Four years ago, the Victorian state government was to outsource its IT division, CenITex, an organisation that provides ICT support. Catherine Proud was hired as the human resources director, with a mandate to manage the HR function of the group prior to closure.
But the government changed its mind, and suddenly the mandate changed – build a vibrant, fast-moving, effective IT organisation to help serve Victoria. This required process and culture change. Catherine talks to HFL about the journey.
It sounds like you’ve had an interesting few years?
Yes. When I joined CenITex four years ago there was a plan to outsource all of the organisation’s functions. I would have been the last person standing – we were going to close the organisation down. But the Government undertook a major service delivery review, and the decision was made to retain CenITex.
CenITex provides ICT services to the Victorian government. We service a number of departments and agencies, but it’s only a fraction of what we could potentially provide.
So what did that mean for you?
It meant a lot of significant restructuring, and some soul-searching about why we are here. Essentially, we realised that the rationale for CenITex’s existence is to enable the Victorian public service to be modern, agile, and productive.
It also made us see that we were very technically focused. “Our name is short for ‘Centre of IT Excellence’, and we have always had an internal focus. We realised that had to change.”
This was very interesting for me because I have also been a customer of CenITex, when I worked at VicForests. That helped me understand what we were trying to do. At the time VicForests was a new agency trying to get up and running quickly. CenITex was telling us that they could do something for us in 15 months, but the Government was expecting us to do it in six months. That helped me understand the frustrations of the customer.
So we realised that our focus needed to be on the customer and their requirements, and not so much on IT. That meant understanding the concept of partnering and the customer’s needs and requirements. We had to focus on solutions, rather than the latest technology.
So that forced you to think differently?
Yes. After the initial outsourcing announcement, everybody thought they would be moving to a new employer or were considering career changes. But when it was realised that CenITex would be doing the work there was quite a bit of disappointment in some areas.
We had to refocus and work out what sort of organisation we wanted to be. We had to move from being very technical and internally focused to getting out and talking with customers.
“It was a completely different skill set – and a different mindset. Some of our staff actually said things like ‘I don’t talk to customers’. That was the mindset we were dealing with.”
Some wanted to do it but were really nervous about talking to the customer and worried about what the customer might say. They were very technical people and this was outside their comfort zone.
I remember one of our technical guys being worried that he wouldn’t be able to answer customer’s questions, which would make it look like he wasn’t as much of an expert as he actually was. That sort of feeling was widespread. People were scared of having to say things like ‘I have to check with my colleague and get back to you’.
So, how did you get people to change?
We took two approaches and we started developing soft skills and business awareness in our technical team using the expertship programs.
Our Service Delivery team comprised three quarters of the staff of the whole organisation. They are technical and were mostly domain experts who stayed within their area of expertise. They didn’t mix with other areas of the organisation because they felt they didn’t need to. There was no cross skilling. That was what we had to change.
We started by creating greater accountability. We found that people were talking to each other for the first time, even though they worked for the same organisation and worked on the same floor.
We had to get people to actually take control of the work they were doing.
“Too many people were not seeing the big picture, so they couldn’t understand how they could contribute in other ways.”
They only understood their own narrow role. We had to make people understand that they are in charge of their career and that they shouldn’t be waiting for someone to tap them on the shoulder.
We were dealing with highly intelligent people with very technical skill sets, but who were working in very constrained roles. We wanted them to understand – and to fulfil – their potential. We needed them to meet with customers and have the confidence to work with them on some of their issues. We had to get rid of the ‘that’s not my job’ mentality.
How did the Expertship program help?
The Expertship program helped our technical people understand that they are not so different to other people. “It helped them understand that they are part of the team, and that other people are concerned about helping them grow their careers. The Expertship program is unique in that way.”
It presents everything in practical terms and makes the participants realise that this is not all theory, and that somebody understands the issues they are facing. It just makes such a difference.
It’s like there is an old world and a new world. In the old world someone in infrastructure might get a call only if something stops working. On 99 days out of 100 everything works perfectly and everybody is happy. The technical people and their customers don’t really know about each other because there are no problems. Everybody feels they have a clear career path.
What were your initial thoughts about the Expertship program?
I think anybody going on a new course wonders why they are there. “So many management courses just don’t hit the mark. But the feedback from the first people we sent on the program was very positive.”
I was struck with the breadth of the course. All seven of our people who went on the pilot program came up with quite different development plans. They all took different bits out of the 20 or so topics, because we had a range of different types of different types of technical on the program.
Also important is the fact that the program doesn’t finish when they walk out the door. Expertunity stays in in contact with people who have been on the program, which keeps what they have learned in the investment they have made front of mind.
Many people thanked us for the investment we made in them. It was the first thing like this we done for a long time.
“They realised we were investing in them as people and not just their technical skills. That’s very important.”
With what you’ve learnt, how do you determine who goes on the program?
We give a lot of thought to who we want to invest in—understanding who our talent is and making sure they are going on the program. We’re developing a talent matrix so we can identify those who really go the extra mile and will rise up through the ranks. We look at both technical and leadership aspects.
“We look at people’s ability to handle complex projects, their ability to coach others, their learning agility, and a range of other things.” We’re trying to get as many people involved as possible. It’s a culture change. People have to change their mindset about this stuff. “They have to listen to people as opposed to just making my point and win my position’.”
And as far as the expertship program is concerned, we want to get the best out of it given the amount of money we have invested in it. Are we getting the best out of it? How can we further embed the learning that this program? How can we really make it stay alive for people and for it to continually be front of mind? How can we get the managers more involved? The alumni initiative we have started is a good first step, and I know that changes to the way the program is delivered – including coaching sessions now after the workshop component – that’s also helping.
“We have a great deal more to do but we’re in a very positive space as an organisation now, and it’s been a great journey”.
CenITex, led by Catherine Proud, were one of the very earliest adopters and supporters of Expertunity’s expertship programs, now supported by over 35 companies in Australasia, Asia, the US, and Europe. The organisation has put more than 50 people through the program, and continues to send participants to nearly every Melbourne program. Expertunity is a wholly owned subsidiary of HFL Leadership.