Education and cultural transformation

Back in September of this year, Obis Omni were kind enough to invite me to speak at their Forum 2008, which took place on the outskirts of London and had the theme of “Realising Business Intelligence & Corporate Performance Management Success”.

The strap-line of my presentation was “EMIR – A case study in cultural change”. I have written about some of the themes that I discussed at this seminar elsewhere on this blog (e.g. about the importance of promoting your project in Marketing Change and the strong role to be played by extended business teams in Scaling-up Performance Management). In this article I am going to talk about some aspects of the pivotal area of education.
 
Obis Omni
 
Background on The EMIR Project can be found elsewhere on this site. Briefly it was a business intelligence / data-warehousing project aimed at improving the profitability of the European operations of a multinational insurance organisation.

More importantly, EMIR was always seen as primarily a cultural transformation initiative. The explicit aim of the system was to transform the culture of the organisation into one in which the use of credible, timely and easy-to-use information became as much second nature as picking up the telephone. Of course one initial learning here is that if you are in the business of cultural transformation, it helps an awful lot to tell people that this is the case. Having this element as a public goal was of great assistance.
 
 
Making a good first impression

Having already established a strong extended business team (see the links in the first paragraph above) the project team also realised that there was another important group to win over; our first set of 20 or so training delegates. We felt that if they went back to their offices singing the praises of EMIR then this, supported by the voices of the extended team would give us the necessary momentum to carry us through the first training phase and make a great start to our cultural change work.

It is often said (perhaps sometimes glibly) that as much attention should be paid to the deployment of IT systems as to their development. Many IT managers may not truly believe this in their heart-of-hearts, perhaps an “if I build it, they will come” attitude is sometimes more prevalent. However, with the EMIR project we took the educational aspect extremely seriously.

To start with this we made EMIR training a 3-day event, something that was unprecedented in IT training in the organisation. Second, we insisted that all delegates (the senior managers of the European organisation) travel to London to attend the course*. One reason for the duration was that we wanted to cover a lot of ground, but also we wanted to send a message that this was an important event and merited the devotion of an appropriate amount of time.

A lot of effort and thought went into the presentations that would be made, the different styles of training (some lecture style, more hands-on), the quality of the supporting training materials, the arrangement of the rooms and so on. I assigned one of my senior managers to oversee the training and we also employed an external training consultant to help us design the courses and user guides and achieve the professional look that we were going for.
 
 
The importance of real-life examples

Sometimes training simply explains how to use the technical features of a system, but, again, we were in the business of cultural transformation and so this shifted opur emphasis. Because of this, and also because the system was pretty intuitive and easy to use, in training we focussed on using the system to address real-life business problems. One example of this would be estimating the future profitability of a book of business based on historical trends.

This approach meant that the business value inherent in the system was clearly demonstrated. This was not an IT system, it was a business system. A key first step in changing the behaviour of managers was establishing that there was something in it for them; namely that they could get at information that was previously unavailable, that access to information was quick and easy and that their decision-making would be enhanced. Ticking these boxes through our real-life exercises helped to engage the enthusiasm of delegates and made them more receptive to our other proposals for how to build use of the system into their day-to-day lives.

This business-focussed training was initially carried out by our actuaries, however as demand for training soared in later weeks, I also ran many of these workshops. It was potentially a major challenge for an IT person to be telling insurance underwriters how to run their business, but something that I actually enjoyed very much. While discussing training personnel, we always had at least two people present in the classes as well as the lead trainer. The role of these other people was to check that delegates were keeping up and help anyone who was struggling with an exercise. We did not want anyone to fall so far behind that they became disengaged from the programme.
 
 
Breaking the back of cultural change

Our approach worked and our first twenty delegates became converts to the EMIR cause. Before the first training session, delegates has (understandably) been somewhat reluctant to commit so significant a period of time to the training process. After it an example of the type of message that attendees took back with them to their offices was: –

“This is the best management information I have seen, it represents a big leap forward”

It was not all down-hill from this point and a further article will deal with how we sustained cultural change over the latter stages of this project. However, after this initial success, some things became easier and we had safely negotiated what was probably the largest hurdle in the project.

Given this, I was quite happy to release some project funds for champagne at the end of our first three days, but should stress that the project was brought in under budget nevertheless.
 


 
Continue reading about this area in: Sustaining Cultural Change.
 
 
Note: –

* In latter training phases – having succeeded in making our point – training was often carried out in each European country, something I will cover in the future.
 

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