Award-Winner Interview: Belinda Curtis, Qantas

(At the 2008 Shared Services Excellence Awards for Australia, the Qantas Shared Services group - providing services to Qantas, Australia's national airline - was awarded an Honorable Mention in the Best New Process Improvement & Innovation category. The Shared Services & Outsourcing Network spoke with Belinda Curtis, Qantas' General Manager People Shared Services, about the factors which contributed to this success - and how her organization intends to maintain these high standards going forwards.)

SSON: Belinda, can you give us some details about Qantas’ shared services? How long have you been in operation, and what functions does the SSO support?

Belinda Curtis: The Qantas Shared Services (QSS) group was established in 2004 and includes Financial Services, Payroll, Finance Business Support and Group Property Services. The total headcount is just over 600. QSS is located in Mascot [New South Wales]. This is where the majority of our staff and operations are based so it makes sense to be here. Some of our services are delivered face to face (eg learning and development) so this location is ideal for these types of services.

SSON: Can you tell us a little bit about your own experience with Qantas and how you became involved with the company’s shared services program? What’s your current role?

BC: I joined Qantas in 2004 in a line HR role before taking on my current role as General Manager People Shared Services (PSS) in October 2007. So I was first a customer of shared services and from this perspective I developed a good understanding of customer requirements. 

SSON: Qantas was awarded an Honorable Mention in the category of Best New Process Improvement & Innovation at the 2008 Shared Services Excellence Awards for Australia – what do you think set you above and beyond your competitors in this category?

BC: We tackled the problem of shifting from very outdated, manual recruitment processes with an administration focus and within six months we had established a best practice in-house recruitment function which is delivering substantial benefits to the business. Our change program involved all 38,000 Qantas staff and included extensive training of the HR community and line managers who play an integral role in the sourcing and selection of staff. It was a massive task to introduce new technology, a new employment brand, a careers website which gave Qantas Careers a public face and direct access to the candidate market, a new team of specialist recruiters and new business processes, and to build HR and managers’ confidence and capability to use the new systems and processes.

SSON: Did the shared services leadership intentionally set out to excel in this particular field, or do you think your success has been a by-product of generally high-quality endeavours across the board?

BC: I think it’s the latter – we didn’t treat this initiative any differently to our approach to managing change across shared services. We’ve implementing other large-scale business process changes and continue to do so.  It’s all part of the continuous evolution of our shared services function.

SSON: How do you intend to maintain these high standards in future?

BC: We have put monitoring and measurement systems in place to ensure we are meeting targets we’ve set for ourselves. We’ll continually review and stretch these targets consistent with our future direction.  We have some very sophisticated dashboards which measure key metrics such as time-to-hire, direct versus agency placement rates and candidate attraction. These are available to the business and enable data to be split by segment and department to give groups good visibility of their performance as well as the overall group performance in best practice recruitment.  We are proud of our achievements and regularly communicate the results achieved to maintain the commitment within the business to strive for even better results.

SSON: And how do you plan on expanding your SSC (if at all)?

BC: We are constantly looking for opportunities to take on more in the SSC where this makes sense for Qantas.  There are still activities happening in the business that could be done more efficiently in the SSC and it’s a process of demonstrating our capability in these areas and working with stakeholders to be given the opportunity to take more on.  A recent example is bringing the management of Identification Services into People Shared Services. ID Services manages the assessment and issuance of aviation security and general identification cards which govern control over access to Qantas premises.  As it’s an integral part of the new staff on-boarding process, and is fundamentally a governance and processing activity, it made good sense to integrate with PSS. The results have helped streamline on-boarding and improved operational efficiency with better reporting and management of transactions.

SSON: What are the most important targets for your team – the ambitions which drive you forward?

BC: The most important targets are those related to meeting our SLAs with our Segment customers. These are a reflection of what is important to our customers in the context of our product and service offering, so ensuring we are focused on these is in reality ensuring we are focused on our customer’s needs.

SSON: What are the biggest obstacles you’ve encountered along the way and how have you overcome them?

BC: The biggest obstacles are almost without exception related to change. Centralizing certain activities into Qantas Shared Services has probably proved to be one of the larger obstacles because you are dealing with new organizational structures, establishing new SLAs and charge rate protocols, and in some cases taking resources away from business units that are now carried out by the centralized service.

The most successful way to overcome the issues associated with structuring a shared services operation is to ensure you have a robust stakeholder plan, complimented by a comprehensive communications strategy. Also spending time with the business unit and Segment customers and involving them in structuring the SLAs helps build the foundation for a positive working relationship going forward.

SSON: What do you see as being the biggest challenges you’ll face over the next year or two, and why?

BC: The biggest challenge will be how to scale the operation to deal with the capacity changes that our business and Segment customers will be experiencing themselves as a result of any economic downturn and subsequent upturn. Providing a scalable product and service offering that is sensitive to the cost constraints of our customers is critical to our future success.

SSON: What is unique about an SSO for an airline – Qantas in particular – as opposed to for any other kind of organization?

BC: Other than the fact that the airline industry operates on low net profit margins and costs are a constant challenge, the main characteristic that could be used to describe the uniqueness would be complexity. This is particularly true at Qantas which is still a very vertically integrated organization running its own catering, airports, engineering, freight, loyalty, and flying businesses.

Not only is it highly vertically integrated, but it is also a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week, global operation with significant numbers of staff geographically removed from their home base.

SSON: What do you see as being the raison d’etre of your SSO? Are cost savings still paramount or have you truly embraced the value-add agenda?

BC: The SSO was originally structured to exploit the cost benefits associated with centralizing activities of similar type, and taking advantage of the volume-based efficiencies.

The organisation has more recently been focussing on increasing customer value delivery through programs of work that partner with our Segment customers for benefit to them and QSS.

SSON: Finally, what advice would you give to an individual or team just embarking upon a shared services journey?

BC: Focus on mutual benefits to your business unit and your business unit customers.

Ensure you are delivering products and services that create or enable value for your customers, and ensure there is common understanding of this value. SLAs help in articulating value and provide a good platform for future discussions with your customers about product and service offerings, and more importantly performance.

Develop internal communications that are a balance between your organization's achievements, and customer stories. It is important that all members of the SSO's teams understand the importance of the customer and the customer value delivery mechanism in their department.