Axiom Telecom was a traditional bricks-and-mortar retailer, wholesaler and distributor when Dominic Keogh-Peters joined as Group People Director in 2013. At the time, the organisation had 350 stores and operational presence across nine countries but it was facing new challenges in the digital age.

Competition was rising and consumer habits were changing fast. There was no longer a need to promote popular phone models as a retailer or distributor because customers now knew what they wanted and it was difficult to change their views. Popularity of key brands meant that suppliers controlled the pricing more. Continual advances in technology meant stock aged sooner and devalued quickly. As a result, margins were being squeezed while operational expenditure remained high, reducing profits significantly.

Becoming a digital platform distributor presented a pathway to ensure Axiom Telecom remained as one of the Gulf’s leading brands. This would connect suppliers with retailers and provide the technology, supply-chain infrastructure and financial capabilities to help run their businesses seamlessly. It would disrupt the traditional distribution model.

Axiom Telecom needed a new team to carry out its new vision but it was not a technology company. How could it compete for talent with the likes of Google, Microsoft and tech start-ups in the Gulf? The organisation’s leaders decided to take the fourth pathway to digital transformation and created HYKE in 2019 – a future-ready start-up with a separate identity. It made the difficult decision to gradually downsize and restructure Axiom Telecom’s existing businesses to remain competitive in a very different marketplace.

Aligning the people architecture to the new business model

Keogh-Peters and his team partnered with leaders to develop a multi-year roadmap to align their people architecture with the new business model.

‘I do struggle with our profession sometimes and that kind of neediness for “a seat at the table”. But without us [the people function], without creating the right brand, our employee value proposition, reward, and aligning all those things together, most businesses would be dead in the water,’ Keogh-Peters said.

‘You’ve got those megatrends that are going on across the world, which will not stop,’ he added. This was in reference to the changes shaped by social media, collaborative technologies, the next generation’s expectations of work and the ability to ‘work anytime, anywhere’ in a globalised economy.

It’s not just saying, “Yes, we need to do this” to the CEO. [It’s] saying, “We need to do this because, and if we don’t…”. If you don’t get your HR offer, systems, processes and the things that shape a culture right, then that’s when the business fails. Because all you’ll have done is just bought some new computer systems, but it’ll be the same people doing the same thing.’

Creating a different employee value proposition to attract the right talent 

It was a strategic move to create the new arm of the company, HYKE, to attract new talent. This gave the people function the freedom to come up with a different employee value proposition, culture and structure independently of the existing one at Axiom Telecom. By the third year of its roadmap, when it was time to recruit its platform team, Keogh-Peters and his team had set up the new people architecture to suit the new talent, from onboarding and reward to performance management and learning and development.

HYKE employees work in the same building as Axiom Telecom’s head office employees but the culture couldn’t be more different. Historically, Axiom Telecom’s employees wore suits and were very formal. In contrast, HYKE’s culture more closely resembles a tech start-up – with people walking around in headphones and hoodies. People are not worried if someone starts work in the afternoon because they’re measured by their KPIs, not by face time. 

‘Talent is self-selecting. A Python developer would look at us [Axiom Telecom] six years ago and laugh and go, “Why would I work for someone like that?”’ Keogh-Peters said.

A moment of victory for Keogh-Peters was when he recruited a big data developer from Tokyo to join HYKE in 2020, which also demonstrated the power of LinkedIn. ‘I said to him, “It’s not an interview question. I’d just really, really like to know – why would you want to come and join us?” He said, “I’ve seen some of the [LinkedIn] profiles of the people working there and I could learn from them.”’

‘Then you realise, it’s the whole chicken and egg thing. Once you start getting those really good people on board, and you continue doing it, it builds and builds.’

Restructuring to improve operational efficiencies

Sixty percent of Axiom Telecom’s roles have been optimised or changed as result of the shift to becoming a digital platform distributor. Keogh-Peters and his team also played a key role in this, which they did without support from external consultants. 

Changing consumer behaviour meant that Axiom Telecom no longer needed as many salespeople. Certain popular phone models were simply ordered online, so there wasn’t a need to have people sell those phones. 

Keogh-Peters explained, ‘We kept a number of our retail stores… so people still know us in the Gulf and our brand is there, so that was the old part of the business [downsized]. We repair all the phones on behalf of the manufacturers, so we kept that element of the business. The other businesses, we gently shut down.’

Knowing your talent 

Keogh-Peters said the workforce planning was a ‘very large piece of work’, which relied on collaboration. ‘We said, “Right, this is where we aim to be in three years. These are the [business] divisions that we will have.” Then I worked with my team and the line managers and said, “You need to build a structure for me. You need to give me an idea of the skills and the competencies that you might require within three years.” Then we made the decision to review the current workforce and say, “Do we build or buy? What skills do we need to bring in?”’

‘What we could then do is have the conversations to transition the current people. Particularly in areas like “traditional IT”. These were people we could upskill to use in the platform scheme [HYKE],’ Keogh-Peters said. ‘For the elite salespeople, who we knew could really sell, they were transitioned to sell our white-label accessories, which have a larger [profit] margin.’ To identify the best talent pool, their salespeople were assessed against the competencies of an ideal salesperson and past sales performance. 

Keogh-Peters and his team still had to maintain engagement with the current workforce during the transition. ‘My learning from this was that you just have to be as transparent as possible. It’s constantly letting people know what’s going on. But it wasn’t an HR thing. I worked on communications with the CEO on a frequent basis. We used videos where the CEO spoke to the company about where we were going and why we had to do it.’ 

The HYKE leadership team also introduced ‘townhalls’ where people could ask the CEO questions. It was a very different way of communicating because the corporate culture in the Gulf tends to be top down. People rarely question their leaders openly.

Dealing with survivor syndrome 

Keogh-Peters was insistent that employees who no longer had roles in the new business were well cared for. He said, ‘We made some very generous redundancy packages and went above and beyond to make sure that people were looked after. There were basics, such as helping with CVs, interviewing, the other softer stuff… because there are complications in the Gulf around residency status, medical insurance and so on.’ 

‘My argument to the business was we're not going to lock them in a glass box so they can’t talk to their colleagues. They will be feeding back how they’ve been treated, what we’ve done for them. The better we do that, the better the feedback that goes back into the business, and the more that will support and drive our engagement. We can’t get it wrong.’ 

‘We also did a lot of work on where people had been moved to other areas, been reskilled, or upskilled, or when there were internal vacancies — we celebrated that success, so we made sure there was a monthly communication on that.’ 

‘Another thing that we did was we were very open and transparent with statistics around internal promotions, internal vacancies being filled. So, people could constantly see that this wasn’t just corporate spin.’ 

Managing performance through regular feedback

What people expect from a workplace is rapidly changing. People have come to expect instant feedback from all areas of the organisation, social recognition and online collaboration, Keogh-Peters said. A game changer for managing performance is having a communications system where people can easily update each other, celebrate success and share knowledge. At Axiom Telecom, people often post messages to celebrate when they complete a course and thank their managers for the opportunity to attend. And messages aren’t just work related – people post to wish each other a Happy Eid and to welcome new colleagues. The organisation uses Google Currents, which is similar to Workplace from Facebook, Slack for Enterprises and a combination of Microsoft Yammer and Teams.

Additionally, HYKE’s performance management system includes a social recognition scheme called ‘kudos points’. A colleague can recognise another colleague for something amazing and select which values they displayed. Their manager and colleagues get to see what they’ve done. It feeds into the other colleague’s performance review and there is a more holistic 360 view of their contribution to the business. 

That, for Keogh-Peters, represents real digital transformation because it appeals to a new workforce’s expectations. 

Enabling learning from anywhere

People have also come to expect visually engaging learning content that they can access anytime, anywhere and on any device. Changing how the learning content is delivered to meet these expectations was another big part of digital transformation for Keogh-Peters. He has a dedicated team member who creates digital content to educate employees on the organisation’s products and how to sell them. The team member also supports the organisation’s internal and external communications by creating content to support key leadership messages and reinforce culture through storytelling. Besides developing content internally, the organisation partners with highly accessible learning content providers such as Udemy to train their people on core and specific job family competencies.

Key learning points

  • Be transparent. If you want people to be part of the journey, tell them where you’re going to go. Be open and honest. Because the fastest communication method known to man is gossip. You fill that void as best you can by just telling the truth. Sometimes that’s a tough message to give. But I think, on reflection, people will look back and say, “Thank you for being honest and telling me what to do there”.’
  • Protect your brand. ‘The internet has a very long memory. So when you manage change, it needs to be managed very delicately. I struggle with Glassdoor because it’s polarised and you can’t change it. So you only need one angry person to write something horrible about your company on it and it’s there forever. I hope people could look at it and be rational and say, “Does this make sense?” But if you have 500 people writing the same thing, then there’s a message in there… Social media is very powerful.’
  • Celebrate success. Whether it’s a promotion of someone who has moved into another area or a key milestone in a project, share that with everybody and let them know what’s going on.’
  • Create change enablers. ‘You’ve articulated to people why the change is needed, and explained their role in it. It’s fine to get a brilliant video from the CEO or to get updates from HR. But if someone is having a coffee and they hear it from someone they respect, that can help you with the change as well. For example, we’ve just launched a new set of courses on Udemy. On Google Currents, people are posting, “I went on this programme. It’s amazing.” These are the people that will influence everyone more than the CEO ever could because these are their peers.’

See our partner Personio’s Change Management Guidelines for more information on recruiting change agents internally.

Our digital transformation series continues next with Operating efficiently: implementing HR information systems in SMEs.

The full series

Digital transformation: practical insights from the
people profession

Our article series showcases the role of people professionals and their experiences in helping their organisations navigate and evolve through digital change

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About the author

Hayfa Mohdzaini, Senior Research Adviser | Interim Head of Research

Hayfa joined us in 2020. Hayfa has degrees in computer science and human resources from University of York and University of Warwick respectively.

She started her career in the private sector working in IT and then HR and has been writing for the HR community since 2012. Previously she worked for another membership organisation (UCEA) where she expanded the range of pay and workforce benchmarking data available to the higher education HR community. 

She is interested in how the people profession can contribute to good work through technology and has written several publications on our behalf, as well as judging our people management awards, speaking at conferences and exhibitions and providing commentary to the media on the subjects of people and technology.

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