High-change business environments need HR systems that are in good shape.
By Theresa M. Welbourne
No, this is not an article about fast heart rates. That’s what you will find if you do an Internet search and look up the term “Fast HR.” The words fast and HR (as in the HRM function) just don’t go together. And although this article is not about fast heart rates, the goal in telling the Telefonica O2 HR story is that you come away with new ideas for unplugging the arteries in your own organization, because plugged organizational arteries get in the way of organizational health and growth in the same way they damage the human body. This is a story of getting in shape by going fast, helping a company meet the needs of its high-change business environment, and leading the way in a new path for the HR function.
The HR team at O2 UK is surrounded by business leaders who are driving high-speed change. The mobile phone industry is not only in competition with other mobile phone carriers, but with the cable industry, satellite TV providers, and voice-over Internet. It seems as if everyone is getting into their business, and now they are moving into other industries, too. For example, recently O2 launched a financial services arm called O2 Money with the first mobile-meets-money products to help customers better manage their money.
In this incredibly fast-paced business environment, the HR team is stepping up its efforts to support the business by reshaping how it does its work, rethinking its product suite, and then reorganizing quickly to meet client needs. This article is about Fast HR; it’s an initiative to help organize the HR function differently, to create new practices that can improve the health of an organization, and to define a different path forward for the field. The learning for this piece of work comes from a tried and true example from the world of software development and from the current efforts of the HR team at O2.
Learning about Extreme Programming
The concept of extreme programming grew out of frustration with what is called the waterfall approach to software development. This involved long development cycles, with final product delivered late and not meeting customer needs.
The methodology requires smaller and frequent releases of software, reviewed with customers, in order to make rapid changes and deployments. The result was significant improvement to quality and output in addition to much improved client relationships. Software developed using extreme (or agile) programming resulted in the development of a product that was more responsive to clients and in synch with their organization’s current business challenges.
The extreme programming methodology offers a viable alternative for organizing an HR function and for doing HR work. The focus of extreme programming is on being close to the customer, gathering requirements on a frequent basis, customizing products for customer needs, and then building new products in an ongoing, highly interactive process.
Background: O2’s Rebel Roots
Before going into more detail about the HR work, it’s important to know a bit about the context of this organization. When interviewing the team at O2, they would tell you that they were de-merged from British Telecom (BT). O2 was the young, rebel mobile phone division within BT, and when the business broke away, they built a start-up, fast moving culture. The team at O2 has always been proud of its rebel roots, and they continue to innovate today. That’s why the HR team, too, is in a position where they are expected to go beyond the status quo.
In 2006 O2’s European operation was acquired by Telefónica, and then this smaller; rebel company became part of a Spain-based global 250,000 employee organization. O2 UK has retained much of its unique culture, but it also has to blend into the larger organization.
Speeding up the Employee Engagement Process Amid High Change
This is where the Fast HR story begins. Amid a much larger scope of organization transformation work, the HR department was responsible for the employee engagement annual survey. The HR team was implementing large-scale changes that affected employee careers. The first phase of the measurement work took place in their Interim Reflect survey. The organization chose a subset of the annual employee engagement survey questions, and they used those to do an interim survey with their employees. However, given the high change the firm was going through, they wanted to alter the interim survey to meet the new business needs.
In order to rethink engagement through a change lens, we supplemented the Interim Reflect survey with two questions that asked employees to rate the degree of change they personally were experiencing and that their business unit was experiencing. This work was already being done in the Leadership Pulse (www.leadershippulse.com); thus, it was validated. With the data from the two “stages of change” questions, we created a 3 x 3 matrix that was used as a new lens for the Interim Reflect survey data (low, medium, and high personal change crossed with business unit scores).
Contrary to what you might expect from the change management field, we found in these data that employees in the O2 UK team who were most engaged (having the highest engagement scores) were at higher vs. lower levels of change. As we dug into these findings, we learned that the overall big strategy of O2 UK to prepare the business for change was working. Employees, in general, were excited about the change, anticipating opportunities for them even though they were realistically concerned about personal job loss. Employees had a positive vision of what would happen after the transformational changes took place.
Using Extreme Programming Tools During the Survey Re-Invention Process
The Interim Reflect survey was phase one of what we’ll call the reinvention of the survey process at O2 UK. The change lens learning and new ideas for transforming the survey process were communicated to senior leaders, members of the HR community, and line managers. Feedback from these stakeholders was obtained and built into the next phases of work.
In addition, a cross-functional team was put together to manage the new survey/communication initiative. Putting the change lens on the traditional employee survey data led to higher interest and energy from the management team. The ongoing interaction with managers resulted in more requirements gathering. Managers wanted to receive and use more real-time data from their employees to help them lead their groups. In order to meet the needs of the managers, an idea evolved that soon went into a rapid development cycle.
A project called “survey in a box” started within the core HR and project management team. This work went from rough idea to full roll out in about four months. The HR team used the core concepts of extreme programming, working at higher development speeds and staying close to the customer, in order to move the project forward.
What is Survey in a Box?
First, survey in a box is an evolving product customized for O2 UK. The evolution went something like this:
- Create a short survey to give employees as they start their journeys.
- Add change lens so the matrix can be used for all of these surveys.
- Questions sorted out via work with HR, the consultant, work stream team, and managers who would be using the work.
- First experiment runs using short survey.
- Results reviewed with all stakeholders.
- Changed model to include multiple surveys, one at beginning of journeys, one in middle and one at end.
- Reviewed with stakeholders.
- Changed model to provide managers with optional pre-set surveys for the middle and end.
- Reviewed with stakeholders.
- Changed model to provide managers with survey question modules to include as needed.
- • Reviewed with stakeholders.
- • Survey used, data collected.
- • Results of all individual surveys reviewed with managers.
- • Survey process reviewed with all stakeholders.
- •Learning process evolving as now more data are available to learn more about the journeys.
From Survey in a Box to Extreme Strategizing
In a previously published article on the use of extreme programming work in business, I spelled out the steps to move into extreme strategizing . The core idea behind this work is to tap into employees and other stakeholders to obtain information that will allow you to rapidly respond to changing business conditions.
In the O2 UK case, they used extreme programming concepts to create a new process for measuring reaction to change, but as they move through this process, they are also obtaining key insights from employees about the business. That is due to the fact that the new survey-in-a-box work solicits open-ended comment data from employees. Much of that data is now about the change process and the effect on employees, but as the degree of change starts to decline, employees begin to chat about their jobs, new opportunities for O2 UK, and more. These business insights, if communicated to the right leaders, can be used as a supplement to an ongoing, real-time strategy-making process.
What’s next for Fast HR?
We expect the Fast HR methodology will evolve as companies like O2 UK start to use the ideas and make them real within their own organizations. Fast HR is a new concept that should fit with the many firms globally that are in search of a new structure and way of doing business in HR to meet the needs of the rapidly changing business environment in which we all work. Extreme programming took courage to implement because it was new and different; we anticipate the same with Fast HR. And just as extreme programming evolved, we expect the same with Fast HR.
The methodology will benefit from its own lessons: Fast HR will change as people use it; the customers of Fast HR will reinvent it, and as those lessons are learned, the community of Fast HR practitioners will stay ahead of the curve and continue to learn, grow, and prepare their organizations for what’s next.
Theresa M. Welbourne, Ph.D., is the president and CEO of eePulse Inc.