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Roundtable - The Crisis and Shared Services - An Asian Perspective

Jamie Liddell

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As 2008 draws to an end, the signs for the global economy in 2009 are, to say the least, inauspicious. But this downturn won't affect all geographies equally - and this holds true for the shared services and outsourcing space as much as for the wider economy. In order to get a better-defined picture of how different parts of the world are reacting differently to the biggest shock to the financial system since the Wall Street Crash, we convened a series of regional roundtable debates. The first - getting the view from Asia - took place at the end of November and was chaired by Deloitte's Hugo Walkinshaw; as the transcript shows, for mature SSOs at least while the impact of the crisis has yet to play itself out fully, there are certainly opportunities strewn amongst the challenges. . .

Attending were:

Hugo Walkinshaw (chair)
Principal Shared Services Asia Leader

Chen Theng Aik
SVP & Head Asia Pacific Operations

Rodrigo Martins
General Manager GBS Asia
General Electric

Erik Moller Nielsen
GM Global Service Centres (Philippines)

Hugo Walkinshaw: In terms of how specifically your SSC is adding value - and I'd like to ask Rodrigo to kick us off on this one - what differences are you seeing as a result of the current climate in terms of new things you're being asked to tackle, or things that were going a little slowly or were not so pronounced that are suddenly coming to the surface?

Rodrigo Martins: We are actually seeing an increased interest from businesses in joining our shared services organization. In challenging times like these, the value that a shared services group brings to the table is even more evident. From all angles you look at our group there is value - from the high quality of being an organization specialized in processes that are critical to running a business (no less important under the current economic conditions, by the way), from a cost savings standpoint given the scale in which we operate, and from our ability to provide services utilizing our infrastructure of people, processes and platforms already in place.

For all of these reasons I see a general increase in demand for our services. It is also important to notice that we are constantly concerned with productivity, constantly looking for improving quality and efficiency in everything we do, and in times like this it is even more important. On a more tactical level, we have been providing our businesses with more and more tools and analysis that make it easier for them to control and better manage their cost base. From our perspective we are helping our customers, the GE businesses, and from their perspective this is a value-added service that they are receiving from us.

Hugo Walkinshaw: So most of that is essentially focusing more, and putting greater emphasis, on things that are already current. Maybe there are a few conversations there around should this business unit, or this process, come in or go out, and the current conditions are basically forcing the pace on those decisions?

Rodrigo Martins: Exactly that; more of the same, at least for our organization. I believe businesses see the value in what we are doing so they want to come on board more and more. They see that we have scale and that we are capable of rendering good service at a competitive cost and that is good value for them at the end of the day.

Hugo Walkinshaw: And in terms of being asked to provide wholly new things, or to go in new directions: are you seeing any of that yet?

Rodrigo Martins: I don't see that in GE. Probably because being an established shared service organization we already have most, if not all, typical shared services offerings. We do have one service, which is relatively new to our group in Asia, Customs. This service helps businesses deal with imports and exports around the world. But the service is not new; it was introduced a few years ago in the Americas and is now being rolled out globally.

Chen Theng Aik: Because of the state we're at now, we're still contemplating our migration of activities to the SSCs in the higher-cost Asian countries. Our officers have been told to watch headcount, and headcount replacement, very carefully, and it's getting tougher for the business units, so there is a lot more interest for two reasons. One is, pure wage arbitrage and our ability to continue to leverage that, so there's increased interest in moving more activities over to us, and what was traditionally considered taboo - not to be transferred over to shared services - could now all be on the table. With our SSC in Malaysia, there's a large wage arbitrage from the higher-cost Asian countries.

Point number two is that because things for the businesses are getting tougher and tougher, their headcount is being looked at very carefully, so any volume increase, or even replacement after resignations, is also getting tougher and tougher. When they have their own headcount freeze, or headcount restrictions, it becomes more attractive to migrate over to us. We end up being asked to do more work which would traditionally have been carried out within their home-country organizations.

Hugo Walkinshaw: So a bit more of a burning platform for country MDs to have to deal with, to accelerate the transition timetable.

Erik Moller Nielsen: I'd like to echo what Chen just said, and actually Hugo you just used the words we use: it's a “burning platform". We're looking at anything and everything, and we see a widening of the scope and depth of what we're being asked to handle. For example in the back-office support for SAP, we are increasing the percentage of the end-to-end finance process that we're handling in the service center, and we have a Six Sigma project going on now to take it up to 70 per cent. But we're also being asked to look at almost more things that we can handle at the moment from claims settlement to quite sophisticated KPO work, so we're moving up the value ladder, for sure, at the moment. We definitely see more offshoring coming our way.

Hugo Walkinshaw: Well it's definitely good news that at least someone's busy in these times. . . The only things I'd add to what you guys have said is that, firstly, specifically within our shared services environment - and this plays a little bit towards Rodrigo's point initially - we are making much greater and more frequent use of the SSC for almost daily operational data, as everything is moving so fast and swinging so hard in terms of decision-making around recruitment, costs and so on. We're putting a lot more emphasis on the basis of ad hoc management information coming out of the center. I've noticed that we're partnering much better with the center and that they're being forced to be much more reactive and responsive about producing data.

Secondly, looking at companies that haven't gone to shared services yet, I think we've initiated five new shared services feasibility studies in the last eight weeks, so I get a sense that out there those companies who haven't yet taken the plunge - or who have taken the plunge and now have European or US centers - are now looking to Asia as an offshoring location, with a real sense of urgency and momentum. We're also seeing a lot of interest from large local companies who are, I guess, cash-rich and who are looking to make this kind of reorganization and structural investment while things are slowing down and they've got time on their hands. So even for the people who aren't in shared services there's definitely the sense that this is the way to go as a response around control and cost.

Q: It seems as though there's a bit of a cross-section of the space here: on the one hand we've got Rodrigo who's doing a great deal more of the same sort of thing, and on the other we've got Erik who's actually instituting a whole load of new processes. Hugo, to what extent are the companies approaching you to investigate launching new shared services initiatives planning a broader, wider shared services than might have been the norm over the last few years?

Hugo Walkinshaw: I think it's people who've been sitting on the fence about even starting shared services, and have been going down the route of “our culture is not to do that, and not to offshore, and not to make redundancies" and I think they've been forced off the fence by the economic conditions. I think it's people taking the plunge and realising they need to do some desperate measures, rather than a move towards a broader, more sophisticated footprint. I think the reason there's been a bit of disparity thus far on the panel is a reflection of where we all are on the shared services journey. My takeaway actually is that what's keeping us busy is doing things we were expecting to do, and hoping to do, had planned to do, or were already doing a little bit - but doing them at a much greater pace. I don't think there are a lot of brand new initiatives - yet - coming up in the shared services space.

Erik Moller Nielsen: I would absolutely echo that. I think this is the push that has come lately, to push in the development that was happening slowly anyway. Some people in the organization (and we have a mature SSO, about eight to ten years and six sites in operation) were looking at the SSCs at having been set up to provide maybe rather basic processes, and being maybe a nice-to-use but not a need-to-use, but in the current climate with business volumes going down this is a resource they want to tap into, if not for anything else other than the labor arbitrage initially - but then we know that once it's been shifted over to us we can optimize the process down the road. We're being asked now to look at data mining, market analysis, and we're going to be setting up a group of fifteen in January just to look at that, and there are many many other things coming our way, so it's all positive - and keeps us really busy.

Hugo Walkinshaw: Those particular bits at the end - the data mining and market analysis - are not things which your everyday shared service center traditionally does, so I think your comment about going up the value chain is spot-on. You may, I suppose, already have had that in your sights on the value-chain, though, and this is just accelerating your decision rather than being a brand new idea that's come about as a result of the crisis. So let's move on, then: in terms of priorities for the next six months, can everybody name their top one or two? Erik, what's going to be your main focus for the next two quarters?

Erik Moller Nielsen: It will be on the talent side, because now we are looking for different people on some of these issues; for example with the claims settlement we're looking at, we need to find people with a legal background. Initially it's an HR challenge; secondly it's about site-capacity and site planning (and we're well into that). Thirdly - and going with the site capacity - it's workstation utilization: how can we push it up so that we use each desk more than once, maybe even more than twice every 24 hours? In that connection, our challenge is that most of our work is really time-sensitive and urgent, with turn-times down to half an hour, but we are hoping that we can convince our internal customer that he can save a lot of money if we can extend the turn-times on some of this work and therefore do it at night - it means we save costs and don't have to expand the sites.

Hugo Walkinshaw: That's an interesting dynamic; if you've got unutilized capacity at certain times of the day or night, then obviously it's a more cost-effective solution to use that rather than adding floors and increasing the overall cost. I guess you're in the right part of the world to be running 24/7 shifts.

Chen Theng Aik: I think our big focus will be on two areas. One will be on getting our unit costs down even further; in the past, our internal business partners were pretty happy with our unit costs because of the big wage arbitrage, but now things are getting pushed further and further they're saying “we've got this great wage arbitrage and we're pleased with that but - can you get costs down even further?" So that's getting a lot of focus - not that it didn't before, but now it's with even greater intensity.

The other thing is that we're now moving into a lot more customer-facing activity than before, so all the collection activity, the customer query activity, dealing activity that traditionally we haven't touched too much on any great scale; now we're moving more and more into that domain, and in some countries which haven't fully tapped into shared services yet, we need to look for a different talent pool and train more because previously it was traditional accounting we were looking for.

Hugo Walkinshaw: Just on the cost-reduction: it's interesting that you say that, because that was one of the first responses from management here: “it's great - a good service - now more please - can you do it cheaper?" So we're kind of suffering under the same burden. Practically - and I don't want to get into too much detail - when I look at it I'm stuck with a facility cost that I can't really negotiate around, I'm stuck with an IT infrastructure that's got a sunk cost that's depreciating; the only flexibility I've got on reducing cost is around greater efficiency and, not cutting wages but swapping people out and bringing in more junior people. Which is quite radical. I just wonder, in terms of those sorts of areas, are you going through a similar thought-process? Are those the kind of things you're looking at for cost-control?

Chen Theng Aik: For us one big area that we're looking at is to increase our span of control for our team leaders, our managers, and so forth, because there is a huge disparity still between the wage levels of team leaders and managers and what we call the associate level. So the increase in the number of associates that is needed is great, and we're going to increase the span of control - so for the same number of team leaders and the same number of managers, can we lead bigger teams? I think that's where the fixed costs get spread out and hence the unit cost comes down. That's what the business partner is looking at. The other area is that we do currently use an external consultant for some project migration work and we're now reducing our reliance on this external source and bringing more and more of our own resources into the project migration effort.

Hugo Walkinshaw: Absolutely: reduce those pesky consulting fees. . . The organizational span of control issue is a good one. I think we've seen where we have one or two more senior, experienced people moving on and taking bigger roles in new shared service centers we've ended up pushing more junior people up the pipe to give them more opportunity to reduce the cost of the role rather than shopping around for new people who might be as expensive or more expensive than the originals. Span of control is a good angle.

Rodrigo Martins: The question here is whether or not priorities have changed, and the answer for us is that they haven't. From an operational standpoint, the priority for us is to continue consolidating activities into regional centres; one way of reducing costs is through scale and we have been going down the path of consolidating our activities in the regional hubs that we have here in Asia for quite some time. Another operational priority is automation and standardization of our processes. So what is not automated or standardized is being marked for action. Our ultimate goal is obviously productivity and quality in everything we do.

Hugo Walkinshaw: So you still see opportunities around automation and IT optimization?

Rodrigo Martins: Absolutely. As a matter of fact we are currently implementing a new version of Oracle, and we are taking advantage of that to convert some of our legacy IT platforms into one financial platform across all of our shared services in Asia. So by itself this generates the opportunity for a lot of standardization and productivity gains for us.

Hugo Walkinshaw: And I would say that reflects the nature of your business as you've grown hugely by acquisition, so you've picked up a very diverse portfolio of businesses and I suspect you've got a reasonably diverse patchwork of ERPs around the place.

Rodrigo Martins: Yes - but it's interesting because this Oracle implementation I'm referring to is only within our own shared services organization. Having said that, some of the other businesses that need a more robust platform may want to use our system. It's quite a unique situation; maybe specific to GE.

Hugo Walkinshaw: That is an interesting one - but it sounds like it might be a debate in itself!

Erik Moller Nielsen: Before we move on: like Chen we're also looking at the span of control. Right now we have ten associates per team leader but in some experimental places we've moved to 15. We're going to see if we can do that everywhere. And the organization will also roll out in the first quarter a new and flatter structure, so that in each department we will accept only three layers, from the departmental head or the process head to the associates. Then on cost-savings, because we've had quite huge productivity gains through process optimization this year, we've decided the extra capacity we have gained from that means that we can close one of our six sites, so we're closing the site in China and from February/March next year we'll only have five sites in Asia instead of six.

Hugo Walkinshaw: So, along the lines of Rodrigo's comment about consolidation and getting more scale into a smaller number of locations - which is actually helping the span of control.

Erik Moller Nielsen: Yes, and the 700-plus people we have now in Guangzhou will be replaced in our other five centers that have a lower FTE cost and can handle things just as efficiently.

Hugo Walkinshaw: OK. Let's move on to look at talent and people: what do you see happening with the economic climate in terms of your ability to find and retain the people that you need?

Chen Theng Aik: I think much like any other location that's popular for shared services, Malaysia is no different in that what happens is, our more experienced guys tend to be poached quite often: that will continue to be a challenge. As we train people up and they get two or three years of good, solid experience, we always run the risk of losing them to new centers that open up and grow quickly and come looking for experienced hires. So that emphasis is always there, to continue either to do a lot of job rotation or increase their scope so they can have their internal career progression without needing to look elsewhere.

The other area is linked to a point I made earlier: we have traditionally been focused on the more standard accounting processes, but now we are moving into the more customer facing side: the billings, the queries, and the collections, so we do need to develop that kind of talent pool that can handle customers, take calls, do credit collections. Those will be my two main areas of focus in terms of talent over the next few months.

Hugo Walkinshaw: That's really interesting for me, because the initial assumption when you look at this topic is that - given the crisis and the fact that people are losing their jobs around the world - you'd think that maybe there'd be a bigger pool available on the market because, perhaps, university leavers might have less opportunity within industry and we might have more access, and other people might not want to jump ship if they're with a company that can offer stability given the circumstances that we have now. So my initial reaction was that talent would be a slightly easier problem to deal with.

However, having spoken with a few people, and now having just heard that from Chen, it actually sounds like it's business as usual: that there are more players coming into the shared services space and actually it's just going to carry on being a competition for the talent.

Erik Moller Nielsen: There is still competition for talent - but we think we can manage reasonably well here in the Philippines. We see high attrition in India - and that's not unusual there - but this year we are below our target of 15 per cent in Manila, and we don't see this as a challenge for the entry-level positions we're hiring for, even over a two- or three-year horizon. We find that also - given a bit more time - we can hire for the more specialized positions, having just hired a Black Belt candidate and so on. It's not a major issue - it's certainly not stopping our expansion, let's say.

Rodrigo Martins: The focus for us related to people is to retain and to develop. One of my priorities for next year is to put further structure into our career plans: make sure that we heavily promote our folks into GE businesses. Obviously I agree with your point that in crisis situations you tend to have an increased outside talent pool available, but you've really got to take care of the people you have in-house first.

Hugo Walkinshaw: You're right: you've got homegrown talent and it's about trying to keep them, and I think the instability of the current environment is going to influence a few people over the next three to six months, but at some point the recovery will start and it'll be slow but once people start seeing that recovery and that there are other organizations out there putting shared services in, they'll be coming for your best people again. So I think there may be a small window of people sitting tight because they're feeling more secure in any port in the storm, but I don't think it'll last very long, and I think that's where focusing on development and retention will be crucial.

. .

Let's talk a little bit about outsourcing. . . I imagine all of us to some extent, somewhere, somehow are using some kind of third-party outsourced services. I'm interested in two points of view here. One is, how do you see in the short term your strategy around using outsourcers changing, if at all; and the second one is, do you think there'll be any impact for the outsourcing industry based on what's happening right now?

Rodrigo Martins: Looking at the outsourcing that we do, the focus is to assess the value of what you are getting for the money that you are paying, taking special consideration to quality, not only cost. Placing higher scrutiny on the services that are being provided and the prices that are being charged by the outsourcing firms: this is what we have been doing all along but I believe that in tough times the scrutiny tends to increase. Also we give a lot of importance to strong partnerships, which in times of hardship are expected to help.

Although this is may not be generally the case for our group, I would suspect that some companies would now prefer more variable capacity, as opposed to fixed capacity, and thus will be looking for opportunities to outsource rather than develop capacity in-house.

Hugo Walkinshaw: My initial response also was to think that people will be wanting to use outsourcing more for exactly that reason. They'll be saying “right, it's much easier to make a cost-reduction, so I want to get another 20 per cent cost-down, and I want to make it somebody else's problem so I'll give it to a third party because also I get the variability".

Erik Moller Nielsen: We're not working with a hybrid model of outsourcing any further; the third-party outsourcing is done straight from our business units - but I'm sure that the current climate we're facing now will lead to an acceleration of that. Usually we get a chance to bid for it, but sometimes it's just going straight to a third party. I know third-party providers are knocking on the door of head office! We have an interesting benchmarking exercise ongoing at the moment, and we'll get the results soon, where we've been benchmarking three of our centers against third-party BPO providers to make sure that we're not off-line, and that we're competitive on services and cost-levels.

Chen Theng Aik: I think my situation is quite similar to Erik's in that we're mostly captive; once in a while from the business there is the opportunity to try some outsourcing.

Hugo Walkinshaw: I have another thought on outsourcing which you can take away, which is: I've always been interested in some of the outsourcers - particularly the larger ones - regarding their funding model, in terms of how they actually manage to take on some of the contracts. They sign the deal and then go through a period of anything from six to eighteen months in transition, and very often their fee-income doesn't start until they go live, so they actually have to fund a large amount of the design and implementation - and I'm interested as to whether those outsourcers still have access to the same amount of funding and credit that they used to considering the worries of the banking industry. Are the deep pockets going to continue to support this kind of funding model?

But let's move on: finally, in terms of the here-and-now, what are the things that shared services leaders should be looking out for in terms of quick wins, and immediate priorities? What are the two or three areas to watch out for, for the other shared services leaders out there?

Chen Theng Aik: I think it's all about getting to the next level and not being complacent and saying things like “yeah, we run a pretty good show, with a pretty good cost-base, and we don't do anything else". I think all the things that we've said here today need to be taken up to the next level of intensity in terms of cost-downs, in terms of business process improvements, in terms of increasing span of control: I think it all has to be all-guns-firing on all those points. At times like these no-one can afford to stand still.

Erik Moller Nielsen: I'm not sure about quick wins, but I think key focus areas right now would be to maintain a truly low-cost operation, to keep the third-party outsourcers at bay; and secondly to keep your key talent that you have - without that, it's very hard to run the process and optimize it. And you need to keep maximum agility, whether it's shrinking the organization, or increasing rapidly: I think to stay nimble is the key right now.

Hugo Walkinshaw: I think again I can see those thoughts being at the forefront of almost every business unit's mind, and the interesting thing for me is that from a shared services perspective we're probably the nimblest part of the business. Our day-to-day trade is being nimble, being a service provider, and it's a challenge we wrestle with in all business environments, so I feel actually that shared services is better suited to this kind of environment than almost any other part of the business.

Rodrigo Martins: I fully agree with you. And I would add to that: remember why you exist in the first place. . . Just because we're in the middle of an economic crisis now, there's no need to reinvent everything. Remember why you exist and keep focused - of course, be aware of what's going on with the crisis, but don't get distracted by it. Focus on the day-to-day execution of your goals; and manage what is in your control.

Hugo Walkinshaw: I think it's actually a tremendous opportunity. I know it's difficult at the moment to see too many bright lights and rosy pictures, but actually almost all SSCs must be feeling a lot more empowered; there's a lot more focus on people turning to them for help with the business, there's expansion of scope, there's new opportunity: the only situation I can see where it'd be a problem being in shared services is if you're in a place where your organization actually completely fails, and then frankly you're in real trouble. But I would say it looks like you're in a massive high if you're in a shared service center as long as your organization's still going. We had a bit of a discussion internally around this and we think it's a good place to be right now. It's time to shine.

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