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Interview

“THINK”, IBM’s ubiquitous motto, was first coined by CEO Thomas J. Watson Snr, in 1915. Today, the company is as reliant on human thought as ever, as competition in the sector grows. In the UK and Ireland, the task of getting the right talent in the right frame of mind, in order to drive the business
forward is, Jane Marsh, HR Director. Jason Spiller interviews.

Jane, give us an idea of your early career and why HR appealed.  

This is in fact my first role in HR and I am three years into it. Previously though, I worked as an employment lawyer, which meant my clients were usually in the HR function, and this was a great preparation for many of the aspects of HR I deal with now. As an employment lawyer, my first in-house role was in the city, working for a broking house, then called Cantor Fitzgerald. When I joined IBM, I came into the legal department, moving after about four years from a focus on employment law to pensions law. In that role, as well as covering UK pensions law, I also led a team of IBM lawyers covering pensions law across Europe, and from that post, I was asked to take on the role as HR Director. It didn’t take me very long to accept what I saw as an amazing challenge, so yes, in terms of time, I am a relative newcomer to the function, although I have to say, it doesn’t really feel like that, and my background, has always been a very sound platform on which to build the HR acumen.

What was happening at IBM when you joined?  

This was around eleven years ago, and one of the first key changes that I experienced, in terms of how both the legal team and HR operate, is that we were becoming truly globally integrated. We have always been well networked as an organisation, in the legal team for example, and when I joined, we already had a team of lawyers covering HR matters in every country. In that environment, I learned a lot about the legal backdrop across all the countries in which we operate. Also, as global initiatives rolled out, all the lawyers were dealing with a desire to reach the same end point, so everyone gains a strong awareness of cross border requirements. As I moved into the HR function, that integration journey was continuing apace with a global reorganisation of the HR function, bringing teams together from across the world to work on common initiatives.

Give us an idea of the heart of IBM and what makes it tick.  

IBM is focused on bringing innovative solutions to a diverse client base, to help solve some of their toughest business challenges. In addition to being the world’s largest IT and consulting services company, it’s a global business and technology leader, innovating in research and development to shape the future of society at large. Our research, development and technical talent around the world, partners with governments, corporations, thinkers and doers on ground-breaking real-world problems, to help make the world work better. So from an “IBMer” view, we’re an integrated organisation working on some very exciting and diverse projects. It’s a matrix structure, but we all integrate in front of the client to bring IBM to the client, so it’s a highlycollaborative organisation.

How do you map people out in the organisation?  

From a talent perspective, we have a heavy focus on graduate and apprentice schemes and we map people at that stage to particular business units. However, as employees progress into management and leadership roles it’s very important they have experiences across the range of services that the organisation provides. So we have a very active talent management programme designed to move talent around the company, enabling people to pick up those required experiences. What that means is that it’s a fantastic opportunity for people to stay with the company long term and gain a very broad range of experiences during the course of their careers. With the right support structures in place, our talent programmes enable employees to take on what we call stretch assignments, roles which will be very challenging to begin with, as they are outside their current areas of expertise, but which will broaden their knowledge of the company.

In a way, I am an example of this, having moved into, firstly a new area of law (pensions law), and then into my current role. This demonstrates a key quality of IBM as an employer, because in career terms you are allowed to explore opportunity, and it’s very rewarding to recognise how quickly you grow your knowledge once you make the move. It’s a very dynamic career environment, and it’s also challenging, which enables us to keep people stimulated and engaged, no matter how long they have worked for us.

In HR, what have been your key focuses and how have they impacted on meeting the needs of the business?  

Three years ago, I came in to the UKI HR function at a time when we were still adapting to the change in structure, which enables us to be a truly globally integrated enterprise. For the HR team, on the ground supporting the UKI business, this meant that they were taking strategic direction from their global colleagues, as well as local business direction, and this did take them some time to adapt to. However, now it is businessas– usual and we have seen the benefits of being integrated to this degree, such as; increased collaboration, sharing of ideas, greater career opportunity and also, very importantly, adapting to a more global model of the supply of HR services. We have also worked with our business leaders to help them understand the new HR model and adapt their previous ways of interacting with HR.

We’re also very focused on employee engagement and the use of social media to stimulate collaboration and innovation and that has taken us to some exciting initiatives, using our own technology to connect employees across the globe in debates on key topics, which will shape the future of IBM. We’re also heavily engaged in supporting our colleagues in growth markets, looking at the supply of talent to those markets and creating more opportunity for our UKI employees to grow their skills by engaging in new territories and initiatives.

Is there a certain amount of autonomy in each element of the organisation?  

Yes absolutely. If I take software as one of our brands, they are organised in a global structure, so there are business initiatives specific to that brand at both a global and at local level. From a people perspective, there is opportunity to move geographically as part of that organisation, as well as, for example, moving from the software business to a different part of IBM, if that is the right career move for the individual. At the end of the day though, our focus is on our clients and so our main objective is that all the capabilities of IBM are brought together in a seamless way in front of our clients.

Considering you are relatively new to HR, this is a big job and a massive undertaking.  

It was certainly very challenging at the beginning, but that’s when you really come to understand and appreciate the value of the team around you and thankfully, I came into a strong team structure. There’s no doubt that support carries you for a period of time, while you get to grips with new information hurtling your way and, in many cases, your teams’ areas of expertise eclipse yours. But if the culture is supportive of this steep learning curve and I’m grateful that at IBM it is, you can get on top of things a whole lot quicker than you might think!

What methods do you use to monitor performance and talent watch?  

We have a very systematic approach to tracking talent, which is needed, given the sheer scale of the business and the diversity of our organisation. However, obviously there is a strong “human” input to the assessment process too. We take an early view of how far we think people can go and I consider that to be one of our greatest responsibilities, to enable employees to then reach what we have identified their potential to be. So career mapping for us is making sure they’re fully capable, developed and resourced to meet that potential, mindful of the dynamism in career momentum and change here. I make a point of sitting in on talent discussions, where we go through internal roles that we need to fill and discuss who is best placed, taking into consideration not just the fit for purpose, but crucially, will that role further develop the individual in the way we think it should, mindful of future progression and their ultimate potential. It does involve a level of data about that person and the level of skills and the past jobs they have held, so we can map them onto the next one, and it is part of an overall career plan that we have agreed with the employee upfront.

How do the apprenticeship programmes differ from the graduate programmes?  

They’re not absolutely identical, but we wanted the apprenticeship programme to be as similar as possible, in terms of framework and operation, to our graduate programme which we had been running for some time. When they join us, like the graduates, apprentices are assigned to a particular part of the business, but we manage their development through a two year programme so that we can deliver consistent training to all our apprentices and graduates and they are handled and assessed by one management team. Then after two years, we let them go fully into the business. The apprenticeship programme has been a great success, like our graduate programme, which I’m proud to say, wins many external awards. In fact, it has just won the first ever Targetjobs National Recruitment Award for Best Apprenticeship Programme.

IBM is in such a fast-paced, competitive and changeable arena, and so HR must be constantly on the ball, in terms of delivering talent and capability. There’s no room for error or complacency. Absolutely! We need to be constantly thinking ahead, anticipating the next move or challenge and working out where we can either initiate change ourselves or help the business achieve change. We need to make sure we are hiring, retaining and developing employees who have the skills for the future and, in our world, the future is constantly changing so that is no small task. Also, the way those skills are supplied to us, and from where, is something we look at all the time. I have a number of my team which, although are based in the UK, spend their time supporting global business units, and might be working through recruitment strategies for China, for example. Again, it’s all part of being a globally integrated enterprise.

We also actively plan time to engage our HR teams in thinking about the future. So, for example, we hold what we call a “Jam” which uses our technology to connect HR professionals in over 64 countries. We start discussion themes in this online forum to ask for our colleagues’ views on topics, such as talent management, engagement, and skills development, and what this might look like in the future. Our technology then enables us to look at the dominant threads in the discussion and pull them forward as ideas to progress and develop. People can go online within the period of time we run the Jam, typically three days, and swop ideas, or just read the way the conversation is going between others. It is a very powerful way for us to progress, engage in new ideas and move our thinking forward.

There’s a lot of change in the workplace. The shift in the employer/employee relationship, flexible working for example... all good?  

I would say flexible working and diversity is in IBM’s DNA, so the current legislative environment isn’t something which has made us fundamentally change our thinking. In my view, if employers struggle with the concept of flexible working, some of that is down to trust and, to a degree, the concerns associated with letting go of control, which goes with knowing exactly where your employees are and what they are doing, because they are sitting at the desk next to you. I can see that some firms would struggle with that, if it’s not already in their mentality and culture.

The Olympics has helped move that whole agenda forward, as a lot of companies were pressed into allowing some flexibility during the Games, only to discover that yes, it can work. In IBM we haven’t had a culture where employees are expected to be in an office environment for some time now. We absolutely need flex from our employees, to accommodate the demands of our globally integrated enterprise model, and we therefore have to be flexible as an employer to match that. Unquestionably, employees really value flexibility and respond with a high level of self-awareness and responsibility. In my view, that approach to flexible working is a key retention tool.

The same with diversity and, we have a strong focus on bringing women into the business, in a sector that has always been challenged in attracting women. As we are a business which relies on innovative thought, having strong diversity, not just in relation to women, is essential. If you don’t have diversity there is a danger you can go into “group think”. Without doubt, the more diverse teams you put together, the better ideas you get and that ripples out to the entire performance of the business. So for us, diversity is a business enabler and an absolute necessity.

Are you pleased you moved into HR. Don’t you miss law?  

I am really happy with the move and plan to continue my career in HR rather than the legal profession. I was given an exciting opportunity, and I am really grateful for that. Consciously, it wasn’t the next step on my career map at the time, and that typifies IBM as an employer and a career motivator. You do take a deep breath when you make that kind of change, but if you just get on with it, and trust your intuition and capability, the sky’s the limit.

In HR terms, how much of your time is about the day to day and how much is wrapped up in long-range planning?  

Clearly I have to focus on the delivery of our HR service and ensure that we are on track there. However I also have to be thinking forward all the time, because our business is constantly moving, and that means HR is a strategic partner in making change happen successfully. So my day is highly variable but, at any one time, I am probably working on two or three projects which are planned for two or even five years out. For my own personal planning, I also know that I will be given an opportunity to move again at some point, to progress my own development. I could get closer to one of the businesses, versus my role currently which has more of a geographical/ territory remit, or I could move into a more functional area like Compensation or Talent Management for example. It’s an exciting prospect.

How do you think the switch to HR has changed you as a person, the way you think and operate?  

I do find my legal background is very useful in this role, it helps me and my team in many ways, especially how we get to grips with the nuts and bolts of challenges, both in terms of internal operations and external issues such as employment legislation change. However, I have certainly changed as a result of moving into HR, I have a much heightened understanding and awareness of the broad spectrum of challenges in our business and how HR can play a vital part in moving the business forward. Personally, I am really pleased with how my horizons have expanded as a result of taking on this role.

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