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Bell Canada Enterprises: HR Strategic Plan
Must be Driven by Business Imperatives

CPRN Work Network Researcher, Richard Brisbois, spoke with Mary O'Hara, Vice President, People Development, at Bell Canada Enterprises, about the importance of aligning an organization's human resource strategy with its overall business strategy. Enhancing labour productivity, simplifying the employee experience, and embedding "go" -- Bell's internal rallying cry -- are some of the issues they discussed.

RB: What do you see as the major human resource challenges facing Bell over the next five to ten years?

MO: Our business strategy drives what we do in HR and therefore our HR challenges are really business challenges. We have been pretty thoughtful about ensuring that we are closely aligned with Bell's corporate business strategy. This is something we have become more disciplined at over the last couple of years because we recognize that it is vitally important.

RB: So what would you say are some of the major business challenges facing Bell?

MO: Productivity is certainly one of our major challenges. And that is related to another critical issue for us -- workforce ageing. About 30% of our 45,000 employees can retire in the next 10 years. So skilling and re-skilling an ageing workforce, and how this links to productivity, are important issues.

Customer focus is another key area that we are working on very hard. One of the challenges in terms of achieving better customer focus consists of simplifying the environment for employees. So simplicity is a key driver for us and how it relates to productivity and customer focus.

Embedding "go" is another key business issue. "Go" is our internal rallying cry. It represents our commitment to a leadership model that we believe is critical for achieving breakthroughs in customer service, in simplifying the employee experience, in delivering on our productivity goals, and in delivering on our business objectives.

RB: Am I correct that "go" is also a marketing strategy from a consumer perspective?

MO: Yes, it is our external marketing strategy and links again to this notion of simplicity. It became our rallying cry internally around how we deliver on that simplicity.

RB: You have mentioned the "go" program. What are some other strategies that Bell has implemented to address the business challenges it faces?

MO: We regard skilling and re-skilling as essential for enabling Bell's workforce to assume what we call "employee of the future" type roles. For example, in our call centers, we have employees who are highly experienced in sales of traditional business lines who are now being challenged to sell across multiple lines of business. We also have people who do not work typical 9-to-5 schedules, like those providing field management services or service and repair. Learning for employees with widely differing needs therefore has to happen in a way that is portable, flexible, and efficient.

In terms of increasing labour productivity, we have moved forward on the "e-learning" agenda. We subscribe very much to the idea of "blended learning," recognizing a need for both traditional face-to-face learning and for alternative forms of e-learning. We don't think that e-learning is a panacea, but we do believe there is a need for the appropriate use of multiple types of learning methods.

E-learning has allowed Bell to realize significant productivity gains, but more importantly, it has reached huge numbers of people in our organization in ways that are portable and flexible. In May 2002, we introduced a program called "Click and Learn" - which includes about 400 titles in such areas as desktop applications, technology and general business skills.

At the same time, we disabled alternative channels of delivery for those particular topic areas. For example, if you were previously able to take Microsoft Word through a classroom environment, the introduction of "Click and Learn" meant that the classroom training was no longer available - you were only able to get it through e-learning. We also removed organizational barriers to learning by supporting and funding these initiatives at an enterprise level. And we provided flexibility and portability of learning by moving to an internet-based learning management system, rather than an intranet based system, allowing employee access to learning from anywhere, anytime as long as they have internet access. To put it in perspective, in the 6-to-7-month time frame in which "Click and Learn" was introduced, we had over 70,000 registrations representing about 12,000 individuals.

RB: Those are very large numbers.

MO: We are very proud of this and we have just won a North American award called Illuminati, recognizing how innovative that learning program is. It is a pretty tremendous accomplishment when you think about how large our workforce is and how dispersed it is geographically. In fact, the "Click and Learn" program provides very broad access to a large number of employees who have diverse training needs.

RB: Could you tell me about the "Bell First" program?

MO: "Bell First" is targeted at promoting from within and re-deploying people within the organization when changes take place in business lines or in needs in particular areas. "Bell First" is about giving the employees who are affected the opportunity to re-deploy internally. And we give them the skills that allow them to do that effectively.

RB: What about employee retention, is this an issue at Bell?

MO: No, it's not a huge issue for us at this time. In fact, we are average-to-low in terms of employee turnover, compared to many other organizations. There may be pockets in our organization that might be considered to have a higher level of turnover, but at an enterprise level, we do not have the sort of turnover that would cause us real concern.

RB: You had mentioned that one of the issues that Bell is facing is that of the ageing workforce. What strategies do you have in place to deal with this?

MO: Several programs have been put in place.

At an enterprise level, we realize there is tremendous intellectual capital that needs to be transferred among employees, so we have introduced a program called "Mentor Match". It is a web-based program, matching profiles of mentors and mentees. We deliberately chose a web-based program to allow access for all employees in the organization. Often, in other organizations, these types of programs are not web based and can be restricted to only a certain segment of employees.

A new solution that we are introducing is called the "Virtual Leadership Centre." This leadership portal will contain resource information on such areas as leadership; change management; partnering; coaching; creating employee value; and dealing with employee satisfaction. Once again, we make this available to all employees in order to assist with employee learning and development.

We also have a number of different programs to deal with workforce ageing, such as very purposeful mentoring and job shadowing. And we extend a number of flexible programs that allow people to stay in the workforce longer, but perhaps not in a full-time capacity.

RB: Is the mentoring program something relatively new for Bell?

MO: Yes, it is a new program introduced in September of last year. Recently it was benchmarked as "best in class" in North America by the Corporate Leadership Council. The program was introduced in response to identification of a real need by our employee opinion survey, where people were telling us that they need access to a mentoring program to transfer learning. We decided to facilitate this type of learning in a less administrative fashion, by leveraging the technology we have at our disposal.

RB: It sounds like you are giving your employees the tools to empower themselves.

MO: We believe in an employee self-service environment and in simplifying the employee experience. So having the platforms and tools in place helps enable that employee self-service philosophy.

RB: Is the employee opinion survey done on a regular basis?

MO: Yes, it is done on an annual basis, enterprise-wide. In addition to this, we also do random polling throughout the year that takes a "pulse" of different groups in the organization - allowing us to see progress on certain fronts or what the concerns of employees are at certain times of the year.

RB: What are you doing to measure the success of these initiatives?

MO: Quality is key. You need to see the value to the enterprise of the programs you introduce. We have been embedding a quantitative aspect in our learning programs in terms of tracking operational metrics. Productivity-days gained from an e-learning perspective is an example for the training impact. For example, if I was to take the same type of a course in a face-to-face setting, it might take me two days vs. on-line for two hours. There is a productivity gain there, and that is important at an enterprise level in terms of the quantitative discipline. There is also work to be done around the qualitative piece and understanding the link between the learner experience and how that translates into organizational productivity in the broader sense. We do think that there is an important piece to look at in terms of business impact, but there is also a piece to look at here around the learner experience and how that contributes to organizational capacity through its effects on individual capacity.

RB: Do the results of the employee surveys point to any areas of improvement as reflected in trends in employee opinions on specific issues?

MO: Yes, absolutely. It is important that we listen to the voices of employees, and we need to make sure that content is relevant to their work. We need to understand what their level of satisfaction is and that is why we commit to continually having employee opinion surveys. These surveys provide a very good pulse of where progress is being made -- and where more work needs to be done, because people will tell you if you ask. We have seen a tremendous increase in survey participation rates, demonstrating that employees are committed to the program and that people feel like they have a voice that is getting heard.

We are making great progress in some areas. As an example, for management employees - everybody who is not unionized - we have seen pretty significant improvement from the surveys in the areas of people development as well as performance and rewards management. We know that we still have a real challenge and need to continue to focus on our hourly or non-management employees, where there continues to be more of a gap between the management and non-management employees.

RB: Benefits are clearly important to attracting and retaining a lot of employees. I understand that Bell has a benefits program called Omniflex. Can you tell me about the features of that program?

MO: It is a flexible benefits program that allows the individual to redirect dollars to areas of benefits that are more relevant to their specific personal circumstances. It is fully web-enabled, so it is a more interactive and self-directed type of a program than traditional benefit programs.

RB: What has been the response of employees to the initiatives we have discussed?

MO: They are all different - it is not a generic answer. If you are talking about e-learning programs in general - as I said, we have had 70,000 registrations for a program that we introduced in May - that is pretty extraordinary, so my sense is that it has been overwhelmingly positive. If you are thinking about the Omniflex benefits program, that has also been overwhelmingly positive. The Mentor-Match program was only launched in September, so it is too early to say what the organizational impact has been yet although there are positive indicators already. We look at organizational business impacts, we look at the learning application, and we look at the participant experience. So far, we know that people have responded very positively by virtue of the fact that very large numbers of them are signing up to participate in the various programs and the mandatory feedback that is built in to accessing the programs generally indicates a high degree of satisfaction. Progress is evident looking at those dimensions.

RB: You certainly seem to be leveraging technology to your advantage, given the response you have had to a lot of your initiatives. I am wondering, what have been the biggest challenges or obstacles Bell has faced in trying to implement some of these new programs?

MO: Culturally, it has been somewhat of a challenge to introduce programs that are broadly available to all 45,000 employees. For example, in the initial stages of offering the "Click and Learn" program, there were some leaders in the organization who were concerned about offering this for free because they felt their people were going to want to take time for all this learning. So it is a cultural adjustment for it to become widely understood that learning not only supports the individual, it also supports the organization, and you need to make time for those things to happen. However, by and large, there has been tremendous support for these initiatives.

RB: If you could describe, in a word or a phrase, the corporate culture at Bell, how would you describe it?

MO: I don't think that there is one corporate culture. My personal view is that culture is to an organization what personality is to an individual. If you were at Bell Mobility you might see a very different individual than you would see at Bell Quebec, at Bell Express Vu or at Bell Canada itself. To me, at least, it is a number of different cultures. But they do have common links.

Overall, I would say that this is an organization collectively focused on productivity. It is an organization that is tremendously committed to winning, from a customer point of view. From an organization perspective, there is an enormous amount of pride that still is associated with working for this organization. I think that it is an organization experiencing cultural change, as a result of changes in the economy, in the world, in our industry, and from within. We are an organization that is led by a very dynamic and well-respected leader, who comes from outside and who has not grown up in the Bell Canada organization. He brings a unique perspective and I think that the corporate culture is influenced as well by the anticipation and excitement around what he will bring and the direction that he will take us in.

RB: Are there any HR strategies that we have not discussed that you would like to mention?

MO: We haven't talked specifically about Workopolis, but recruiting is a key part of our people strategy. We use Workopolis as a tool in terms of being able to do external recruiting. We also use it for internal job postings. It is one of the channels that supports our strategy of injecting talent at various different levels, whether it is young professionals or very senior-level talent. It also assists us in recruiting people with very specifically-targeted functional skills that we are trying to acquire in the organization.

RB: Are there any final comments you would like to make about your HR strategies?

MO: Our strategic principles are anchored to our leadership model and the notion of "go," simplification, and productivity. We want to have a common experience for all employees that is inclusive, rather than exclusive. We try to create solutions that are customized to the various segments of our population, because one size does not fit all. We are absolutely committed to the notion of modular learning so that the experience is largely determined by the individual, based on their readiness. We pursue web-enabled components wherever we can in all learning solutions. But, we recognize as well that it is not a panacea. E-learning is important and is a key-enabler for our enterprise, but it is not the only solution.

RB: One final question - if you were talking to another HR executive, what advice would you give them in terms of developing their own people strategy?

MO: I'm not a believer in "if you build it they will come." Your HR strategic plan must be driven by an organization's business imperatives -- there is absolutely nothing else that should guide you. Developing programs or an HR strategy that is not aligned with your business plan is certain disaster. As HR professionals, it has been absolutely critical for us to be sitting as partners at the table discussing corporate strategy and the integration of business planning and the HR strategy to support corporate goals. This is the best advice I could share.

RB: Thank you for taking the time to talk to us about these issues.

Bell Canada Enterprises website -