· 6 min read · Features

Interview with Ella Bennett, HR director UK and Ireland at Fujitsu

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Earlier this year, Ella Bennett’s CEO told her in her appraisal that he could understand for the first time in his career exactly how HR directly contributed to the bottom line of the business.

The business is Fujitsu, Ella Bennett (pictured) is its HR director for the UK and Ireland and her UK&I CEO Duncan Tait's affirmation came after Bennett's department had led the biggest change programme the UK branch of the Japanese technology giant had ever experienced.

But Bennett doesn't see herself as simply an HR director. "I am a business leader running a broad function," she explains. "The HR department is a cultural change team; it looks after employee relations, learning and development, as well as change. These are the levers a board-level director needs."

But when she took over the function in 2009, HR was devolved at the company. Fujitsu had just had, as Bennett puts it, "a bad year" and, having been told to cut costs in her department, the challenge of putting consistent policies into a devolved HR function loomed in front of Bennett.

Fujitsu is a global IT equipment and services company that manufactures products ranging from hand-held devices to supercomputers, and offering services all the way from low-cost, cloud-based applications to complex IT programmes for large enterprises and governments.

The UK&I division employs 11,400 people, who generate annual revenues of £1.7 billion.

But through a combination of acquisition, TUPE transfers, organic growth and European re-organisation, the UK&I HR function was in "poor shape". It sat in silos, made up of disparate teams serving different business units and delivering an inconsistent service. The need for overall business improvement dictated a need for radical change.

On top of this, at the end of 2010, the UK was struggling to recover from the recession. The cutbacks in public sector spend - historically an important source of revenue for Fujitsu - outlined by the coalition Government, not to mention private sector growth hampered by the wider economic downturn, put yet more fuel on the fires of change.

Pre-empting the need to cut costs across the business before Fujitsu had its own "burning platform" moment, Bennett decided to undertake an overhaul of the HR function to provide a single shared service that would facilitate and support an organisational restructure of the whole company.

This would be the starting point for a 'get well' plan to reverse the fortunes of the UK&I region, cut costs and improve the efficiency of the HR function.

"I knew I had to cut costs," says Bennett. "But I wanted every member of the HR team to be involved. So I told them, 'we need to get fit in order to service the business' and, two years later, we have saved £4 million in HR spend and staff engagement has increased."

Bennett realised in a department such as HR, a devolved structure couldn't work, at least in her business, so every member of the 200-strong HR team was made part of an overarching strategy.

"We had the agility to make change. The team had one common message and we have created a performance culture where everyone can see how they contribute to the function of the business," says Bennett.

"I promised my staff I would invest in their careers, technology and management, because in order for HR to be effective, it has to provide a brilliant service. I was clear about what I didn't want, though, and I was honest enough with staff to say, 'if you don't want to go through this change, you can leave'. If you have even a chink in the team, that can cause things to fall apart."

Through natural attrition, headcount in HR was reduced from 200 to 170, but efficiency has improved. When dealing with an HR- related query, the team can deal with questions in four days, rather than 20 days, as it did at the start of 2011. In fact, 90% of enquiries to the HR helpdesk are resolved within 24 hours.

The change also meant everyone's job was transformed; each member of HR staff had to take on extra responsibility and staff had to take a "leap of faith" in the future of the department.

But Bennett concedes: "If we didn't take the action to improve efficiencies ourselves, we would have been told to - and that is not what I wanted. Through instigating change ourselves, we have created pride, energy and enablement in the HR department, with everyone feeling involved."

Today, the business benefits from improved service levels, delivered by a shared service HR capability, managed and controlled centrally.

The HR team confirms through quarterly surveys that it enjoys its work far more than before the change, that it feels it is more able than it was and that it feels career prospects have been enhanced - all as a result of the change.

And responding to the challenge that an HR director focused too much on transforming HR departments can grow out of touch with the people strategy of the business, Bennett smiles.

"I couldn't agree more," she says. "Now other functions in the business are following us. I know how to get the [HR] function behind what the CEO wants.

"I can use the knowledge of how we have changed HR, to change the whole organisation, because the HR function is the enabler for change. I said I am a business leader, but I know as the leader of the HR function that these people are relying on me. You have to be aware of the balance here - I am leading a function, but as a board member I am also involved in leading the business."

With the HR team well on the road to change, other parts of the business are moving in the same direction.

"In the HR department, I have proved the connection between engagement, enablement and results," Bennett explains. "This is simply about how people do their roles, to drive results.

"Of course I want people to be happy, but HR directors have to make tough decisions, which can be the polar opposite of 'happy'. It is up to me to help with this process, helping people to improve and be accountable.

"Before 2012, we had a bad year; our profits were unhealthy and we had low engagement. In 2011, we did simple things to boost engagement across the business and profit followed. The CEO knows engagement and profit can't be separated."

An example of this was that in 2010 the employee survey showed staff had, as Bennett puts it, "little trust" in the HR department - and a year later the same survey found trust levels had doubled.

"It was about doing simple things well," says Bennett. "We got leaders out on a roadshow and showed staff the plans in place for change and how this would link to pay. We did a 'back to the floor' exercise and used social media to build up momentum. Before we knew it, staff were posting questions to leaders - and the CEO and executives were getting involved in dialogue with employees in a way that was informal, relaxed, topical and real. People were telling bosses what they were doing at work and this was refreshingly effective."

The social media strategy evolved into an online forum where the IT department put a branded wrap on it and CEO Tait regularly tweets his thoughts as well.

Bennett says: "It is very personal. Leadership has got to be real. But there is still the danger that this is a house of cards and employers have to work hard to make staff connect with this. My engagement scores in the HR department are 10% higher than the rest of the organisation, but it took us two years to get there. A leader can't walk up to staff and ask them to engage - and as soon as they stop believing in this type of communication, it goes away."

Bennett's focus has turned to nurturing leadership through development programmes.

"We take [leadership] seriously," she explains. "We have developed talent leadership programmes, upped our apprenticeship intake and are looking at future leaders. We want to get people involved in leading projects that matter and this can mean junior talent working closely with senior leaders.

"I want to immerse people in leading at Fujitsu. Last year, we appointed a fresh leadership team, made up of people that had been on our talent programmes. But time will tell the real success of this."

So, drawing on the "simple things" Bennett has put in place to turn Fujitsu around and prepare it for growth, she looks to the next steps for her department and her organisation.

"Ultimately, we are a Japanese company," she says. "The Japanese take a long-term view and don't have a quarterly focus. This pervades our culture in the UK and what we are measured on."

The overarching vision of Fujitsu, according to Bennett, is about creating a human-centric intelligent society through IT. In that spirit, she adds: "As long as the CEO is enabled to deliver that strategy, we are allowed to do what is relevant.

"It is a beautiful vision. We have come from being a business solutions company to answering society's problems - we are taking broadband to rural areas, we are helping doctors give prescriptions and we sent engineers to help after the Japanese tsunami in 2011.

"The culture of this company is powerful and engaging - we help people and I am working to build this into my CSR plans."

Strategically speaking, she explains, "Japanese businesses are lean in structure and we are investigating this in the UK as part of continuous improvement. But this company has a global HR strategy and a fascinating culture - both globally and regionally.

"We are on a journey - I feel on the brink of something really exciting."