type capabilities, how readily available are HR people from the market, that have these skills if you’re hiring permanently?

Simon Brown: I think one thing to consider is experience, because I think when someone has gone through a whole transformation experience once, they’re quite well equipped to help an organisation to know what to look out for, where we can accelerate, where we can focus, where we can simplify, what are the traps, what are the things to avoid. I think one of the benefits is if you’ve seen the movie play out, you know what’s going to happen and you’re quite well equipped then to help others who have never made that journey before. So that’s one aspect. And it’s based on just pure experience of having done this in a practical way, and being seasoned and having the pain and the gain as well. I think another aspect that has been alluded to is just that pure willingness to want to embrace change, and perhaps want to bring some of the things that we’ve experienced as consumers or customers, with other digital transactions that we do in life, into the workplace. If you have that willingness and then you also can combine it with somebody who knows what good looks like, and is very ambitious to recreate good in this environment, that can help enable the organisation to make the journey, and want to make the journey.

I think also there have to be incentives. You know, “what’s in it for me?” is often a question that people ask and that there has to be a benefit for them to want to make that journey and a benefit for several of them to want to take the fruits of having made that that journey. So, a lot of it’s about, you know, being clear upfront. What is the strategy? What is the vision, what is the mission, what is the roadmap and how we’re going to make this journey together, in such a way that people want to make that journey?

Jason West: And is there a particular kind of skillset that’s got the real mismatch between the demand that people have and the supply from the market when it comes to these kind of transformation skills or digital business skills?

Simon Brown: I think one area that is quite difficult to find is data integration, because obviously when you’re looking at process and systems and people and data, there are four factors there which need to align. And the data piece is really important because without a good data flow and without good data information and the ability to be able to report, you don’t have the trust to say, well, these management reports are accurate, we can rely upon them, we can make business decisions on them. So, often I’ve seen a challenge where having those data integration skills internally is not easy, and then going toa large consultancy to find those skills is not easy. It tends to be quite a specialist area and it probably is not something that you’re doing inside a company every week, every month, every year. It’s something that you’re doing as you start to implement and make configurations in a system. So buying that in you know, it’s rather like the kicker in American football, they’re not on the pitch all the time. But sometimes you need to bring them in so that you can score when you need to score.

Jason West: Yes. And Mari, you touched on that mindset piece before. Are there any other areas that have this kind of real mismatch between what’s needed and what the market can supply on a permanent basis?

Mari Milsom: I think an area that I’m seeing more and more is around things like strategic workforce planning. It’s something we’ve talked around in HR for a long time, and as businesses, develop for their strategy. Actually working out what the skills are that we’re going to need, and how to get to them is something that most HR generalists will really struggle with. And that is something that is periodically going to be need to be done, and the HR will need to buy in some expert resource to do that. Part of that is the strategic thinking as well. So, we’ve talked about how you need people who understand what good looks like right now, but you also need people who can describe what good will look like in the future and how things are going to change, who understand what’s happening in the wider marketplace.

Joe Ales: I fully agree with that. If I look back at HR over the years, it’s something that they’ve struggled with throughout, and that stems from their ability to engage the business on strategic conversations. What are the capabilities that the organisation needs in a short medium and long term, and having the ability to construct that people plan, that capability plan that the organisation needs. And you mentioned it earlier, Mari that HR functions are far too reactive to business requests and business demand, and they’re not they’re not very often on the front foot in terms of let’s really drive the strategic workforce agenda for the organisation. And actually, at a practical level, they don’t know how to. I’ve helped a number of organisations and ask, what tools and practices do you use to determine what the workforce requirements are for the future? And it’s all on speadsheets, PowerPoint slides and nothing systematic really. And there lies there lies the issue.

And the other skill is around business partnering. And again, we’ve been toying with this idea for years and about getting HR functions and HR business partners to engage more strategically with their customer groups or the business line or business units they support. And again, if I if I look at on a practical level, they’re not having those strategic conversations. They’re having real operational ones. The business partners are often the “Yes People” that do the transactional work that the business leaders want them to. So, I think HR functions really have to step up their game, and they’re in a perfect storm right now, aren’t they? Because HR is front and centre of everything that’s happening. So, I think the entire business has turned their attention to the HR function to guide them through this COVID madness, with all these rules around furlough, or not furloughed, and what can we do with the workforce during these difficult times? So HR have got to use this as a platform to really elevate themselves. They’ve got to equip themselves with all of these skills. So, strategic workforce planning for me is key, business partnering is another one. And I think you mentioned Simon, data insights, having that ability within your HR function, because you’re going to have to tap into people data more and more on a daily basis, in real time.

Mari Milsom: I think they’ve got to stop and not revert back to managing people processes for the business. You’re absolutely right, they spend way too much time with the trade unions, managing pay processes, managing performance processes, managing redundancies, as opposed to actually driving the strategic agenda.

Simon Brown: Yes, it’s very much still operationally focused, isn’t it? And that transition really to be transformative and to be forward thinking, and to leverage data and business information, and be a true business partner as opposed to a supporter is the mind shift. As you say, Joe, I think in a sense there’s an opportunity no, perversely through COVID. Because we have to do things differently and HR has had the opportunity to step in to that place, not to default once we start to reach our new normal, but to take the opportunity to continue to build from there. And sometimes it’s about a mindset, and sometimes it’s about growing assertiveness skills, and sometimes it’s about thinking more commercially and more strategically as opposed to thinking about policies and procedures.

Jason West: It can be a real challenge, though, can’t it, when you’ve identified you need these new skills, this new mindset, but you’ve got to attract them into your organisation. And that might be quite traditional today, you’re right at the start of this this journey of becoming more forward looking, more technology enabled.

[INTERMISSION: You’re listening to the Underscore Transformation Podcast. If you’d like a few more tools in your crisis management kitbag, why not visit to hone your crisis management skills and lead you organisation through recover].

And how would you best go about attracting people in that have got these kind of skills and mindsets? Simon, you touched on a bit before, but we could if you could expand that a little bit.

Simon Brown: Yeah, I think there’s another aspect to this, because what I said before is that identify people that already have had that positive experience. So, in another organisation, they’ve had the opportunity to grow those skills, have had the training to develop the skills, they’ve worked as an internal consultant, perhaps to an organisation, they’ve come from a commercial background. These are the kind of skill sets that are with experience helpful in this situation. But also wanting not to underestimate is that some of these skills are transferable across functions. And so we don’t necessarily have to think we’re in HR, therefore, the only way forward is to look at HR as our talent pool and an opportunity to look outside of the talent pool to obtain these transferable skills.

I’ve seen quite a few organisations looking at leveraging marketing skills, for example, into this environment or business analyst skills into this environment, because these are the kind of skills that are now needed rather than perhaps those traditional skills. And then lastly, I think one thing not to forget, and we tend to underestimate this, is that we probably have a lot more talent in our organisation than we are able to signify or we’re able to identify through traditional methodology, because we tend to think in terms of succession plan, organisation charts and hierarchy. People bring life skills, you know, from outside of work into the work context. And I’ve just seen, quite recently, how   has tremendous benefits, where people can connect with each other, they can network with each other, they can transfer knowledge with each other outside of those traditional organisation charts. And indeed, outside of the organisation cross-company mentoring to connect people is something that taps into knowledge that people have, that isn’t traditionally recognised within their job descriptions.

Joe Ales: Informal networks across organisations, they need to be encouraged as well. So, yes, connections, build relationships with people across businesses.

Simon Brown: And again, in COVID, we’ve done quite a lot of that, haven’t we? Obviously Underscore as a great example, where through running events and podcasts and webinars is just an opportunity to exchange information across organisations ,which perhaps in a previous world wasn’t happening so frequently. But now but now it can.

And I think people working virtually as well, I think opens up the mindset to how you can do work, and how you can exchange knowledge versus, “I must be in the office face to face with somebody in order to have that dialogue.”

Jason West: Yeah, absolutely. And Mari, I’m interested in your perspective, perhaps thinking back to some of your previous operational resourcing leadership roles, when you’re having to attract in these different people, but also you need to select the right people. How do you go about doing that when you don’t actually have the skills and capabilities in-house? So how do you attract these people and then how do you select them?

Mari Milsom: It’s a really interesting challenge. And you are looking for a skill and a type of behaviour that you may not necessarily have the organisation. If you use your traditional methodology where one of your considerations is organisational fit, then you are immediately restricting the pool. And also what I have seen traditionally is where we demand a certain level of experience, either sector or even down to in HR, demanding that somebody has HR experience, which may or may not be necessary for the role. But again, you are selecting out huge swathes of people. What I’m looking at, at the moment with Capita is actually what we’re calling “Cultural Add.” So rather than somebody needing to fit in with our culture, actually we’re looking for people who are going to add something to our culture. And I think you can apply that to a lot of areas where you can say, actually, “this is a skill add/this is a culture add.” But also recognising, to Simon’s point on mentoring, that you are going to have to put extra support in place for those people, because they are going to go into an organisation that doesn’t currently work or behave like them. And that’s a really tough ask if you’re trying to make a change.

Jason West: Yes, because if people are going to fit into your current culture, then how are they going to change that culture?

Mari Milsom: Exactly, it’s that traditional bias, that tells us we need people who look and act like we currently do. But they are not going to be able to make the changes that we need.

So, you need to attract people, actually, but give them the support and be really up front, stop how you’re going to support them and some of the challenges they’re going to face. But that’s the only way to do it, is to throw the rulebook out in terms of what we’ve traditionally done from a resource perspective.

Simon Brown: And have that inclusive approach. I’m seeing some recruiter roles now, which is specifically looking at inclusion and diversity. It’s actually broadening it from, you know, we need somebody who fits with X, Y, Z into recognising that innovation comes through diversity and having different ways of thinking and different backgrounds into the equation. So, it’s almost like a conscious effort, isn’t it, to say let’s break the mould and let’s widen this in order to create an environment where people can come and be creative, and make a contribution which isn’t the same as the contribution the year before.

Mari Milsom: Absolutely. And we have to go into their space to find them and assess them in their space in a way that makes sense to them, not necessarily in a way that makes sense to us. So, some of our traditional assessment methodology that expects somebody to come to our organisation, understanding our organisation and behaving in a way that we think they should at an interview, we need to throw out. Because, again, we are putting guardrails in around our current culture and what we currently find acceptable, that is probably stopping great talent from coming to our organisations, but also stopping challenging and the change from happening.

Jason West: So it sounds like you really do have to rethink the whole thing, not just who you’re looking for, but how you select the right people.

Mari Milsom: Absolutely. You can’t continue to use the same selection methodologies, because you will only get the same outcomes. And I think as resourcers, we’ve always held ourselves up as protecting diversity, trying to make sure we get the absolutely best person. But as I’ve really been digging down into this, actually we have got so much bias in our resourcing processes that describes best in what can be a very white middle class business way. This again stops a huge wealth of knowledge coming in into organisations.

Joe Ales: That’s really interesting because we’re the gatekeepers in a way of that process. But then we’re also relying heavily on hearts and minds of people across the organisation from changing to because, ultimately, the hiring manager that’s making that decision also needs to have been brought on a journey of, “do you do you realise asking these questions will create bias? Do you realize that you’re looking for people from this university and the people that go to this university tend to come from this type of background?” It’s a cultural change across an organisation, and it takes time and a lot a lot of resilience from resourcing functions and HR functions to drive that change in behaviour, and change of mindset across the organisation. And being firm, holding firm with those individuals, those hiring managers, that will be difficult to persuade to think differently about who they need to hire and the background of those individuals.

Mari Milsom: Well, if HR is going pick up the COVID ball right now, and it’s going to take a run and lead from the front, it’s got to get comfortable being uncomfortable and not just solving problems for the business, but actually sometimes making them in order to make change, you’ve got to make problems as well.

Joe Ales: Totally agree. Do you think HR functions are really ready to do that and resilient enough today, or do you think it’s something that they’re going to have to develop over the next 6, 12, 18 months?

Mari Milsom: Unfortunately, I don’t think they’re there ready. I think there’s a minority who are. And I think there are some great leaders out there. But this is where we are going to need organisations like CIPD to start to step up but also CEOs of big business to start to really keep HR at the top table and drive in the organisation.

Simon Brown: Certainly, I mean, there’s a recent survey of CEOs to ask them to identify what they saw as the top 10 issues, which need to be addressed to enable their organisation to thrive. And not surprisingly, 7 out of those top 10 were people related topics.

So, I think for Chief Executive Officers and Chief People Officers to recognise if they’re the enablers, if these seven aspects of a business are the enablers, what can we do to build that capability, so that we can really grow in these areas and address these issues? And how can we build the assertiveness to sustain this? I think they’re going to be interesting questions for CEOs and Chief People Officers to answer. And, of course, given the context we’re in now, change is an essential, change is really a condition of continuing to play the game. And it’s the is the classic phrase, isn’t it, “It’s our ability to adapt and to evolve that will decide whether this business or that organisation is successful.” So, it’s not a nice to have, the people stuff, it’s a key criteria to enable success.

Jason West: And we’re going to have to wrap up, unfortunately, but before we do, it would be really good to get your views on if you were a Chief People Officer or you were advising a Chief People Officer that was looking to get the best possible return out of their technology to build an agile and flexible workforce, what would be your advice to them on achieving those aims? So perhaps if I turn first to you, Simon?

Simon Brown: In terms of technology, I think firstly not to see technology alone, but to see it as part of the DNA, along with data, and along with process, and along with people and managing that change journey. Cloud solutions clearly are flexible and the ability for people to be able to do their own transactions, and to have automation, and to do self-service and do reporting is clearly part of that. So any organisation that can make that commitment, I’d certainly recommend them to look at an end-to-end cloud solution to underpin that, because it’s true that when these systems are implemented, they can probably contribute at least 50 percent to driving the change because of the ways roles and responsibilities are constructed in that system. So, certainly, I would see that as being a, if you like, an enabler and a backbone. But not the pure single solution.

Jason West: Yes, it’s definitely not the be all and end all is just putting the technology in, is it? And Mari, your perspective?

Mari Milsom: I think the CHRO needs to have a look around their table and go, who in my organisation is driving the transformation agenda? Who is looking at the future of this organisation, what we need to do and how we harness that technology as opposed to who is, potentially getting caught up with turning the handle on the day job. And it may not necessarily be that the CHRO or the CPO, because actually a great leader needs to put those skills in and have them around them and maybe pass the strategy to somebody else who’s got the time, the capacity to do it.

Jason West: Yeah, and Joe, what would your advice be?

Joe Ales: In addition to what Mari and Simon mentioned, I think CPOs need to make sure they have the right infrastructure in place to sustain the change and deliver on those business case commitments post-go live. Additionally, they need to make sure the function has the capability to engage the business in a fundamentally different way because they now have access to data and insights they’ve never had before. And I have no doubt that people will be asking challenging questions of the CPO’s function.

Jason West: It’s been a great discussion today. And as ever, we are just scratching the surface of this topic. But there’s some really practical advice there for our listeners and hopefully that they can apply in their organisation. So, thank you all for your insights and thank you for sharing your experience today.

So that’s it for the future of work miniseries, we hope you’ve enjoyed it, we’ve certainly had some great guests and given us an awful lot to think about. In fact, it’s actually inspired us to start designing a new leadership development programme that’s going to give them the skillset, toolset, and mindset they need to thrive in a post-COVID digital world.

Joe Ales: So, we’re going to take a break for a few weeks, and we’ll be back in October when we’ll be back to our regular transformation series. We’ll be focusing on the transition phase post go-live. This will be the third season, so further advice on running a successful transformation, listen to our back catalogue for the critical success factors in scoping, designing, building and testing a transformation programme.

If you found this podcast useful, please share with your colleagues and your network.