Main content

Vendors aren't helping us to build agile HR, says Deutsche Telekom exec

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright March 28, 2019
How do you build agile HR in an established enterprise like Deutsche Telekom? Lessons learned include, enterprise HCM vendors aren't helping

Dr Reza Moussavian Deutsche Telekom at Unleash19 by @philww
Reza Moussavian, Deutsche Telekom

How do you bring innovation and agile tools to the HR role in an organization like Deutsche Telekom? Not by using the established vendors' tools, says Dr Reza Moussavian, Senior Vice President of Digital & Innovation at the European telecommunications giant. His presentation at the Unleash conference in London last week was full of useful advice for enterprise HR teams wanting to create more agile processes, but contained stark warnings for vendors:

We have two systems, we have the core HR system and we have talent management. Fantastic products — if you ask the vendor. We were not happy with their products.

In the end, Deutsche Telekom built its own mobile app to deliver everyday HR services to employees and managers because the mobile capabilities available for the existing products were "a complete disaster" he says — despite being an extra chargeable cost:

I don't think it's the right approach to let the customer pay for mobilization and for recoding. This is something that should become the service that the vendor should give to each and every one of us.

Make everything customer-centric

Moussavian's unit has led the creation of several new tools and technologies. In some cases they adapted existing digital tools, such as making use of WhatsApp for internal business commmunications, using Trello task management to run the onboarding process, or making use of VR headsets to prepare recruits for their new workplace. More ambitious projects include a completely new mobile integrated HR app and an all-new performance management system based on design thinking "because of the lack of anything that properly works in our HR talent management suites."

The approach was to rethink everything from a customer-centric point of view, he explains:

The first principle really is think from the customer view. It sounds so easy but it's so difficult for product experts, for comp[ensation] and ben[efits] experts, for leadership experts. We need to go out and understand what is it that the customer needs? What type of channels, what type of communities do we need to include?

Digital transformation begins in HR

Often, HR is as out-of-touch as the vendors with how the function is seen across the business, he says. From the outside, the perception of HR is that it's too political, too hierarchical, with a hidden agenda, as one survey of attitudes found at the telecoms company. Self-service automation is seen as a mechanism for transferring HR admin work back to managers and employees — and they find the tools difficult to use.

At least when HR leaders come to recognize these problems, they'll have the support of business leaders in wanting them fixed, says Moussavian.

The good thing is business sees HR in the digital age as more and more critical. So it can play a role if you play it right.

The first step is to embrace digital transformation within the HR function:

If you are supposed to be the one who's driving the digital transformation, maybe you think about your own digitization.

If you're the ones who are giving education about agile, maybe you should think about how to apply agile within the HR world.

Bringing agile skills into HR

Applying agile within the HR function means learning new tools and ways of working:

We need new skills in HR. We need designers, we need DevOps people, we need agile experts. We need people that have an understanding about quality management and lean management ... Rethinking the way HR works is applying agile methods and applying innovation and UX techniques in the daily work.

So it's changing the way we collaborate, changing the mindset behind it, bringing in a lot of new technology capabilities and supporting and coaching our own HR organization on this path towards transformation.

A complete overhaul of existing HR processes is inevitable, especially stripping out redundant control steps:

We have to change particularly the administrative function, the way how we are setting up HR as the number-control police. The key principle should not be employees are cheating and employees need control. The key principles should be, employees we trust, maximum one control step, processes should not follow structure.

Moving on from Taylor

Moving to an agile approach started with an analysis that ranked everything that HR does based on business priority. Then the team took the top ten processes through a design sprint to see how they could simplify and digitize them around user needs, using technology. This then led to the creation of agile tribes for each process — "product-driven, product-centric teams, staffed from different parts of the organization." This is different from the traditional structure in HR, which typically follows Tayloristic principles, says Moussavian:

[There is a] team that takes care about succession, the other one about talent, and one about training and the other one about leadership. Then we have an IT team. We have the legal team and so on. But this understanding what is a team, how do I develop these products, is missing due to the Tayloristic design. This is what we're trying to overcome with a different mentality, different working methods, different governance.

The outcome should go much further than simply automating an existing paper-based process:

The outcome is really having a tested and accepted set of tools to foster creativity into something tangible with regards to technology. This means if we are trying to digitize some sort of form — a training form or whatever — the digitalization doesn't mean you replace the paper form with PDF. It means you really think through the process. You may use chatbots, you may use also automated approvals and other stuff.

Rethinking HR processes

One result of this new design thinking at Deutsche Telekom has been a single mobile app that employees use to access all of the day-to-day HR services they need. Starting from a test roll-out to 20 active users last year, this app now has 25,000 users and the goal is to extend it to more than 100,000 employees in the company's German-speaking user base. But creating the app meant rethinking all of the processes around those services to deliver the right experience:

It's not enough to take the sh*t from the big screen to a small screen because then this is not employee experience. This is actually the worst thing to do. It's really thinking through how does it look like, what's the user experience, what is the process behind this? How do you create a seamless experience based on technology? ...

[How do you] have all the basic administrative services as easy, as seamless as possible, without giving the employee the feeling we are offloading work that is supposed to happen in HR or in the HR shared services?

How to change behavior

HR also has to work on changing behavior across the organization, starting with digital leadership at the top of the business. This means training and education as well as changing mindsets — people need to learn to use the new tools, how to make use of digital networks and AI-enhanced analytics, how to build and lead agile teams:

Mindset doesn't change behavior. Mindset doesn't change capabilities. So you have to combine it, which means we are actually training people — we are educating our leaders.

Moussavian also advocates simply doing things that show appreciation and trust for employees. For example, the company is currently equipping all of its 110,000 German-speaking employees with a corporate iPhone, a project that he says took three years of lobbying to persuade management to make the investment.

The HR budget was zero. That was pure stakeholder management in convincing the board and the business leaders you need to pay for that, because you have to invest in your employees.

The moment it was announced, I was the most hated person under the leaders and their cost center responsibilities. But now things are changing because they understand how we can bring literally everything — every type of communication, every type of application — to the mobile device.

My take

This was not the only presentation at last week's Unleash event that spoke about moving to more agile HR processes and at the same time criticized the lack of suitable tools coming from the established HR vendors. I got a real sense of a groundswell of innovation in HR teams that isn't being picked up by vendors in a meaningful way — probably because the majority of their customers have not yet moved to the more agile thinking expressed here from Deutsche Telekom.

But this is characteristic of what happens when disruptive innovation starts to take hold. The least well served take it up first and adapt it to their needs. It's only later that it enters the mainstream. Meanwhile the vendors that are too focused on what the mainstream has been buying find it hardest to adapt. Maybe we are witnessing here the first signs of a new wave of more agile, less monolithic application structures taking shape not only in HR but across all enterprise functions. It's going to be interesting.

UNLEASH19 Las Vegas explore FoW
A grey colored placeholder image