The art of connecting

Usha Baidya, HR vice president for Asia, Middle East and Africa at BT Global Services, speaks to Rebecca Lewis about connectivity and collaboration being the keys to building a healthy organisation.

VITAL STATS: Usha Baidya is responsible for managing human resources for BT across the AMEA region. She has been with BT for seven years and shifted to Hong Kong in November 2014 in her first role outside the UK with the business. She has had 15 years of experience in HR.

Let’s start with a bit of background information.

I joined BT seven years ago. I’ve worked in a number of roles within BT, within global services, technology services and operations, and my recent role is the appointment to the AMEA region with the HRVP role based in Hong Kong. I’m responsible for over 5,800 employees in this region.

You stepped into your new role in November last year. What are some things high on your agenda for 2015?

There are a few things both from a BT perspective and an HR perspective in creating a healthier organisation. We’ve done a lot of research around the fact that healthier companies adapt to change better and quicker and we’re focusing on strengthening our leadership capabilities. I guess the big ticket items for me are around engagement, leadership and our overall investment in our senior leaders. My focus is really on creating more energy around the business.

Having just moved to Hong Kong, what are some of the differences you’ve noticed about working in BT here as opposed to the UK?

I actually thought I’d notice more of a difference, but I must say that from first-hand experience now of moving from one country to another, the culture within BT is quite similar. The transition hasn’t been a challenge in that respect – the same passion and energy is something that’s very visible in the Hong Kong office. One difference is that it’s more diverse and even more of a cultural melting pot, but the culture is still quite similar in the business. I think it’s quite positive that the transition hasn’t been such a challenge. There’s something that links us all together.

That must be reassuring from an HR perspective to see how the corporate culture carries across borders?

Yes, and it must be one of the most frequently asked questions about what’s different, but there are actually so many similarities in terms of the underlying connection we all have to the BT values and people agenda. Everyone knows the direction we’re going in and the environment and the culture actually breeds itself which is very reassuring.

Everyone knows the direction we’re going in and the environment and the culture actually breeds itself which is very reassuring.

Within BT, I understand HR has a big focus on technology. What sort of advances has BT seen within its HR technology in recent years and where is this headed?

We are investing in HR technology. This year we will be launching a new HR home, which will be a global portal for all our systems, processes and policies in one place. We’re making it easier for the business to do business with HR, and setting ourselves up with a structure that allows us to achieve business growth. This is something we’re very focused on.

If I link it back to creating a healthier vibe – improving the efficiency in terms of bringing our experts together – one of the things we are looking at is our HR operating model and making sure that everyone has a very clear access to a shared service, which has instant access to HR professionals for all our employees across the globe. This also frees up our strategic HR business partners to partner with the business in terms of driving the strategic agenda.

That’s a large rollout. How will it change how BT manages and shares data and information? Investing in tech gives us the ability to be very clear in terms of access to HR, and also being clear about the HRBP and the way they have access to data and information. In 2015, we will launch a new portal to give leaders the ability to manage their HR tasks a lot more freely.

Years and years ago, often it would be HR that would hold information and line managers would have to go through HR to get that information. So it’s really exciting when you think about performance data, recruitment data or annual leave data, that it will all be in one portal to access directly. Technology is enabling us to work differently.

We launched it in the UK in December and we are scheduled to launch in other regions, including AMEA and the US later this year. It’s a huge investment, and it also makes us very clear about our role as a function, and the ability for line managers to be able to access information at their fingertips.

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Will this new portal give you the means to better utilise workforce data in more strategic ways such as using predictive analytics?

I think we need to get a bit smarter about using predictive analysis. We do have access to a lot of data and I think with the investment in our HR technology we will see a lot more use of predictive analysis to be able to see and manage trends on workforce management. To use that data for strategic workforce planning, I think we need to upskill the business and the HRBPs to focus a lot more on that. We have to get smarter in terms of focusing on how we use that data to enable the business.

What are some of the biggest difficulties to be aware of when rolling out something this big?

I think it’s about the engagement with the business and HR community. One of the things we’re known for as a function is our change management capabilities and making sure we engage with the business continually. The initial feedback from the UK has been positive in terms of access to information and our change and engagement communications has helped on this journey.

When you’re managing such a large and diverse workforce, how do you ensure everyone stays on the same page?

One of the things we focus on is around making sure everyone understands the strategy and the purpose. We’ve invested in leaders who are able to inspire and develop teams. We’ve found over the last few years that if we make sure we invest in the leaders of the business then they are able to articulate BT’s purpose and our strategy. They can then roll that out within their teams and everyone knows the direction we are moving in. That enables us to put the customer first in everything we do, and it makes sure we’re continuously sharing information.

The focus for me over the next few months will be making sure our leaders are able to coach and develop individuals and that they have a learning and career path that are very clear to individuals as well.

We’ve also got the BT Academy, which is another launch that we’ve done. Having an academy to give people clarity around not only self-development and career pathways, but also collaboration for all the tech, enables people to have access to experts within their field or even another profession in the organisation. So there’s some exciting stuff happening.

We’ve found over the last few years that if we make sure we invest in the leaders of the business then they are able to articulate BT’s purpose and our strategy.

Can you tell us a bit more about the BT Academy?

It’s a new launch (in January 2015) and it is our new approach to learning and to deliver programmes to connect more than 80,000 employees. It’s a combination of full programmes and the academy is a combination of tools, programmes and communities to help us learn, share and collaborate. It’s around focusing on continuously developing and allowing people to develop their skills and careers as well as connecting the community together.

Everyone in BT will be a member of one of 28 professions (a profession is a group of people who have similar professional skills, common experience and similar capabilities) and it will not be bound by a business unit; it is a global rollout. These 28 professions are grouped around four faculties – customer, technical, business and leadership.

It’s an opportunity for individuals to share information. So, if you were in a particular profession and you needed access to an expert, you should be able to get access to that individual. It’s also an exciting way to allow individuals to either map out a career pathway and have informative conversations with line managers that gives them clarity around what capabilities they may need for their next role, or expand knowledge in their current role.

We hope this becomes a part of our DNA where people understand we’re encouraging people to learn on the job, but also think about their future aspirations.

This collaborative way of learning is a new direction for BT. How does it compare with other similar companies’ approach?

The BT Academy launch has been run by one of our group functions and they’ve done a lot of research in terms of looking at best practices within companies that have a very similar infrastructure. It’s a learning home that we’ve benchmarked against a number of companies across the globe.

The information we have on there and how it can be used is a new way of learning – not just on the job, but also for sharing it. It will be as good as we make it, but ensuring line managers understand the opportunities to make it work and individuals understand how to get the most out of it is key.

How does BT’s investment in senior leaders tie into this?

We’ve always invested in our senior managers and we’ve extended this investment with something called the leadership challenge programme. It’s just one of the programmes targeted at senior leaders. We also launched a pioneers programme for first-line leaders, and a challenging leadership in action for our middle managers as well.

Over the last 18 months, leaders have been going through this programme for between one to four days, and it’s an investment in terms of the expectation of leaders within the organisation. The reason we’ve focused on leadership is our commitment around performance and health. We did some research which found that healthy companies perform better than unhealthy companies, and so to improve our performance we’ve invested in the health of our organisation from a leadership perspective.

How will you track the progress and measure the “healthiness” of BT moving forward?

In our employee survey, we ask questions around learning and development, and so we see the benefits of development and the opportunities that are out there for sharing or receiving knowledge. We should be able to measure these new initiatives in the next two or three quarters as people get more familiar with using the portals. It’s about the art of connecting, beyond the role they’re in or the country they’re in.

Everyone wants access to instant answers or a quick response to a question. People want those answers instantly, and the more we use the academy the more we’ll see the effect of this richness of data and information. The more we use it, the more we’ll see the knowledge in that portal will grow, and that itself will be a valuable investment.

We did some research which found that healthy companies perform better than unhealthy companies, and so to improve our performance we’ve invested in the health of our organisation from a leadership perspective.

And it will become ingrained in BT’s culture. How would you describe the corporate culture today?

It’s probably quite a timely question given that I’ve been quite reflective on culture having just entered this region. The culture is about innovation, it’s about collaboration and it’s about learning, and this is all underpinned by our values. BT’s values are something which we hold strong.

When we think about what we need to do in terms of focusing on company health as well as performance, the only way we can do that is working in an environment that brings out the best in our people. That’s why my focus on creating a healthier organisation is around giving clarity and ensuring each individual knows the role they play and what they’re delivering for BT – from a purpose and a strategy perspective.

Then there’s also the culture around investing in our leaders, and I think it’s great to be able to work with leaders who inspire and develop a team, and who create an environment where everyone is given the opportunity to succeed. The launch of the BT Academy is a step in that direction.

How much does diversity and inclusion practices play a part in BT’s culture?

I think it’s something that we definitely embrace, and it’s exemplified by my role as well.

I’m now one of four women who sit on the regional management team within BT in AMEA, so I think in terms of the way that we operate it’s something we live and breathe. It is a best practice for us, and BT is ranked one of the top 10 private organisations in terms of diversity, so it’s definitely something we wholeheartedly embrace.

You’ve been working in HR for 15 years. How have you seen HR evolve?

HR are now true allies of the leaders of the business. If I think about what I was probably doing 15 years ago which was probably providing data, but not manipulating or exploiting it – I think there’s a demand now from the business and from CEOs for HR to partner with them.

To be able to do that we’ve seen a shift in the way we’ve upskilled from a functional perspective. We truly ally with the leaders of the business and we have a critical role to play in a management team, and I think that’s the biggest change from a positioning perspective.

That’s mostly really happened in the past five years or so.

Yes, and I think in that time CEOs have recognised that to maintain and grow and develop the business, you need to be able to define your talent strategy and set the tone from a cultural perspective. It’s something that’s integral to running their part of the business and that’s been the shift in terms of functional expertise of HR.