With a laser-like focus on the worker as customer, Accenture’s new BPO leader has helped build the outsourcing industry—from the ground up.
By Katie Kuehner-Hebert
Barbara Coull Williams believes she’s a good outsourcer for two reasons. First, she came from the human relations field. But, just as important, she also found out what’s really important to employees by working alongside them on the operational side of business.
“Seeing HR through the eyes of thousands of employees, managers, and HR leaders has been invaluable,” says Williams, now senior executive at Accenture in charge of the New York company’s human resource and learning BPO offerings. “After all, they are the end users of our services as a BPO Provider.”
Williams has always enjoyed figuring out how to make the field of human resources respond better to the needs of both the business and its employees. For her, a career in HR seemed natural.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY, in 1974, Williams in 1976 received a masters degree in industrial and labor relations, organizational behavior at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY.
“In college I knew I wanted to be in business, and in graduate school I targeted HR because it seemed the best discipline to help enable employees and managers to get to better business results and to create a working environment that would foster that,” she says.
In 1975 and 1976, Williams was an independent consultant with a team of Cornell professors, and then served as an assistant vice president with Bank of California from 1977 to 1981. She then took a job at Pacific Gas & Electric as a compensation and benefits manager, working her way up the San Francisco company’s ladder to serve alternately as a vice president of human resources and, eventually, a vice president of utility operations in the 1990s.
Williams says the alternating roles proved invaluable.
“It gave me an opportunity to focus on how to ensure that our HR strategic direction and policies enabled our managers and employees to do their jobs better and to get to better business results—and that our strategy and policies weren’t getting in the way or were burdensome or weren’t as helpful as they could be,” she says.
Moving between operations and HR also helped Williams develop performance management tools that were more effective.
“You can build a tool with all the HR bells and whistles, but if managers and employees can’t connect the dots—between the objectives related to business results, related to business success, related to compensation—then the bells and whistles just become annoying features of the HR strategy,” Williams says.
In 1999, Williams left PG&E to become the vice presient of client sales and accounts for Exult, at that time a start-up company in Newport Beach, CA, and one of the first outsourcers to provide HR BPO services. After Exult in 2004 was acquired by Hewitt Associates, Williams was responsible for sales, accounts, and operations for Hewitt’s financial services portfolio.
The logic of helping to start an outsourcing firm was clear to Williams from the start.
“For me, it just made so much sense directionally for where HR as an industry needed to go,” she says. “It’s all about core and non-core businesses. HR in a company should be all about creating business value through development of relevant HR strategies and policies—being the HR enablers to business results. That is HR’s core business. What’s non-core was the administrative and operational execution of HR.”
Entering the new field of HR outsourcing was exciting to Williams, because she believed the sector could provide services at a lower cost through economies of scale and sophisticated technologies, develop innovative practices, and act as a buffer for companies as their business expanded or contracted.
“The client didn’t have to worry about stranded assets or having to build up assets—that’s shouldered by the BPO provider,” she says.
Williams admits that she raised some eyebrows, even among family members, when she left a lofty position at such a well-known company for a start-up.
“I will never forget the first week I was at Exult with a handful of people, and I was on my hands and knees trying to find an electric outlet to charge my laptop,” she says. “I remember looking up and saying, I left an office that looked out on the Bay Bridge, with my own bathroom, and here I am on my hands and knees—oh my gosh, what have I done? But I had such a commitment to really be able to shape this business.”
Before Williams joined Accenture in October 2009, she took a sabbatical, living on her boat Nautical Smiles for a year and learning the Intercoastal Waterway with her husband and their two dogs. Reinvigorated, she now is responsible for shaping and enhancing Accenture’s end-to-end HR and learning service offerings to more than 50 HRO clients in 100 countries, servicing more than 1.5 million employees.
“The thing that is a real differentiator for us and that makes the commitment to value-add sing is our ‘power of three.’ ” That trope stands for the firm’s HR BPO business, human capital management consulting practice, and HR technology business, Williams says.
“The combination of our outsourcing, consulting, and technology capabilities being focused on our HR outsourcing clients is very powerful.”
For example, a very large retailer client was having problems recruiting and retaining new hires throughout its organization.
“They say we want to outsource this work to you, but if you just do this a little faster, but the turnover rate stays the same, then you’re really not going to help us,” Williams says.
Through the ability of Accenture’s management consulting, technology, and outsourcing businesses, the firm helped its client build a centralized service center, and within two years of taking that work on, the average time-to-fill dropped from 14.3 days to 4.8 days.
Accenture also streamlined the processes of recruiting and hiring, to make it less burdensome for the client’s hiring managers and store managers.
“Those store managers and supervisors kept complaining that they wanted to be selling their products,” she says. “So with streamlined processes, we freed up 45,000 hours per year for them.”
Moreover, the client’s voluntary attrition rate of employees dropped by 30 percent.
“The best part of it—the consulting group and our learning team on the business outsourcing group developed a whole new competency model of training for new hires—things they really need to know to do their job better,” Williams says.
The initiative reduced by 50 percent the time it took for a new hire to be fully trained.
“If an employee is fully trained, they execute their jobs better, they feel like they are doing meaningful things and they want to stay,” Williams says.
The secret to reducing the time to be fully trained is not putting every single hire in all of the company’s training courses, she says. Instead of a scattered approach to learning, companies should identify the specific skills each position needs to have for employees to do their job correctly, and then train only on those skills.
“A lot of folks in the BPO business want to cut costs, execute processes really well, continue to improve and do value-add, but what do they mean by value-add?” Williams says. “This above example is a value-add.”
Williams says she’s seen much evolution in the HR outsourcing business in the last decade.
“In the late 90’s when HR BPO was just getting started as a business, we used a model of ‘lift and shift’ where providers adapted their processes and process execution from the clients’ models and staff was often transitioned from the client,” she says. “As the business has matured and evolved over the decade, a lot has changed —what we have now is a ‘one-to-many’ model.”
Outsourcers now have an established set of best practices that use technology on a global scale, and the focus now is to find innovative ways to add more value to the client’s business proposition—not just save costs.
“That last one, the value add of HR outsourcing, has been talked about and used for a while, but it’s been hard to quantify and put your hands around,” Williams says. “Well, that brings me to Accenture, where we do have a differentiated offer around value-add, and I find it very exciting.”
Still, Williams is not afraid to admit that challenges remain in the drive to finding even more new ways to add value.
“There can be value-added services in all parts of HR—payroll benefits, case management, recruitment, learning, all disciplines can be doing things better,” she says. “How do you go from setting job objectives, to business results, to compensation, to development plans for learning? How do you do that integration, so the offering has the integration of all those things?”
Remembering that the true customers are the client’s employees, she says, helps immeasurably. “It all comes back to what I learned in utility operations—the customer is who it’s all about—everything is in support of or on behalf of that customer.”