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The Alfa Laval virtual strategy process
Article Type: HR at work From: Strategic HR Review, Volume 9, Issue 6
Short case studies and research papers that demonstrate best practice in HR
Ashridge Business School, one of the leading International business schools, and Alfa Laval, a global engineering company with 13,000 employees and operations in 55 countries, have been working together since 2004 on a number of programs. These have included ones for sales and marketing, the Booster senior executive initiative, a group communications program and projects focusing on the HR community within Alfa Laval. At the end of 2008, Alfa Laval approached Ashridge seeking help for the development of creative solutions and project plans to implement a number of critical “Prime Performance” business issues.
Prime Performance is Alfa Laval’s drive to ensure that all its processes, including sales, manufacturing, research and the culture of the company, combine effectively to deliver the highest levels of performance. There was a clear remit to deliver results within a very limited timeframe of four months from inception to completion, and to be efficient with the use of senior leaders’ time and the organization’s limited budget. HR had helped to define and shape the assignment at the heart of which was the need to involve the best brains of the organization, all very busy people who were dispersed across Europe, the Americas and Asia.
Given the nature of the business needs, it became obvious very quickly that the best solution was to design and facilitate a virtual strategy project. Ashridge has been researching the topics of virtual leadership and virtual learning for the last seven years.
The rationale and benefits
The process involved 32 senior leaders and vice presidents as well as eight members of the Alfa Laval board from around the world. The virtual meetings brought them together, without the need for people to jump onto planes to travel to the headquarters in Lund, Sweden, enabling the organization to discuss complex issues and develop fast solutions to business critical challenges. The work was completed in just four months. Efficiency and effectiveness in terms of time, budget and vital business outputs were at the heart of the process.
For the organization it meant the following savings:
A total of 95 tonnes of CO2 in terms of carbon footprint savings from at least 95 European and International return flights not being made.
Direct cost savings of between €60,000 and €65,000 in flight and accommodation costs.
Time not spent traveling that equates to more than 0.6 full-time equivalents (FTEs).
The process also represented key benefits for the individuals involved. While many of the leaders had done virtual work before, they felt that the approach taken illustrated that a new discipline and set of skills and competences for effective virtual leadership was required. They now feel that these skills have been developed and are a huge advantage for Alfa Laval in operating globally. In addition, each leader involved has become a subject matter expert in the prime performance business issue on which they worked and is a champion for its implementation.
A physical launch event was held at Ashridge in the UK in November 2008, attended by the 32 MDs and VPs and four executive board members. The meeting introduced the five critical business issues that were identified from research by the Swedish consulting company, KunskapsPartner. Participants were able to benefit from a dialogue about the issues with three world experts from a series of well-known global organizations.
On the second day, individuals were assigned to five project groups, with an Ashridge faculty member who would provide virtual coaching support throughout. Beginning with a virtual team coaching session in December, each project team, together with their Ashridge facilitator, “met” via WebEx virtual meeting technology five or six times during a four-month period. The virtual sessions involved all of the participants working individually in front of a computer, each equipped with a headset.
We felt it was imperative that each project team understood that while the five issues being considered may have seemed disparate at first, they understood the links between them. Therefore, there were cross-project team virtual workshops, during which each group was represented by an individual who was responsible for demonstrating how their own team’s insights could be connected to other projects. The senior vice president responsible for the Prime Performance initiative was also present to provide input on the overall thinking. The team representative then provided feedback to the rest of their project team on how their proposed solution fitted with the organizational strategy of Alfa Laval, and what potential clashes and links there were.
Finally all the teams’ outcomes were discussed in the context of a virtual conference where key priorities were set and decisions regarding implementation were taken.
A virtual conference
The conference, which was held in March 2009, comprised many of the elements of a traditional conference. There was a CEO opening address and a clear agenda with group discussions, breaks for coffee, interactive feedback processes, etc. Less traditional was the fact that the conference was completely virtual.
The 42 attendees, which included all the project teams plus eight board members and Alfa Laval’s CEO, together with Ashridge facilitators, had an opportunity to preview the project plans. The discipline required was exceptional, demanding the highest levels of concentration and structure. Every minute of time was maximized and there needed to be a high level of clarity around each agenda item.
The presentations were followed by breakout work in smaller groups to discuss the project plans with a focus around the following:
Identifying the main issues, critical elements and implications from the projects.
Identifying the five most critical success factors.
Discussing the next steps for implementation.
The key difference of the approach, compared to other virtual working initiatives, was that it was designed to be highly interactive and include virtual learning elements. It enabled people to work on the task at hand, but also to concentrate on the relationships at play and the emerging conflicts – to develop trust and engage with others virtually. This became a critical success factor, enabling the teams to think strategically and learn together, based on an understanding of the dynamics and psychological aspects of virtual work.
Each participant was able to take full ownership of the work results. The whole process generated such impressive levels of energy and commitment, that the Board of Alfa Laval was actually surprised by the unprecedented strength of management desire to see project implementation immediately.
The acid test, however, would be whether the participants would work like this again? Indications are positive, with participants rating both the outputs and the process highly. Asked if it was a way they would like to work in the future, 80 percent said “definitely” and a further 20 percent answered “possibly.” Phone interviews conducted five months afterwards echoed the high levels of learning and satisfaction with the following comments recorded:
Before, I didn’t look at virtual working and virtual leading as something you needed to learn as a new discipline. It has been a very rewarding, eye-opening experience.
It has been a very positive experience overall. We managed to work through with a high level of energy and achieved high levels of learning.
The results were very good. We really made progress, and this in a very cost efficient way.
Could the whole process have been delivered virtually without any face-to-face element? The Ashridge research shows that entirely virtual processes can be extremely effective for team building. Several participants interviewed afterwards said that although they originally felt that the face-to-face was needed, they now thought that the process would only work if completely virtual. However, others felt that that the initial face-to-face event was vital to the project’s success.
Many organizations are initially reticent at the idea of an entirely virtual process, but as the experience with Alfa Laval proves, it is a journey that can lead to new and innovative ways of thinking, working and learning.
About the authors
Peter Bailliere Senior Vice President for HR at Alfa Laval, a position he has held since 2007. Prior to Alfa Laval, he spent 20 years with the Volvo Car Corporation in a number of HR roles.
Ghislaine Caulat Leads the Virtual Working Practice Group at Ashridge Consulting as director and has been researching in the areas of virtual leadership and virtual learning for the last seven years. Ghislaine Caulat is the corresponding author and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org