Managing a global workforce
Thu 7 Aug 2014
Running an office based IS team can be fairly challenging says Oxfam’s CIO Peter Ransom. But when half of your team is spread around the world often in remote and troubled areas there are special communications issues to overcome.
“Bonjour Bai, cest va?”
“Ca va bien, et vu?”
“Bon Bai, bon.”
“I know your French is lousy boss, so I’ll do this in English!”
And so starts my team’s regular video conference with Oubaidallah, our Regional IS Manager based in Dakar, Senegal.
Managing a diverse workforce across a number of continents and over 50 countries does present some challenges. There are the obvious ones of time zones but also you have the same challenges of managing a team all in one location.
I have my HQ team based in Oxford, central England and very pretty it is too. The other half is distributed around the world and in places as diverse as Mexico City, Bangkok and Jerusalem.
For the UK operation it looks a fairly conventional IS operation: (at least it does now, in another blog I may talk about the changes I have made) we are organised from Business Engagement, Enterprise Architect team, Programme Delivery and Operations/Service Delivery. Add in Supplier Management and a PMO (project management office) and you have a standard IS Operation.
Now, that can give you headaches of course. If I want a bit of fun I get the Enterprise Architect and Service Delivery Manager in the same room and ask them to solve a problem together. I’m being hard of course but even they have a joke that one looks ahead as far as one week and the other can’t see any closer than nine months out. (It is a joke; really don’t take me too literally, please!)
However, anyone who has managed diverse teams will recognise the challenge with the different personality types combined with differing demands of the role. Now, if you replicate parts of that across the globe, add a dash of cultural differences and, just for fun, ensure the organisation decided to devolve operations so some of my staff are matrixed-managed in country, then you can see that at times I have a full and rewarding day. At least that’s what my coach tells me. (Is everyone else’s coach a part time psychiatrist by the way; just me then?)
So how do I manage this?
I think you need to have an ability to empathise with the local issues while also being able to challenge so as to keep your eye on the end position. Often I operate vicariously, letting others take the lead locally while I act in support, ensuring the eventual end is achieved. I also need to do things differently in different situations and countries; some are culturally driven, others are down to the local management.
However, I can’t lose sight of my own needs and demands, which can certainly put me into conflict. I hear the term ‘Emotional Intelligence’ being yelled and that’s true, however, there is also a good deal of common sense, too. Many issues can be down to communications so I felt it was vital that everyone in our department should feel as close to each other as possible.
We need to ensure that everyone is aligned with IS approaches and objectives so that they understand why we are doing what we are doing in that particular way. A simple email out will not work.
We do some of this by trying to make areas responsible for the systems and operations, of course, however I also have other mechanisms. My team produces a monthly newsletter that has lots of information about what’s going on around the world with contributions from the local staff and features on individuals.
We also run a IS department meeting that we broadcast over the Internet; ISD Live (an idea I got from my time at the BBC) and it is made to look and feel like an interactive TV programme. It’s all done on a shoestring but we make it look pretty good on almost no equipment. This is watched both live and on catch up by our teams who hear from me, key projects and invited guest and updates from the countries and teams. We also have our regular video conferences and there are regional meetings where we attend on line and send key management. All of these initiatives help to develop those relationships and let us hear any issues and concerns.
Another area I work hard on is education at all levels with a focus on technical development, for example ITIL, Prince and Scrum training through to other skills such as the work we have done on Personal Effectiveness. I introduced corporate membership of BCS (the Chartered Institute of IT) to the team and now most IS employees around the world are members and able to take advantage of the facilities they offer.
I work on talent development and encourage secondments into and out of Oxford. Secondments develop relationships, share knowledge and raise awareness of the challenges we have wherever we’re based – from the complex setups in Oxford through to the IT Officer who is trying to get a satellite link lined up in a refugee camp. Secondments help to produce a team that tries to work together at some level, most of the time.
Mind you, there are times when they forget this and complications ensue but perhaps that’s another subject! Until the next blog I’ll just say “Adieu jusque-là”. ♦
Also by Peter Ransom on The Stack
Managing the challenges and reaping the benefits of remote and agile working
Securing the data and our future