Q&A: Helen Dickens, Symantec

Approximately 18 months ago Helen Dickens was appointed Senior Manager, EMEA HR Services at Symantec, the world’s largest maker of security software with a global headcount of over 17,000. Her remit was to revolutionize the company’s HR structure within the EMEA region, implementing a shared service organization and helpdesk serving more than 30 countries comprising Symantec’s regional operations. Involving some rather radical mindset transformation (not to mention coinciding with the deepest financial crisis in living memory) it’s been an interesting but highly rewarding challenge - and now, says Dickens, she’s ready to move Symantec’s HR onto a new and ever-more-dynamic footing. SSON’s Jamie Liddell went to find out more about how Dickens plans to reach for the stars.

SSON: Helen, how long have you been in your current role, and what are your primary responsibilities?

HD: I’ve been in my current role for about 18 months; my role is to manage the HR Direct Services team, which is 15 people based in six countries, who provide the transactional and administrative services for our EMEA population of employees. I guess there’s two parts to the role: one is the day-to-day management of those people, and creating an operation that works, and obviously at the same time to take that forward and develop it as we evolve.

SSON: Where is your team based?

HD: There are two main centers for the team: one in Dublin, where we run the majority of our phone support from, and also we have a back-up team in the UK that supports on the phones - they do other things as well. So those are the two hubs that provide the helpdesk for employee and manager queries when they call in. Our remit is to cover the EMEA region, which has more than 30 countries.

SSON: And approximately how many Symantec employees do you serve within those countries?

HD: We don't split out our regional numbers but it's certainly several thousand.

SSON: You’ve been working on some pretty transformative projects within Symantec HR: can you give us more detail on what you’ve been doing?

HD: Sure. When I took on the role the structure of HR within our organization was evolving, so we had people in administrative-type roles in a number of different HR teams, which were very country-specific and very skill-specific. The new team was created basically by pooling those administrative resources; my role was to come in and make that administrative resource work well as a shared service center for all of the HR work in terms of transactions, administrations, data entry; and on top of that to create an HR helpdesk which is a facility for employees and managers to have a one-stop-shop-type interface with HR, so instead of having to know "this person deals with pensions" or "that person deals with Germany", there’s one email and one phone number: they contact us and we try to resolve their query. We manage to resolve about 87 per cent of queries first-time; if not, we escalate to someone who can resolve it - for example, if it was a specific knowledge area that required someone of higher knowledge or expertise in that area, or if it’s a specific language element that can’t be addressed by our team.

SSON: Approximately how many queries does your team handle on a daily basis? And is there a pretty even distribution in terms of the geographical origins of those queries or are some locations more active than others?

HD: We average about 350 "tickets" a week although each of these can involve a number of interactions. The uptake of the service is varied through the countries with some being faster to utilize the new model than others. All countries are within target now which is set by headcount. The UK and Ireland populations use the service more than would be expected on headcount alone but many of our managers are based in these locations and they have a greater requirement for support than individual contributors.

SSON: How far along had the transformation process got by the time you arrived? Were you involved from the beginning with planning?

HD: Yes, I was recruited to do that from the start. I already knew which people would be involved because there’d been a piece of work to identify which individuals would make up the team.

SSON: What were your short-term priorities when you took on the role?

HD: The first thing I did was to define all our roles and responsibilities and define where the gaps were in the service, and work out now we had all the people together which was the most effective way to align the work, because work goes up and down - and in various countries it goes up and down at different times - so the first thing was to create roles that were more effective when you pooled certain people together, so putting expertise together rather than doing it in other ways that work might have been aligned previously. And also to create meaningful roles for those individuals that were interesting and motivating for them to come in and do every day. So that was the very first step. The next step was the helpdesk implementation plan - which was started from scratch in terms even of writing phone menus for touchtone phones when people called in. The first priority was to create the project plan: what was our customer service going to look like; what was our marketing strategy; what were and weren’t we going to be doing; setting up all the phone lines and shared email boxes; how were we going to manage email traffic…

SSON: Can you give us an insight into that process: was it effectively you working by yourself or was it a very consultative process?

HD: An HR helpdesk had been launched in our American organization, and their way of operating was very different: HR in America is radically different from how it is in EMEA, for lots of reasons. I went out to Cupertino, where our head office was at the time, and spent a day at their helpdesk, and talked to the people who’d implemented it to look at the steps they’d gone through. From that I took the bits that I thought would work well, and discarded the bits I knew wouldn’t work in our region That was quite a key part in scoping it together.

SSON: You said that an element of the project was to create a shared-services-type environment from existing HR resources as well as to create the helpdesk: did you think of that during your planning as two separate ventures or was it all one project?

HD: I think the shared service center was always seen as doing both things: one, to provide administrative support, and two, to provide the one-stop-shop for customers and managers. So it was very much integrated to provide those two strands of service.

SSON: Are you completely distinct from other shared service elements within Symantec or are you in a central SSO infrastructure along with other functions?

HD: No, we’re in a separate organization. We have interfaces and escalation routes to, for example, the expenses team, or the payroll team, but we stand alone as a separate structure within the HR organization.

SSON: Moving on a little: this is all looking back over 18 months since the beginning of the project. How far along have you got now?

HD: When I pitched for the role I identified three stages in the project. The first was, I showed them a LandRover, in terms of making something that works: taking all the strands together and creating the operation. The second stage was the sports car; the third stage was a spaceship - in terms of doing innovative things and not having any wheels! So where we are now, I would say, is probably touching the sports car. What’s stopping us being the sports car, I would say, is probably some major investment in infrastructure, and we’re currently going through that process, to get some proper sophisticated CRM software: at the moment we’re running stuff that’s been built in-house, which is fantastic in that they’re completely bespoken to our requirements, However, we would like to move to the next level and utilize the functionality available in specialist software. I think once we have that we’ll be the sports car - and now we can start thinking about what the spaceship would look like in terms of moving it forward.

SSON: Just thinking about the number of different systems that you’re talking about: do you think that’s representative of your industry - an occupational hazard of working in HR within the IT sector - or the way your company’s been organized specifically?

HD: It’s a difficult one to answer and in the current climate capex is a challenge everywhere. As an IT company obviously we have access to some very good people who can build great systems and we don’t necessarily have to go straight out to the market to buy something that addresses an operational need. We also used technology and products for our phone systems that were already licensed to our company because they were used for our tech support function who deal with our external customers and clients.

SSON: OK. The timeframe you’ve done this over has coincided with some pretty traumatic events economically and financially. In a lot of organizations this has resulted in some pretty strict cutbacks or restrictions on capital investment; it sounds like that hasn’t been the case from your perspective. Has it been a problem trying to get extra capital for technology along the lines you’re discussing?

HD: There is still some way to go. However we take a long-term perspective having something that does lots of things well and utilising the best practice and research done by vendors is a good better investment. I think up to this point we’ve invested very well; I know a lot of people believe that setting up shared service centers is too expensive, but the cost we’ve put in so far has been something like five headsets and an offsite meeting! So virtually no capital investment required.

SSON: Nice! OK, let’s move on to look at some of the challenges you’ve had to negotiate. What would you say have been the biggest obstacles you’ve faced?

HD: I think there’ve been a number of things that have required a lot of focus. One was the trust of the HR team: whereas previously we had people in-country providing answers to all kinds of questions that people brought to them, we’ve had to get people to take those questions to the HR helpdesk rather than to local contacts. It’s really key for the HR people in-country to support what we’ve been doing and to drive the traffic and people’s behavior towards the HR helpdesk. I’ve invested a lot of time in stakeholder management, publicizing good results, making sure all the queries are taken care of - keeping people informed and confident that we’re able to handle queries effectively rather than them. Getting HR support to give up some of their work has been a big thing. There’ve been objectives around that: there were league tables of people who were transferring queries,. Our selling-point has always been to have a very high-quality, very fast response, so people couldn’t come back and say "don’t use the HR helpdesk, it’s rubbish!". Another part is that different countries have taken up the model at different rates, and I think there’s a cultural differentiation in how comfortable people feel in picking up the phone and talking to us, or sending an email, and some countries are more resistant to that than others. In the UK and Ireland it got taken up very quickly, but in others it’s needed more work: for example in Germany where there is a different legislative climate and different laws regarding not only data protection but how employees can work in that country and how their information can be sent out from that country, so Germany has a slightly different model.

SSON: What were the challenges that you knew before you took on the role would arise, and what were those that popped up that maybe you weren’t expecting?

HD: I think the whole complexity of the project in itself was a challenge, in terms of "how do we go from one way of providing an HR service to doing it radically differently?"; the approach I took was to phase in a couple of countries at a time, starting off with countries that didn’t have in-house - in-country - HR support, so it was quite a good sell for employees in those countries as they always contacted someone that wasn’t local to them, so it was just a different number. That’s quite a different proposition from having to call someone instead of just walking down the corridor to speak with someone in person. So we started off with some pilot countries and phased it in. The main bulk was done in around three to six months and then Germany was added after that.

SSON: Did you enjoy significant sponsorship from the top? If you needed to, were there people you could point to and say "look, I’ve got the mandate: just deal with it"?

HD: It was always part of the HR plan, and our objectives as an organization. I don’t think it’s really my style to say "so-and-so says you’ve got to do this so do it!" - I was going for people to support it because they believed in it, and by trying to be as credible and as open as possible: I still give monthly updates to the wider HR community about what’s happening, and make all our metrics and data available. I’m a very metrics-driven person; my desk is covered in graphs. I can always say "we’ve had X queries" or "we’ve done Y this quickly". One of the things I’ve tried to sell as well as improved service to the employees if they’ve got a question, is that by tracking trends and data we can identify things we’ve got to improve across the board. An example of this is our system for booking holidays; we’re creating a lot of queries round this, and the person who works on it and who is the expert on that particular area really dug down into what are the kind of queries people are asking, and why they’re asking them, and we’ve been able to implement changes to our system which mean that the information is easier to access and people aren’t confused by the information that’s there. By using the customer experience and being able to quantify it, we can then go to when the IT teams are looking at the next maintenance release, we’re able to say "well, these are the things we want to address, and we want to address them because we’ve had 200 questions on this, and 300 questions on that…". So that’s always been a big benefit - to be able to underpin what the HR team are doing by improving the way we work across the board. When people ask a question you think, why don’t they know that? Why isn’t that information available to them? If it is available, why haven’t they found it?

SSON: How long has that been up and running - how long now have you been in the state of being able to do that kind of thing?

HD: We’ve just got our first year’s set of metrics, so it took a little while to get things going: we started off just recording things on a spreadsheet which was obviously woefully inadequate. Then we got our database built in-house. It took maybe three to six months to get our first metrics; now we’re quite well evolved and things have got quite automated.

SSON: Did you work with any external advisors on this project? And did you partner with a benchmarking firm once those metrics started coming in?

HD: We didn’t work with anyone externally. It was internal resources that I called on; for example, I went to see how our tech support team used their telephone system to understand how it worked - but that was fairly low-key, involving me going to sit at their desk and asking for a demo! In terms of benchmarking, our American team went out to a number of similar companies and looked at what metrics they were using; they did more formal benchmarking with about eight companies. Locally both here in the UK and in Ireland we’ve tried to reach out to other people with similar operations and look at what they’re doing. It’s very difficult to compare because of what’s in or out of a service center - some companies will have recruitment within it, some won’t, for example - so it’s hard to compare apples with apples, but the companies that we have looked at, we’ve felt we compared favorably with them… I think one of the areas where we differ from other people is the complexity of the countries that we serve; I know many other people have very good service centers in one country, where they have a high volume of employees. I think our differentiator is the breadth of countries we serve and the breadth of topics we can advise on.

SSON: Let’s look at the "spaceship" then: how do you see your HR system looking in the medium- and long-term?

HD: In the medium term I think there’s still a little way to go in terms of quality; I look at some of the answers we give and think "was that the perfect answer?", and I think with some of them we were probably 95 per cent there, and not 100 per cent. I think that relies on having the infrastructure to access the information; what we often have currently is that one person will find something out and know it, but how does the next person know that someone took the same or a similar query the day before, and that they’ve gone and found the answer - especially when they’re sitting in a different country? So there’s that knowledge-share which is part of it. There’s also an opportunity, with four helpdesks globally, as to how we can interact more effectively together. For example, when we have [public] holidays, is there any reason why APJ can’t handle some of the queries we might have? We’re still quite regionally based. Our vendor for our award system is based in Dublin, so would it make sense for all our award queries globally to be handled from Dublin because it sits very near the vendor and we could perhaps create a subject-matter expert on that in liaison with the vendor. We’ve got India as an option, so would it be more effective to offshore some standard queries? Which things can be offshored and which can’t be? So those are some of the things we’re looking at. I also want to increase the number of things that we can advise on; the team was built from administrators; they are now highly skilled with multiple language capabilities, but they’re not necessarily senior HR professionals so we are looking at building capability. The aim is to more effectively answer complicated queries around management advisory and coaching, so if managers have more complex issues with employees we can coach them through the process rather than handing them off to country experts.

SSON: What aspects of the journey would you say you’re most proud of?

HD: I think I’m always proud every month when we have our dashboard done - I’m proud of the fact that we have a dashboard, and that we can measure everything, for one, because I think that’s a big step and adds to the credibility of HR who might be seen as a more fluffy business function: we’ve got hard measurably results and the team is tasked on those as well. So one that we’ve got a dashboard, and two that our results are really good as well: I’m always been really amazed at the response and feedback we get from customers, the speed at which we can respond to questions and turn them around. So those two things I’m most proud of: that we can measure results, and that the results are good.

SSON: And what about things that you look back on and maybe wish you’d done differently?

HD: I think I’d do it faster, because with the phased launch of various countries I was concerned that all the work would be swimming around in the wrong place and that we wouldn’t have adjusted our workflows and our resources to match the work turning up in different places; I think in retrospect the uptake was slow but sure in a lot of countries - it wasn’t as if we were deluged with calls on the first day, but that it built up over a number of months. So if I were to do it again I think maybe I’d launch one set of pilot countries and then do the rest in bulk.