human resources online

Q&A with Haroon Bhatti, CHRO at Digi Telecommunications

The freedom to innovate

Vital stats: Haroon Bhatti has been with the Telenor Group in HR leadership roles across Pakistan, Thailand, Bangladesh, and Malaysia, since May 2005, having started as a budget and process co-ordinator. He took up the role of CHRO at Digi in July 2013, having previously been the senior vice-president of people development at Telenor Asia.

Q. Having been with Telenor for more than a decade, how did the HR challenges vary across the countries you’ve worked?

Like a business S-curve, there is also an organisational S-curve. When you start out at the bottom, everything is growing – you are recruiting in large volumes, building the culture. For mature companies in the middle of the curve, the challenges are slightly different because what made them successful may not be the same dynamic that will take them forward. There are usually calls for changing the pace, as they may find new, nimble competitors in the market. So how you respond to that and continue to be successful are the core challenges.

Coming to the end of the S-curve, where one cycle of the industry is maturing, requires an entirely different transformation than just reinventing – because you’re now not in the core industry you used to be, you’re moving in a different direction which has different demands on competence, leadership and cultural aspects, and how you manage the transition.

Knowing where your organisation happens to be on that S-curve is important because then you can deploy the right kind of HR strategies.

Q. Is your role with Digi somewhat towards the end of the S-curve?

Certainly, and we have been fortunate to have not waited until the very end of this journey. We have anticipated and started preparing ourselves. We know that times are a lot faster these days than 10 years ago, so it’s partly a race against time as well as with ourselves.

Q. What helps you to anticipate business needs during this transition?

For me, HR can never be viewed in a way that is detached from the business. First and foremost, one has to understand where the business is headed, and then deeply embed HR strategies within the overall company strategies. Since I am part of the management team, I know exactly what is happening with the business strategy and the competition.

I rely on alternative sources as well, not just stable benchmarks or standards, but potential challenges that may disrupt our business in the months or quarters to come.

But every organisation has its core DNA which typically should not change. For us that has been what we call the “Telenor way” – our values, leadership attitudes, customer approach, ethics and code of conduct. This collection of principles is how we do business and engage with business partners. Apart from our DNA, everything is up for fresh insight.

On a personal note, I enjoy reading and my interests happen to be diverse. There are so many data points one has to pick out, that deep down inside, you know that half the knowledge may be in knowing what you don’t know. The sooner you realise that, the faster you can move to learning it.

Q. What model do you use for your HR team?

Previously we had a classic HR business partner (HRBP) model, with the business partners reporting into me, and partnering with other divisions such as marketing and IT to look after their needs. We also had the centre of expertise (CoE) where HR products were created based on the needs of the client divisions, and the HR shared service centre (HRSS).

We had been evolving the HRSS for quite some time, digitising our employee experiences, and we landed at a stage where we felt the product designers in CoE and the service providers in HRSS needed to work much tighter together in a world that has gone digital. So we merged the two in January this year.

Knowing where your organisation happens to be on that S-curve is important because then you can deploy the right kind of HR strategies.

The net result of this is when the BPs and their clients in different divisions and line managers have a need for a product, it gets designed in a very integrated way, where we don’t just look at the product, but whether it will have some associated services, and how it will be collectively maintained over time.

We are experimenting with the classic HRBP model to push the boundaries for the future.

Q. Can you share with us the context of your recent revamp of the employer brand?

In January 2015, we rolled out a refreshed mother brand, having given a lot of thought to who our customers are today and tomorrow, and how we can attract and retain the talent to serve those customers. We put together a lot of research – based on conversations with current employees, interns, boomerangs – and a pattern started to emerge hovering around a few key themes.

A few workshops and management discussions later, we landed on what we consider a very compelling value proposition – “freedom to inspire the next”. Simply put, we will give employees the freedom of a start-up with the stability of a blue-chip company. Innovate, let your ideas do the magic, without worrying if the company is going to be here tomorrow.

The other part of this story is that this freedom is not just a part of the refreshed brand, it is in Digi’s core DNA. Freedom has come in many forms, but we never used the word “freedom” to describe it. For instance, we have an open office, no fixed desk even for the CEO. We have the freedom for feedback – we actively encourage people to challenge their bosses, especially when they feel closer to the reality. Freedom also comes in the form of striking a conversation without regard for hierarchy, without going through secretaries and appointments. 

These different shapes of freedom allow employees to push their innovative ideas through, and use their freedom to create impact, be it to create the “next” innovation, the “next” service for customers or the “next” “Digizen”, what we call our employees.

The rollout started with an internal launch which was very well-received by the employees, after which we went external on social media. Since then, our LinkedIn followership has doubled, between August 2015 and the end of the year, but we still have a lot of room to catch up there.

We also continued to launch very exciting talent products, such as CXO Apprentice for fresh graduates, and the Women Inspiration Network for aspiring leaders. We believe getting women into leadership positions is genuinely good for business, and we are really trying to advance our composition of female employees.

Q. Do you have a gender diversity target in mind?

Generally we don’t set hard targets because two things happen – once you meet them, you think your job is done; and sometimes you are driven by the target more than the reason you are doing it.

Having said that, we do have ambitions. Currently our workforce split is 44% female. At the board level we are at 43%, which is higher than the ambitions set by the Malaysian government. When it comes to management, we have made progress, but there is room for improvement.



The extended management, i.e, the CEO minus two levels, is where we have made the most inroads by exposing talented female employees to opportunities earlier in their career. We are currently at 39% female leaders, but this is a journey for us.

Q. As positively as the new employer brand was accepted, what did you learn along the way?

We have been deliberate and conservative on this one project, using the last year to build some foundation, and 2016 to take that momentum forward. 

One thing we could do a lot more going forward is to start leveraging our outreach through social media channels. Digi historically has relied on traditional channels for brand building such as job fairs and university campuses – but our mix going forward, in terms of time, energy and resources, is likely to shift heavily towards social media because this is where our future audience is.

Q. What progress have you made in your employer branding journey in the past six months?

We plan to do a structured review in a due period of time. In the meantime, one way we measure progress is when we explain to the candidates we want to hire what we stand for – and if telling them the Digi story of who we are and what we plan to give them to create magic gets them really excited.

The second core segment is our own talented employees and how they see their future with us. Is this the kind of brand that excites them to stay put and start the next chapter of their professional life with us? And that has come true as well. We have not been in a losing situation when it comes to talent for key positions. In fact, in some ways we have been a net-net exporter as well!

If the last six months were a pilot, I am very happy with the results and how they resonate with the key talent segments we want to acquire. Now I think the conversation is going to shift to using all the channels at our disposal, primarily social media, and let the world know.

There’s one key talent segment we are going to chase in due time, which is Malaysians working around the world, who for whatever reason want to come back. This is a very deliberate attempt at what we call globalising local leaders, and this initiative has two streams. First, when these Malaysians want to come back home, we want to be their first-choice brand, be it leaders, specialists or others.

The second stream is with Digi being part of Telenor. We are very happy to export our people to different Telenor companies, so they learn and grow there, and come back. As we speak, there are 26 individuals floating out in the Telenor world, a magic number that has gone up from zero in the last two to three years.

With our industry competing with global players, why shouldn’t our leaders have the thinking to compete globally?

Q. There is also the piece about digital HR you’re invested in, tell us about that.

We are going through a fairly sizeable transformation around digital HR – which to us is about digitising employees’ and potential employees’ experiences end-to-end.

There’s one key talent segment we are going to chase in due time, which is Malaysians working around the world, who for whatever reason want to come back.

It is not about converting everything into apps as automation could have been done 10 years ago. Digital HR is about looking holistically at the experience that employees go through, and making sure it’s a fantastic experience in line with our brand. It makes them say, “wow” – this is the company I want to be with. And for us, that means changing the way we work, and killing things that don’t make sense.

We have split it into a few pillars. One series of applications are simply there to boost productivity. As a use case, we have converted all our expenses – payroll reporting to employees, travel authorisations, expense claims – into an application.

The traditional process was where people would travel and come back to office and affix their receipts on A4 paper. Now, with their phone, they need literally 30 seconds to fill up a few things, take a picture of their receipts, and file their claims by the time they sit in their cabs.

The biggest beneficiaries of this have been our field force, our sales people, who instead of selling and fixing towers, had to earlier worry about filing expenses. Giving employees the ability to self-service queries on overtime and pay has really reduced the load on our query management team. Besides, it serves the employees’ very human need to know where things are and at which level their expense authorisation currently is in the approval cycle.

We also discovered through our audit, that because the old process was so cumbersome and you had to click through so many screens, some managers would simply approve the receipts without seeing them. Now, it takes them literally one click to see what it is. In terms of productivity, this has really liberated people, not just to be more focused in what they need to do, but also reduce the cash flow burden on heavily travelling teams.

The second pillar of digital HR has been the digitisation of the goods and services our employees consume. One quick example on that is the physical vouchers we used to give our employees every two years, which they could redeem for a mobile phone at a retail shop by topping up what they needed – that was a very analogue experience.

Now, they get an electronic promotion code through which they can go to our mobile or online store and buy any device they like. Not only is it a much bigger inventory, but that mobile code acts as a discount, and the device is then delivered to your house.

Finally, we have a lot of things around analytics. When it comes to digital, we’re really pushing the boundaries. For example, we’re taking on the classic way of recruiting. We’re running a pilot now on interviewing, assessing and evaluating people in a digital world, and that means doing two things.

First, using data analytics to understand who is a better fit with us. And second, creating an experience which allows us more assessing ability in less time. We are piloting video interviews, where candidates answer five to six questions in the first go, in the form of short videos, which the assessors, whether they happen to be from line or HR, can evaluate on their mobiles, and upload their ratings. Instead of waiting to bring everyone together because of their scheduling conflicts, we can get immediate feedback on the candidate.

At the same time, we are collecting a lot of insight which we make a point to analyse – see what kind of profiles, backgrounds and competencies have been successful. This part is much harder, and we are piloting this in our retail stores, where we are trying to link our assessments (driven by this logic) to things like situation judgement tests. The idea is to construct an algorithm, and then use a feedback loop to evaluate that with every batch coming in. We are very curious to see the results of this pilot.

Generally we don’t set hard targets because two things happen – once you meet them, you think your job is done; and sometimes you're driven by the target more than the reason you're doing it.

Q. What kind of metrics do you have to measure the success of this initiative?

Just like the employer branding, we don’t want to get swayed by too-positive early results. The results on penetration have been fantastic. The month of the launch, our applications hit about a 60% uptake rate, and within the first four months it jumped to 75%. We have an ambition to drive it to 100% within the next 12 months.

From a change management perspective, we are not killing the analogue channel entirely yet, although we have killed many aspects of it. We are confident the digital experiences are much superior and better, and we will convince our colleagues who have not evolved to them yet.

Images: Provided

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