In a massive transformation effort, find out how the HR team has completed the implementation of an organisation-wide Agile HR model to deliver a new way of organising, a new way of working and a new way of decision making, in Aditi Sharma Kalra's exclusive conversation with Farid Basir, Chief Human Capital Officer, Telekom Malaysia.

Q With a focus on a unique role as the enabler of Digital Malaysia aspiration, how big is the employee strength at Telekom Malaysia (TM)? How many staff members are there in your HR team?

Telekom Malaysia currently has more than 22,000 employees. Our HR team has 422 staff, which includes Agile coaches (scrum masters) and the HR business partners at the various lines of business

Q How would you describe the company culture at TM?

TM has a long history and a proud legacy - first as a Government telecommunication department, then as a privatised entity, and now a corporate organisation doing business in a highly competitive industry. Our culture reflects this history and our current environment.

TM prides itself as a caring employer, where employees are like a family that treat each other with mutual respect, working together towards a common goal. An environment of loyalty, collaboration and support is complemented by the digital-driven culture of the tech-savviness, innovation, flexibility and casual workplace.

Our actions and decisions are guided by our core values of total commitment to the customer, uncompromising integrity, and respect and care.

Q Last year, TM successfully completed the implementation of an organisation-wide Agile HR model. What was the business driver and need for this massive transformation?

Operating in a highly competitive and dynamic telecommunication industry, TM is undergoing a transformation in its business and organisation. This transformation demands HR to play an active role, especially to execute the three 'PEOPLE2020' strategic thrusts. These are:

  1. Remobilising the people so the right number with the right skills are deployed at the right place and time;
  2. Rethinking people investment to future-proof the staff and develop capabilities; and
  3. Reengaging organisational values to internalise desirable work culture.

In order to drive HR’s capability to execute these strategies and support the company transformation, in October 2019 we embarked on a new operating model based on the Agile way of working. This also gives us the ability to be more customer centric, fast to adapt and learn.

aditi oct 2020 farid basir telekom malaysia chro pic with quote provided resized lead.jpg

Q There are so many aspects to agile HR, all driven by the need to modernise, digitalise and deliver value at speed. What does agile HR mean to you and your organisation, in terms of the objectives or pillars that you set out to achieve?

Agile HR to us means three things, namely a new way of organising, a new way of working and a new way of decision making.

a) A new way of organising
Instead of purely separated by functions, there are now many more cross-functional teams (squads) aligned to business priorities. These squads are accountable for the outcome, and are evaluated on customer centric and business measures.

b) A new way of working
During daily huddles, the squads review progress and identify roadblocks. Initiative delivery takes an iterative approach, where iterations are continuously improved based on customer feedback.

c) A new way of decision making
The squads are empowered to make decisions that are customer- and business-driven. This accelerates initiative development and delivery. Additionally, leaders play a critical role to de-bottleneck any obstacle faced by the squads.

Agile covers three key elements, namely how we organise, how we work and our mindset and behaviours. This is illustrated below:

agile model 

Q Implementing agile HR must have included a complete rehaul of your models – in terms of agile mindset, structure and methodology. Talk us through specifically what changed, what needed to change, and what continues undergoing change?

You’re right, a thorough #AgileHR implementation should cover the three elements- method, structure and mindset.

Firstly - Agile Methods, which is about managing projects in shorter, interactive work cycles and constantly collecting customer (employee) feedback.

Secondly, Agile Structure which involves organising the HR function around customer-centric teams with greater empowerment & decision-making authority.

The most important but perhaps the most challenging is Agile Mindset, which requires us to think of HR’s role as providing products that evolve rather than resources that are final.

In our case, to kick-off our Agile HR journey, firstly the squad set-up needed to be in place. This is the ‘structure’ aspect of Agile. Mapping against our priorities, each squad works on delivering the key outcomes of the key strategic pillars. Each squad has clear missions, measures of success, and workstreams. They are arranged cross-functionally, with the customer as the core of the effort.

Agile is new to almost all of our staff, so squad members underwent a crash course in Agile to learn its methods, ceremonies and philosophies. This was when the Agile mindset was first inculcated, and the Agile methodologies introduced among the members.

It was also important for us to understand the customer. Therefore, customer reach-out programmes were done, including design thinking, empathy sessions, surveys and so on. From there, the squads carried on to deliver their mission, using the Agile methodologies.

Efforts continue to be made to inculcate business and customer centricity into Agile HR practitioners, so that they are able to relate HR outcomes to business value drivers. This is to ensure the initiatives are always contributing to business objectives. Additionally, we continue to explore ways to flip other functions in HR to be run in the Agile way.

Q More on the execution front – this remains a relatively new concept for HR teams to spearhead. What are your secrets to managing such an in-depth project, in terms of getting stakeholder buy-in and involvement, on-ground execution, pilot testing, and more?

A key success factor in a project like this is change management, both at leadership level and squad level.

Leadership support and buy-in go a long way in ensuring adoption by the organisation. To do this, immersion programmes were held with key leaders, to share success stories. Regular Agile showcases were also done so leaders a kept abreast of the squads’ progress and challenges.

At the squad level, the members were trained in agile way of working, agile manifesto and principles. Sprint planning, daily huddles, backlog refinements and retrospective to ensure that executions are delivered by sprint, tied to the mission of the respective squads.

Agile coaches (scrum masters) guide the members in Agile methods and facilitate the running of the squads as well as resolve obstacles. The coaches also measure the Squad Maturity Index in every sprint, to ensure the squads continue to make improvements towards full Agile way.

Q What were the challenges the team faced in planning and implementing this initiative? How did you overcome them?

One of the challenges faced, especially at the very beginning of our journey, was the lack of interest from staff to join the Agile squads.

To address this, we conducted a number of engagement sessions, spearheaded by CHRO to share on the purpose of the squads and how it can help drive value to the organisation. Answering the ever important “what’s in it for me?” question, we also shared how their participation will help to add value to each individual – from improvement of work, gaining new knowledge and working collaboratively.

As a result, currently almost 120 HR staff have participated in the 13 squads that we have, under five tribes.

Another challenge was the lack of clear understanding of what Agile is. For this, we conducted training on agile way of working, sharing sessions on best practices, and hands on experience with the agile way of working while in the squad. As a result, they are able to deliver amazing outcomes that contribute towards business goals.

Q Moving on to the most exciting part – the results! One year down the line, what have been the milestones or metrics you’d like to share on your agile journey? 

We are happy to have seen positive outcomes from our HR squads.

For example, under our Reskilling squad, we train non-sales staff so they have the skill and interest to be the company’s sales and service ambassadors.

As at August 2020, we have managed to increase over ten-fold the number of staff trained as compared to before Agile. More importantly, these staff have contributed over RM60mn of new sales to the Company.

Under the Future-skilling squad, again the number of staff trained has increased dramatically, this time over 20-fold.

As another example, the Wellbeing360 squad was able to redesign our employee engagement programmes to adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic, at the same time multiply the number of participation, as well as maintain a consistent satisfaction level of 4.6 over 5.00 from the participants during all programs.

Our Single Employee App (SEA) squad have developed an in-house app within two months each for Career Conversation and Talent Calibration. The app enabled more than 10,000 career conversations during the COVID-19 Lockdown that resulted in more than 30,000 70/20/10 development plans. Through in-house app development, we have saved almost MYR2 million.

Q Looking back at your agile HR journey, what is one best practice you would recommend to other HR leaders looking to go down the same path, and what is one pitfall leaders should avoid? Is there anything you would have done differently?

Apart from effective change management, the role of leaders cannot be understated in this transformation. They must provide clear insights to drive high value outcomes, participate in Agile rituals, provide empowerment, embrace uncertainty and debottleneck large obstacles.

Organisations must avoid embarking on this journey without clarity of purpose and exhaustiveness in squad design. The squads must have a clear mission, tied to a specific organisation value driver.

The workstreams and composition of squad members must be exhaustive to ensure that the squads can deliver outcomes more effectively. Squads should follow MECE principle – mutually exclusive (ME) and collectively exhaustive (CE), while at the same time the squads composition should not be too large or too small, around 5-15 people.

A note before we end. Agile HR is still new in Malaysia. I believe HR practitioners with #Agile skills will be in high demand as more and more organisations start to implement this new way of working. So, getting involved in Agile now is one of the best ways to gain a unique advantage for our personal career growth.

Photo / Provided