Driving transformation in the People Function: Exploring the challenges and opportunities of delivering change in a fast-paced business environment

Having spent the past decade leading large scale organisational transformation programmes within businesses such as Vodafone, Thomas Cook and now Sage, Caroline Scott has become a leader in driving change to produce cost effective, efficient HR services. This has included large-scale HR shared service centres set up on a global basis, HR systems, and self-service initiatives. Here, Caroline talks to Andy Montgomery from Eton Bridge Partners’ Interim Management Team about her career, and recent experiences.

AM: CAROLINE, CAN YOU START BY TELLING ME A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND, AND HOW YOU ARRIVED IN YOUR CURRENT ROLE AS EVP FOR ORGANISATIONAL DESIGN AND PEOPLE SERVICES AT SAGE?

CS: I would say I come from a commercial, business-focused background. I initially trained as an accountant, and worked as an in-house consultant within various HR positions for fast-paced, international FTSE organisations. Since then I’ve led change programmes that have enabled leaders to focus on their people, and to inspire them to make a real difference to business success. That means making HR basics as easy to integrate into our work lives as shopping online is to our home life!  Driving change always helps when those impacted can see immediate benefits supported by added convenience!

I’m also fascinated with the role technology has to play in transforming the way HR supports the wider business. Having spent a number of years working for a mobile phone company, I’ve always been a digital, mobile advocate and firmly believe that those businesses making the most of technological innovations will enjoy a competitive advantage. Hence my interest in joining a technology market leader such as Sage, and having the opportunity to roll out our very own Sage Business Cloud People product across the organisation. Overseeing such a project, and using it as a way to revitalise how our People function supports the overall business strategy, was a natural next step in my career.

AM: DO YOU HAVE A VIEW ON THE ROLE OF HR WITHIN THE ORGANISATIONS YOU HAVE WORKED FOR, AND IF SO, HAS THIS IMPACTED ON YOUR POSITION AND THE WORK YOU’VE DELIVERED?

CS: It’s fair to say that HR has been a strategic business partner, the custodian of talent, and an enabler of change, in every organisation I’ve had the fortune to work with. My roles have spanned all parts of the HR Business Partners, Centres of Expertise, and HR Services model, and these have given me a wider perspective of what needs to happen to allow the functions to work successfully together.

There’s always a healthy tension of course, due to differing business objectives. But helping each part of this model be effective in their unique roles has been the defining principle behind my own approach. To me it’s about giving HR Business Partners the space to be truly strategic, and providing the capacity needed for Centres of Expertise to fulfil their potential – whilst ensuring the basics are taken care and running like clockwork.

AM: WHAT WAS THE CORE BUSINESS CHALLENGE AT SAGE WHEN YOU FIRST JOINED?

CS: Simple: delivering our business strategy whilst changing fast! The transformation agenda was in place and in urgent need of leaders to help deliver it. At the same time however, we needed to make sure that such change wasn’t introduced at the expense of business performance – which can always be a delicate balancing act to achieve.

AM: HOW HAS THIS AFFECTED THE PLANS WITH REGARDS TO HR?

CS: First off we needed accurate and timely data about our people to be on-hand where and when we needed it. It therefore made sense to invest in rolling out our own Sage Business Cloud People solution to give us that insight, to ensure our employees’ data was kept safe and secure and, importantly, to demonstrate a willingness to “drink our own champagne”. Having a solution like this in our tool kit that we were able to deploy in-house was key to the success of this program, giving us the technology to grow our people and create a great workforce experience.

Alongside this, we also took steps to establish a single People function, with a common purpose, that was tasked with supporting the business in an increasingly consistent way. The result of this has been a measurable reduction in our cost base, as well as the ability to demonstrate a noticeable increase in our business impact.

AM: HOW HAS THIS UNFOLDED IN TERMS OF THE CHALLENGES OF TAKING THE PROJECT THROUGH FROM DESIGN TO DELIVERY?

CS: It’s been about identifying these challenges in advance, working through the implications of making our planned changes, and then putting the right resources and strategies in place to drive them forwards.

The greatest challenge in any change programme is of course the people dimension, and ensuring leaders, managers, and employees – as well as our own People function – are willing to participate in the journey. That’s why I’ve dedicated a lot of my time, effort, and resources to this particular area. I’ve also been fortunate that:

  • Our employees are tech savvy and have been very keen to get their hands on the Sage Business Cloud People product and see how it makes their own working lives easier.
  • The reporting functionality this solution provides has enabled us to target new ways of working successfully across all parts of the business through enhanced data and analytics

An important factor is data, which is recognised by most as a challenge never to be underestimated! Data integrity and data migrations are always tricky. We’ve learnt from our earlier work, and built this knowledge into how we’ve managed data in subsequent phases. What that means in practice is an emphasis on simplifying our data requirements, ensuring data accountability is well understood, and including more validation checks and reporting on data quality.

AM: SO WHAT WOULD YOU SAY ARE THE KEY SUCCESSES AND OUTCOMES? WHAT IS THE EXPECTED RETURN ON INVESTMENT, BOTH FINANCIAL AND IN TERMS OF HR?

CS: I would say that the key outcome has been the significant financial value we’ve unlocked by changing the way we operate as a People function, supported by our own cloud Sage People product. In addition, we’ve had the hands-on experience of testing the full strength of our own product whilst marketing it externally.

The actual business case has been largely based on tangible benefits such as cost reduction and the decommissioning of disparate HR systems – replacing them with a global HRIS system. But experience tells me that it’s the benefits which are hardest to put a number against which provide the greatest business return: having a single set of employee master data; simplifying how our People function supports the business through self-service; standardising processes; introducing easier ways to get basic queries resolved; providing better and quicker insights about our workforce in support of business strategy; and ensuring GDPR compliance for employee and candidate data.

AM: PROGRAMME AND PROJECT EXPERIENCE IS SOMETHING THAT DOESN’T ALWAYS NATURALLY COME TO MANY HR SPECIALISTS. WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE TO HR LEADERS LOOKING TO UNDERTAKE LARGE-SCALE TRANSFORMATION PROGRAMMES?

CS: For me it’s about keeping your message to the business simple, getting your sponsors aligned, and making sure they’re on side and fully engaged. To this I would add the importance of ensuring strong programme governance is in place, whilst also maintaining the freedom to make changes during the programme’s lifetime. One final point: plan your programme to deliver some quick wins up front, and use these to buy yourself some time to deliver the more difficult and complex activities.

AM: ARE THERE ANY TIPS YOU’D OFFER TO HR PEOPLE WITHOUT TRANSFORMATION EXPERIENCE WHO ARE MOVING INTERNALLY INTO A PROJECT ROLE FOR THE FIRST TIME?

CS: Seize the opportunity! Transformation projects work when you have a clear understanding as to your role and responsibilities, and when you can use this to galvanise those around you and enjoy the resulting upsurge in team spirit. You will be amazed at what can be achieved both personally and as a team, with the added bonus of picking up invaluable experience for your career along the way.

AM: FINALLY, WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF WITHIN YOUR CAREER?

CS: The people who I’ve had a chance to work with, to get to know, and to develop along the way.

Thank you Caroline for giving us an insight into your career and recent experiences at Sage.
If you’d like to speak to myself or Caroline in more detail about any of the topics discussed, please do get in touch.

Andy Montgomery

Partner
Interim Management
Human Resources


Andy specialises in interim management opportunities within human resources with a particular focus on supporting clients through a period of transition or change.