SSOW North America Key Takeaway: Understand Your Customer's Business

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Maybe it’s something to do with 20 years, maybe it's Florida, or maybe it's the many old friends I've seen at Shared Services and Outsourcing Week North America, but this event feels different [event producer Heather King pictured above].

There's been a buzz in the air that sets it apart from the "same old" of the past. It seems to be driven mainly by the discussions around automation and the very clear focus on "strategy" as shared services move forward. What's notable is the combination of shared services veterans on the stage as well as relative newbies who are stepping in on a higher level.

That's the advantage of launching shared services post 2010, right?

There's something to be said for having networked with other service centers, attended conferences, and getting, as one presenter said, "so much free advice" from consultants in the early planning stages. So, alongside Lisa Miller from PepsiCo, picture at right, who retires after a long and illustrious shared services career (she shared tips on setting up global process ownership within a multinational organization, alongside Jeffrey Reider, GBS Director at Eli Lilly) we also heard from rising stars like Melissa Miller at Anthem, the healthcare insurance group, who heads their "business improvement group" and whose motto "start BIG" will be one many of us are taking home.

What made Melissa’s talk so interesting was that she took a refreshingly broad look at efficiency across organizations. Her team is something of a Navy SEAL operation (my words, not hers) that is parachuted into problem zones with the full support and backing of an influential sponsor. So, without making too big a deal about terminology or black belt-ism, Melissa and her team quietly go about fixing what needs to be fixed through continuous improvement and lean approaches. But mainly: a lot of common sense. The value of this kind of operation is quite rightly not counted in dollars, although the dollar wins are there, but in terms of freeing up the flow of business and opening up opportunities. Would that everyone was so lucky to have this kind of vision within their company!

I briefly mentioned Lisa Miller and Jeff Ryder, who led an interactive discussion within a workshop where the room pitched in to design the ideal structure of a global process ownership role. Lisa was the transformation and transition lead for the shift to "global", and Jeff heads a global operation that incorporates four captives and three BPOs. One of the interesting examples from the audience came from Capgemini and one of their clients present, who outlined the "two in a box" approach in working with customers: every internal GPO position at the customer end is mirrored by a GPO role at the consultant’s end. No one else in the room had experienced that. [Editor’s note: but I’ll be following up, you can be sure!]

"In today's world where most SSOs have a relationship with an outsourcer, 50% of GPOs have stepped into the role only within the last 12 months, and 75% of GPOs have a positive impact on KPIs and service quality, it's crucial to get the end-to-end element right."

The key skill that Jeff identified is the ability to lead across cultures, as well as knowing the process and experience of working in the business. But in today's world where most SSOs have a relationship with an outsourcer, 50% of GPOs have stepped into the role only within the last 12 months, and 75% of GPOs have a positive impact on KPIs and service quality [source: CEB], it's crucial to get the end-to-end element right. Having the mandate of GPO is a key step to getting there.

One challenge both speakers touched on was balancing local versus global requirements. Jeff shared a brilliant trick: he insists on local businesses submitting legal regulations as proof of their need for localized services– "that got rid of 75% of the suggestions overnight", he said. [It's otherwise known as the "show me the wall" approach.]

The other challenge is that some business units may be more advanced and are forced to take a step backwards in order for the process to move forwards. Getting them on board will mean selling the big picture to them and that's no easy feat.

We all had a sentimental moment when Paul Bartley, Director, GBS, HHS’ Program Support Center; Loren Mahon, VP, Finance System, CEO Office, Oracle; and Nancy Hanslowe, SVP HR Shared Services, Metlife, discussed just how far they have come in 20 years. 1996, we were reminded, was the year Justin Bieber turned two! Cell phones were still clunky machines, and the kind of automation that's natural today could only have been dreamed of. Paul reminded us that no matter what functional area you're talking about, we can all apply the same techniques to establish shared services. The main thing is getting out of the mindset of silos and looking "across the business". Nancy reminded us that the fundamentals that she learned at the start of shared services are still critical! It's still about taking complexity out of the work but today the tools are more sophisticated. And Loren reminded us how wonderful it is to work off common systems, and that, today, the key differentiator is being able to give people ownership over the data.

"[MILLENNIALS] want to participate in the business, not serve the business."

But perhaps the greatest differentiator, all three agree, is in terms of who they are recruiting today. Nancy said that to fill her HR roles, she's not looking for HR background anymore. Today it's all about getting the technology savvy folks in, who completely understand how to mine information from social media. The technology groups offer the best talent pools for her needs. Loren added that you need to build the ability to appeal to Millennials into your operations. Today's employees expect to have a platform for social and mobile capabilities. They want to participate in the business, not serve the business. If you don't meet these needs, you won't get the best of the best.

Exhibitors demo-ing new tech solutions in the networking breaks

Paul also highlighted one of the biggest challenges he faces: a dearth of management talent. He manages 13 service director roles from which the functional element is all but stripped out. What he's developing is leadership, and he actively rotates people around to build up skills in people managing, budgeting, and customer service. The functional know-how is dealt with at a lower level, he explains. [And by the way he's looking to fill two of these service director positions!)

"RPA is not about job losses. It’s about building capability without more FTEs."

Robotics was, of course, covered intensively throughout the week. And although our recent survey identifies very few implementations or even limited understanding to date, judging by the discussions, the questions, and the comments overheard during networking breaks this is certainly changing.

Ascension Health is taking the lead in integrating robotics (AJ Hanna, who heads its robotics initiative, pictured at left), not, as its Shared Services CEO Lee Coulter emphasized, to replace staff, but rather to grow capability without the need to increase FTEs. The same message was heard from multiple quarters: RPA is not about job losses. It’s about building capability without more FTEs. So while replacing FTEs may apply to some transactional work – even there, perhaps more on the BPO side than the captive? – the real opportunities, the real money [think: big money] will come from redeploying staff on more value adding work.

One tip I thought was really good: when evaluating RPA, pick the right process that reflects the organizational mind-share, because it's going to take a lot of change management to adopt and implement robotics successfully. So you need to get behind how people think.

Most importantly, the true differentiator of robotic process automation is to change the conversation from SLAs to SLOs – from service-level agreements to service level objectives.

This, perhaps, best sums up what shared services is about today. No matter whether you are using robotics or process improvement or change management or outsourcing. What's key is that you understand the desired output for the business. Shared services is a customer oriented business. And while the old way of thinking was that you should let the customer get on with the business while you take care of HR or Finance, in today's world a lot of what you did is automated, and there's no need to get too tied up in terminology. What that means is that people like you should now have the opportunity to take a closer look at what your customers need to do – and to help them get there.

Attendees taking part in in-session polling via their smartphones

Read more about the SSON Excellence Awards, 2016, for North America – here. We will be posting interviews with all of the winners, as well extracts from winning applications, online later this month. Please keep your eye on our website for more details.