Why I’m a Bit Sleepless About Global Business Services

Add bookmark

Deborah Kops


Global Business Services

The GBS conference season has just drawn to a close, giving veteran observers of business services model evolution a chance to reflect on what’s happened in the last 12 months. Looking back, over successive annual gatherings we’ve been able to track the rise and fall of outsourcing business processes, an obsession with Six Sigma/continuous improvement, the push to move up the value chain, getting a seat at the top table, creating analytics center of excellences within shared services, and so forth. And then there’s the current headline fashion--all things RPA, AI, IA, cognitive.

But this year I am more than a bit discombobulated by what I see. Right under the surface there are other, more subtle systemic trends that weren’t discussed in any plenary. In total, could they change the path of GBS evolution? You be the judge.

Here goes!

Career paths now promoting complacency.

There’s a good news story for shared services professionals. With the model now firmly entrenched in the organization chart of every enterprise considering itself competitive or advanced, a shared services career is no longer the graveyard of ambition. The best and brightest are now choosing to stay and play rather than escape to operations, supply chain, marketing, or the so-called retained team. And that’s certainly good news for GBS organizational sustainability.

However, when any function becomes institutionalized on the org chart, there’s usually a downside. As folks perceive they have a career path within GBS, they tend to modulate their behaviors to ensure that that next promotion is attainable. In short, they often become allergic to challenging the status quo, becoming good soldiers.

With the breathtaking pace of change enterprises are now experiencing, if there ever was a time for leaders to innovate and take risks in GBS design and operations, it’s now. While established career paths are important for institutional sustainability, having staff who constantly challenge the status quo, such as challenging the operating model, rethinking the service catalog, or developing a different outsourcing paradigm, are equally, if not more, critical. Get some out of the box thinkers on your team.

Rock stars in revolving doors.

Some organizations try to put their GBS on steroids by hiring in external talent. And the spec always seems to go as follows: x company wants a thought leader who works for a big brand, with a reputation of having led a GBS organization that has purportedly reached (often indicated by the number of plenary speeches said rock star has given in the past 18 months). With the dearth of such talent, these exalted few are operating in an employment market where the sky’s the limit when it comes to comp. Empirically, they seem to stay 2 years or so, then rachet up the pay packet by going to a bigger brand with more scope. But just because someone has a personal brand doesn’t mean s/he’s the best fit for a particular enterprise. Or has the ability to deliver a sustainable model.

Enterprises investing in GBS models must take the time to correlate the talent with what they really need, not running down brand names to feel good. Often, the folks doing the thinking and the executing are one level down, staying home running the business while the boss goes on continuous conference junkets.

CXOs (and their GBS HR partners) should look around in the team or in the second line before trying to hire a trophy GBS leader who may (or may not) have created a viable, sticky operation. Company Incumbents or 2ICs in other organizations often are the unsung heroes when it comes to GBS evolution and performance.

Safe pairs of hands calming the waters.

Look around at the leadership in some of the largest enterprises—the top dog increasingly is a corporate veteran rather than a GBS expert. S/he was inserted after the last fetch-in GBS rock star rightly created chaos (after all, s/he came in with a CXO mandate to create a GBS in 2-3 years). In a hurry, the outsider hadn’t had sufficient time to learn the handshake and figure out how the organization embraces change, so s/he leaves when the initial contract is over, and an insider, not a GBS maven, is appointed to still rocky stakeholder waters in order to salvage the model.

Taking a deep breath and letting the model settle is critical to GBS evolution. But there’s a catch; when the leader’s primary focus is on repairing relationships and getting the organization to embrace the model, doing daring transformation deeds usually is not in the cards.

The storm-then-calm-rinse-wash-repeat model is too disruptive to stakeholders, the team and the ultimate viability of a GBS model. It’s exhausting. Enterprises should tightly correlate their GBS ambitions with the organization’s readiness to change, and plan accordingly, first off, by appointing the right leadership at the right time.

Talent exiting stage left.

When I go to a conference, I now feel like a fossil. The folks I know--those early leaders who had to make GBS or shared services propositions up the night before a presentation--have left or are leaving the work world in droves. They are now looking forward to the three golden Gs—grandchildren, golf and grenache, with an occasional consulting gig on the side if they are bored.

Consumed by other challenges, many shared services organizations have missed this mass exodus, and neglected to focus on the organizational planning and analysis that future-proofs their organizations. Leaders either have gotten the timing wrong or they haven’t fully appreciated the deep domain and institutional knowledge—not to mention the solid stakeholder relationships-- that the over 50s have at their fingertips.

Today, more than ever, GBS sustainability is not just dependent on the whims of the C-suite, but as critically on the depth, breath, longevity and connectivity of the talent base. Make sure that when George or Janet walk out the door, the web of critical GBS relationships will outlive them.

Adherence to old staffing models.

If the war for GBS talent is real, and believe me I get at least a few calls each week from headhunters and enterprises alike looking for expertise that is in very short supply, it’s time for GBS to move beyond traditional models, understand what they actually produce, reexamine their specs and enter the world of the future of work. At the same time, increasingly, talent does not want to work the same way—it won’t relocate or does not want full time employment or the hassle of managing people.

The good news is that resourcing models are no longer binary---insource or outsource with an occasional consultant thrown into the mix. What’s wrong with a two-year contract gig for a transformation expert (also known as an employee with an expiry date)? Why can’t an external panel be chartered to develop or examine strategy? Or an old hand fly in to fix a process? And remember the concept build-operate-transfer of operations centers—why do you need to employ a team—hire contract talent!

If anyone in the enterprise has the purview to creatively rethink the talent equation, it’s GBS. Leaders have a superb opportunity to invent resource models that hit the talent shortage head-on.

Obsession with RPA getting in the way of real, sustainable transformation.

Now I’m not debating the fact that deploying robotics process automation is a good thing. If the enterprise wants to make incremental change, defined in my book as more accurate, faster and cheaper, automation’s certainly one of the tickets. But if one more RPA evangelist tries to get me to say that RPA in itself is transformational, I’m likely to tear my hair out. Tools don’t transform an operation. Full stop. People do!

I describe true GBS transformation as redefining the relationships between platforms/ functions/ processes and their stakeholders/customers by rethinking what work should be done, how it gets done and by whom. Drinking the robotic Kool-Aid obfuscates the big picture.

If all eggs are in the robot basket, transformation will be elusive. Transformation means re-imagining each and every aspect of GBS: process, culture, operating model, risk tolerance, metrics, experience, the work performed, ways of working and so forth. And it’s very hard to do. A few robots don’t have the power to move the dial.

Success breeding battles for ownership.

In the minds of many retained function customers, the shared services proposition has delivered in spades. Silent running…consolidation…cost reduction…standardization…frictionless workflow—the list goes on and on. But there’s a downside to a track record of exemplary performance.

“Better than before” is becoming a double-edged sword for GBS organizations. Without the table stakes of process efficiency and effectiveness, there is no base value proposition. At the same time, when the functional organization sees the relationship with delivery as seamless, it prompts them to ask the question: why isn’t this mine? They conveniently forget about the blood, sweat and tears invested in changing the game, and when an integrated or end-to-end GBS value prop is not apparent or understood, nor is the work sticky, a battle to repatriate ensues.

GBS organizations best move beyond delivery as the sole reason for being, or it could be proverbial curtains for the model. It’s time to evolve to GBS 3.0+--implementing platforms, providing advisory services, creating ecosystems – not just running transactions.


Should I be losing sleep about these observations? You’re probably thinking this woman needs to get a life! Obsessing about GBS is not like worrying about global warming or world peace. But most change is incremental and generally not headline-worthy. How our industry behaves may be more profoundly important than the shiny new toys we embrace or the PowerPoints we look at.

Have a care for the way we’re behaving—it may change the path of GBS.


Deborah Kops sits on SSON's Global Advisory Board.