Our groundbreaking upcoming report Why HR Projects Fail surveys 700 global business leaders about the most common problems they face when implementing a new HR technology project. Their responses formed our Eight Golden Rules for Success. We interviewed Naveen Bhateja, Chief People Officer at Medidata Solutions, to discuss our second rule, “Change Management Matters”.
As businesses move into a phase of nearly constant change, it is more important than ever to prepare employees and to support the adoption process through technological upheaval and organizational transformation. Naveen touches on how the world of HR has changed since COVID-19 and shares his own experiences, both the challenges and the successes, in defining and adopting corporate strategies and technologies to handle changes in the business environment.
Naveen has 25 years of HR experience and has had the opportunity to work in the full spectrum of HR functions such as training and development, leadership development, compensation, talent acquisition, organization development, HR operations and analytics. He has been fortunate enough to learn how to manage heavily matrixed organizations across North America, Asia, Europe, Middle East and Africa. Some of his former employers have been companies like GE, JP Morgan, Chase, Amazon, Juniper Networks and he now finds himself as CPO at Medidata Solutions. This is a cloud-based SaaS company in the area of life sciences, particularly focusing on clinical trials for drug development and discovery. Naveen has been with the company for 18 months now and is responsible for its people function, workplace solution and global security, which is about 100 people globally, in North America, EMEA and APAC, and the organization has 3500 employees worldwide.
if you launch a new HR project without considering change management aspect, It’s a missed opportunity
UNLEASH: We have talked to over 700 business leaders globally about what defines a successful or unsuccessful project to try and see what we could learn from that. One of the areas that we identified was around this concept of change management. As companies move into a phase of nearly constant change, it’s more important than ever to prepare employees and support them through technological upheaval, and transformation. What are your thoughts on that as a concept?
Naveen: I would say there will be an accelerated digital transformation that many companies will have to start thinking about, and how they go about embracing and adopting this change. If you look at just the pace of times that we live in, we are experiencing change so constantly both at work and in our personal lives. More than ever, we need to ensure that at least the change experience at work is positive and structured as much as possible. At our company, the change we’ve experienced in the past year has been incredible. We’ve acquired a company, got acquired, created a new business unit and several new business models, accelerated the pace of transformation for a couple of our key functions, and were faced with a pandemic, and civil unrest due to social injustice. If you add all this up, it’s an abnormal level of change and stress. So, if you launch a new HR project without considering the change management aspect of it, I think it can be a missed opportunity. Psychologically speaking, it’s a bit like a grieving cycle. It requires adjustments psychologically, and as human beings, we resist change.
Before you consider any significant change, I think it’s essential that you create a strong project management framework, which can help break down the ambiguous and unknown into more tangible and structured pieces. I’ve used a four-step approach in my previous life, particularly with HR projects, or large-scale HR projects:
- Recognize – One is to recognize the purpose of the change – why you’re changing and the why needs to be extremely clear.
- Plan – The second one is plan what needs to be done to get where you want to be – the operational mechanics that are needed.
- Act – The third is act – how do we make the change happen, and consider the impact on our people in particular.
- Reflect – The last is to reflect on whether the change is really working and can we sustain it? Tracking the change adoption, and seeking that feedback to constantly improve is key.
Throughout this process, actively engaging your stakeholders is equally important. When you’re launching, or implementing a large-scale HR project, involving a huge amount of change, not just the IT team, but also your HR business partners, or your employees themselves as part of this effort. They need to understand early on, how do they bring about this change? What’s in it for them? How can it help them do their job better or faster? How can it enable them to enhance their career? I think change management is super crucial.
UNLEASH: The world of HR considering COVID-19, how do you think that’s changed?
Naveen: There was no playbook when COVID hit, so people were pretty much just dealing with it. It was an unprecedented situation that has an impact not just on employee safety, but also on employee productivity, and how we show up externally. HR leaders have always played a critical role but they’ve been on the front-line during COVID. Not only were they coaching the C-Suite on navigating the reality of the situation, but they also had to inspire their own teams to step up to the challenge to manage their organization’s response to COVID-19.
The priority has always been employee safety during this crisis and making sure that they’re informed. It’s very difficult for people to be productive when they’re under a considerable amount of stress. And while HR leaders cannot eliminate their fears and take away the stress, you can provide managers and employees resources to better navigate the situation. And that’s what we did. We created our remote work page on our intranet, for instance, to help our employees on how they work remotely. The second thing about our business is that we provide technology for some of the most critical clinical trial drug trials that are happening around the world, so stopping was not an option. We had to quickly figure out how to keep our employees safe, engaged and productive.
One of the changes that this crisis has brought forward is that the role of HR has increased in importance and will likely remain at the forefront. There is no going back. The other change that this is bringing about is that a distributed workforce and remote working are now permanent features for most organizations or will be permanent features for most organizations. As a result, keeping employees engaged and productive will become even more of a challenge. I foresee an increase in contractors and project-based work, and an increased focus on employee health and wellbeing. We will also see an increased focus on digital tools for communication, collaboration, and for creating that sustainable employee experience and overall, I would say an accelerated digital transformation.
Whilst these changes were put upon us, I do think they have the power to shape the future of work.
We engaged TaskHuman, which is an app that connects our employees 1:1 over video call with life coaches, yoga instructors, physical fitness trainers, among others on 1000s of topics related to meal prep and diet, mental, spiritual and emotional wellbeing, and more, to take that additional step to help our employees during this difficult time.
UNLEASH: Given the role of Medidata during the crisis and the implications that it wasn’t an option for you guys to actually stop and assess your strategy were there specific things that were being asked of you as the lead of People in the business to keep things going?
Naveen: The global security and workplace solution is something I’m responsible for. So, one of the areas that I had worked on with my team was to review our business continuity plan. As soon as we heard the crisis that hit China because we had offices in China, we started looking at our business continuity plan to make sure that we were ready, particularly for the worst-case scenario, which was either a significant number of our employees getting sick due to COVID or going a hundred percent virtual. We had to assess if we had the critical infrastructure ready to handle that. In addition, the crisis forced employees to work remotely and required Medidata to develop, adapt and improve our remote work policies and procedures. I had to play a role with my team on how we are going to do that. We took a pulse of employee sentiment to check on their wellbeing and make sure managers and employees had resources to do their job. We engaged TaskHuman, which is an app that connects our employees 1:1 over video call with life coaches, yoga instructors, physical fitness trainers, etc., on 1000s of topics related to wellbeing, to take that additional step to help our employees during this difficult time.
We also adapted to the sudden change on the HR activities front as well, like talent acquisition. We’ve continued hiring through this crisis and continued the training that we had to provide. We were moving more and more towards digital learning anyway. But we had to amplify our LinkedIn Learning, for instance. Also, the way we had to onboard employees without being in a physical location and keep our culture the same was tough. The question arose, “how do we embed all those areas into each of these HR activities?” Whether it’s benefits, where we came up with the reimbursement policy around gym memberships and included apps as something we could reimburse. We also broadened our reimbursement policies due to the cost of home equipment to make it easier for people to be able to do their jobs. We created virtual engagement activities around the world. For example, Cinco de Mayo in the US is a big celebration, and we always celebrate in person. But we had a Mariachi band that we brought on board virtually, and we did a virtual happy hour, in addition to the other wellness activities like yoga etc., that we had scheduled.
Constantly we’ve had to evolve, and learn how to fly this plane fairly quickly, while we were still building it.
if you are doing something which is not helping your business grow, save cost or be more efficient, you might want to rethink.
UNLEASH: HR as a function has been on a trajectory of importance within businesses. Now, having gone through this period of rapid change, has that helped to further improve the standing of HR?
Naveen: I think so. When I started my career about 25 years ago, HR was more transactional, and the evolution had not started. We now have a seat at the table, and we are part of defining and even adopting corporate strategies and structures and addressing how things like external conditions on the business environment are impacting talent. So, I think a lot has changed, but there is still a journey.
This particular crisis has definitely brought more visibility to the role of CHRO, because not only were we helping our own colleagues and peers in the C-Suite on how to navigate the reality of the situation and inspire our teams, but also manage issues ourselves on a personal front. We had family members we were worried about, that they might contract COVID and dealing with stress and our own emotions. During this time, there was a lot of ambiguity. In the US, the federal and state governments weren’t aligned. There were mixed messages that were coming up, and to be able to step up during this time, keep your composure and calm, understand what the business needs, and be able to create an environment where people can still execute against those business priorities has been done by most of the HR practitioners so it definitely ups the game for them. That’s a very positive aspect coming out of it: the recognition that the world of HR is fundamentally about maintaining, growing, managing and helping businesses to connect.
I’ve always practiced the philosophy or vision of business relevance and people reach. And what that really means is anything you do as an HR practitioner, business and people being productive is super crucial. So, if you are doing something that is not helping your business grow, save cost or be more efficient, whether it’s expanding geographically, launching a new product, or diversifying a product portfolio, anything that you’re doing that is not in support of that, you might want to rethink. Anything you’re creating as a people program, if it is not in alignment with your people or the organization, you might want to rethink, because then it might not be in alignment with the true north star, which is your business and your people.
My biggest lesson is you must involve employees and make sure they are in the co-creation of the change plan. Engage your stakeholders right from the start, it’s a must. It’s not optional.
UNLEASH: The best growth oftentimes comes through uncomfortable experiences. Have you experienced a change management failure, and what did you learn or do differently after that?
Naveen: Absolutely. I think we all have had our moments and times. My biggest lesson is you must involve employees and make sure they are in the co-creation of the change plan. Engage your stakeholders right from the start, it’s a must. It’s not optional. It can’t be put down to “Oh, I will do it next week, I’ll do it when we have more traction”. Some of the recent models talk about engaging and empowering your employees who will be most impacted by the given change, I think this can go a long way in determining that success. The second lesson, which I’ve learned and has always served well, is communicate, communicate, communicate. An effective communication plan that is unique, customized and well drafted for your stakeholders is crucial for driving successful change. I’ve often seen organizations will have one standard email that goes out as part of a HR project. It doesn’t address the different stakeholders and there’s so many different parties involved. It’s very difficult to have one communication message that fits all and can address everybody’s concerns and give them line of sight into what needs to be done. Just taking the time and communicating and customizing your communication goes a long way in making change happen successfully.
UNLEASH: How do you get buy-in from your colleagues on the senior leadership team?
Naveen: Involving the senior team early on is important, as well as addressing what’s in it for them and customizing that message. Additionally, again, business relevance and people reach. If that’s clearly outlined, it’s easier to get them to the other side of the fence. And that’s what we always do before we launch any of these big projects. We even want some of the business stakeholders in the due diligence phase, when we are looking at an app, or if you’re looking at a technology, or if you’re looking at some sort of platform. I’ve had business people join us. I’ve had employees or a cross section of employees join us, not just in the US, but also globally. Because as I said, how this impacts people is very different. And so, the more perspectives you can get early in the due diligence itself before you reach implementation is going to serve you well.
Only 15% said they’re fully satisfied that their HR projects achieve their goals. That’s 85% who aren’t fully satisfied.
UNLEASH: Only 15% of the 700 surveyed said they’re fully satisfied that their projects achieve their goals. That’s 85% who aren’t fully satisfied. Why do you think that is the case and what can people do to try and drive up that rate?
Naveen: I’m not surprised, learning that 15% of the 700 surveyed fully achieve the intended goals. I think the way I see it is these projects are expensive and failure can be very expensive and disruptive, and erodes the credibility of the people function, particularly if you’re leading the charge. It creates a lot of frustration amongst your other stakeholders like in finance. Many don’t take a holistic view, or there is a lack of relevance to the business and how it’s connected. Or there’s poor user experience, and that’s the reason why the project wasn’t successful, or there is ineffective management of the stakeholders. These could be some of the reasons teams can get frustrated or lose the ability to collaborate. So those are the ones I would call out that could potentially be the case or at least based on my experience.
UNLEASH: From your perspective, how can the costs and budget efficiency involved in projects be improved?
Naveen: When I think about budget, the very first thing that comes to my mind is the scope. The value of planning in advance and engaging the right stakeholders or the right voice early on cannot be underestimated, particularly those on the shop floor who are closer to the impacted process of a system and have a much better idea of the cost and time estimates as well. From a cost and budget perspective, a lot of the time it happens from the top down and misses that reality on the ground and then you realize there is a huge variation between what was budgeted and what was actually spent. That variance can be minimized by really making sure that you have the right stakeholder early on.
Any project we have done, we’ve always tried to involve the employees early on, because these are the ones who were getting impacted
Another factor to consider is reviewing some of the benchmark cost data early on as part of due diligence – how much does it cost and come up with the range. What is the range that others, the companies of similar size as yours or at the similar stage of maturity have spent? The second I would say is building the hidden costs up front. Make sure that you are engaging in partnering with the platform vendor itself and asking them questions on what some of the hidden costs were that others had to consider which could help you in budgeting more accurately.
Also do more mid-process cost check ins. I do it at least two to three times during a project depending on how big and significant it is. Also making sure that a lot of the cost could be as a result of the expensive implementation training. I’ve always believed in creating self-service systems for our employees or managers and leveraging them as extended arms of HR to be able to do the rollout. So, the change champions that you’ve identified during the change process, people who are passionate and who’ve been involved with it from early on should be leveraged as extended arms of HR, to help you with the implementation training.
I would add co-creation with the employees as part of the change plan as well. For any project we’ve done, we’ve always tried to involve the employees early on, because they are the ones who were getting impacted and are the users of these processes. I don’t want it purely from my HR lens perspective; I want the lens of an employee as an individual contributor.