SSO Week Review: Why It’s Still Primarily About … People

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2015's Shared Services and Outsourcing Week Europe took place in Amsterdam last month.

While trends come and go, one thing is for certain: the people working in shared services are a resilient lot. At Shared Services and Outsourcing Week Europe, where we celebrated our 15th anniversary, we were surrounded by hundreds of familiar faces. Some of the delegates this year have been with us right from the start – and still support us year after year, sharing their evolutions, current challenges and tried and tested practices that have stood them well. Old friends like Chris Gunning from Unisys, Andrea Shaffell from Ricoh, Philip Whelan from BP, Astrid Hartman from Lufthansa, and John Gregory from Kellogg’s, continue to provide consistency and guidance to newcomers; while new faces like Nadia Hutchinson, Head of HR Shared Services at British American Tobacco, and Daniel Pope from the Finance SSC at VolkerWessels UK, have joined more recently, and promise to support the industry's evolution as we move ahead.

The Week, as it’s come to be called, is always a wonderful opportunity to check the pulse of services delivery practices. This was made especially easy by the SSON app, now in its second year, which allowed delegates to post questions live, find and network with each other, and answer polls real time – thus supporting on-site benchmarking. Everyone present enthusiastically grasped the concept, which made the event that much more engaging.

While in the past, we have placed ourselves at Amsterdam's RAI conference centre, just out of town, this year we decided to go right to the heart of the city. We occupied the exhibition hall and main rooms of Beurs van Berlage, the fabulous former stock exchange and scene of a Royal Dutch wedding! Delegates found themselves passing through red brick hallways, admiring stained-glass windows in the breakout rooms, and getting a slightly unreal sense of being part of a Harry Potter movie as they transferred from session to session. This originality is one of the things that differentiates SSON from other events companies. We set out to make The Week an experience that incorporates unusual locations and innovative opportunities to break the ice and encourage new friendships. So we took delegates on a canal boat to the ZOO; played Ping-Pong and other GAMES in the exhibition hall (see below); and went about making shared services more fun and entertaining than ever!

This year, what’s apparent is that robotic technology is becoming more familiar and leadership is one of the big nuts to crack. This doesn’t mean technology is not still "enabling" in every sphere – the exhibition hall included a novel "dome" area in which tech solutions companies showcased their newest tools, and most case studies included at least one reference to technologies that were driving improvements in delivery – but it does mean that the human element is taking a leading role. This was reinforced by some of our lead speakers who reminded us that technology can only go so far; where it stops, people – and, increasingly, the more creative types – need to move the customer service experience forward.

Core themes highlighted in the plenaries included a session on how to manage your "career" successfully. John Gregory from Kellogg's, and Andrea Schaffell from Ricoh (on left), engaged delegates in a frank discussion on the roughly 20 years of shared services each has amassed in this industry. A key point made was that you need to maintain and update your skill sets as automation changes the ecological landscape you operate in. If not, you run the danger of finding yourself redundant, John warned.

Hybrid models also took centre stage, with a plenary session comparing whether transformation is enabled more effectively through hybrid or captive structures. While outsourcing’s popularity as a partner-provider is growing [80% of respondents from a recent Everest Group report a hybrid model] there are plenty of stories around organisations moving away from outsourcing and towards insourcing. An example was shared by Umberto Larizza from UniCredit, whose company has gone through a lengthy insourcing process to drive transformation, but is now, as a result of lean practices, ready to reconsider outsourcing as part of the ‘new’ shared services solution. In another session, Michelle Luck, Director of Global Financial Services at Elsevier, reflected on some of the decisions that were made as part of the shift to outsourcing, and how these might have been made differently under different circumstances. Phil Whelan from BP joined Michelle on the stage for a highly interactive discussion that proved extremely popular with our delegates.

RPA has moved out of the theoretical sphere and into the corporations – with examples from practitioners at Barclays, Telefonica UK, and Smith and Nephew. While last year the case studies were still tentative, this year Telefonica explained how it achieved an 800% return on its RPA investment, while Barclays and Smith and Nephew outlined how to build a business case, and presented their fairly unshakable results.

For those that follow Formula One racing, it was gutting to see Mercedes’ pit stop mistake cost Mark Lewis the Monaco race just a few days after his previous pit stop Manager, Mark Priestly, addressed delegates about the collaborative efforts that went into shaving microseconds off pit stops. It’s the marginal gains, Mark explained, that led to Lewis winning with McLaren. Mark spent 10 years as a mechanic on the McLaren Formula One pit crew. The lessons he shared on transformation ripple across our industry, too. In fact, his team set the record for the fastest stop at 2.5 seconds, until this was broken by Mercedes' 1.8 seconds.

The end-to-end strategy that Mark described stretched from the location-based production site to the guys refuelling the car. The parallels to shared services where obvious: a seamless teamwork [in support services] results in flawless execution at the front. While the idea of being celebrated on the podium and sprayed with champagne is a foreign one for shared services practitioners (that is why we’ve launched the SSON Awards, of course! See this year's European winners here) it’s important to make the connection between services delivered and the ultimate success of the business.

Another Big Ideas speaker that caused ripples across the audience was digital strategist Ade McCormack, a columnist for the Financial Times (also associated with Auridian), who spoke about "value" in the digital economy, covering the digital, macroeconomic, and anthropological trends that are reinventing the workplace today.

Ade writes about the future of work in his column, and described the changing times we live in so clearly that delegates were scribbling down notes to pass on to their children (I know I was). Businesses today are leveraging automation to the extent that soon the human element will have successfully been engineered out of any process. What that means, however, is at that stage businesses will want to bring people back into the process to create a differentiated experience for the customer. The future needs people that attract brand attention, warned Ade. While in the past we traditionally hired younger versions of ourselves for a job or a company, in future we will be looking for extroverts – the Andy Warhols or the Lady Gagas of their time, as he explains it, will drive the creativity customers will be looking for. So while automation is taking care of transactions, colourful customer engagement individuals will be needed to manage, nurture, and develop relationships. These are the individuals that will maintain the shared services brand. The lesson for delegates was to have the courage to step up and drive more creative engagements with clients.

One of the sessions that always attract an interesting crowd is the private, by invitation only, global business services forum. This year, discussions focused on how to maintain the relevancy of GBS to the business, how to develop the "right" GBS culture, and how to toe that fine line between servicing a customer and driving standardisation. Each topic in the GBS track is introduced by a practitioner and then the group pitches in with their comments, experiences, and questions. The key takeaways were that if you want to maintain a GBS model, then you need to draw a connection between services and business output. There are too many potential hurdles facing GBS to overlook any opportunity to make its relevance clear. Some of the emerging tools are focusing on how illustrate relevant analytics for reporting, and visualise these to the board. In addition, tracking the impact of GBS policy on business performance is key.

There was no shortage of fun in Amsterdam as the SSON team, led by Georgina Hunter and Anna Littler, organised a wonderful SSO Week 15th birthday party with A Night At… not the Museum, but the ZOO! We wandered around making new friends and saw lions, zebras, and free-running monkeys and finally were welcomed with cocktails in a splendid hall.

It's networking opportunities like this that create so many long-lasting relationships, as numerous delegates testified to us on video.

Finally: The Week is a great opportunity to honor our peers who have truly excelled in both shared services implementations, as well as delivering added value to the businesses they support. The SSON Excellence Awards, held around the globe, do just that. Read about this year's winners, and please apply yourself next year. You have to be IN IT to WIN IT!

Below: Michael Drummond, Commercial Development Manager, was onsite to receive the Excellence in Value Creation Award on behalf of Multi-Force Shared Services (Cheshire Constabulary / Northamptonshire Police).

We are already planning the 2016 event in Dublin next year. So please don’t miss it. You can get information below – and we look forward to welcoming you!