Seeing the bigger picture: How experts at Atos are becoming trusted advisors
IfM Engage has developed a bespoke executive education programme for IT experts at the global technology company, Atos.
All technology and manufacturing companies face the same challenge. Your business relies on people with outstanding expertise. These experts, by definition, need to be specialists but they also need to have an end-to-end view of how the business works – to see ‘the big picture’ – if they are to find new and better ways to meet their customers’ needs. However, experts are often given training and development which deepens their expertise but does not necessarily broaden their knowledge of organisations. Atos decided to address this challenge by developing a wide-ranging executive education programme specifically for its most talented experts.
Atos SE is a huge global company with annual revenues of around €11 billion and 93,000 staff working in 72 countries. It provides a range of digital services such as consulting and systems integration, cloud operations, big data and cyber security as well as payment and transactional services. Atos’s ambition is to be the undisputed partner of choice for customer digital transformation. It must, therefore provide a fully integrated view, right from infrastructure to application and functional domain to satisfy the needs of its customers and help them become more competitive. Ramon van Knippenberg, from Atos’s Global Talent team, said: “With our experts working in so many different countries and service lines, we need them to see beyond their own geographical and functional boundaries and develop an ‘end-to-end’ view of the business – understanding what the client (and often the client’s customer) wants and how the whole organisation works together to make that happen.”
Atos also regards its experts as important catalysts for change. Ramon said: “Management structures and reward systems can sometimes militate against change. But experts tend to be less constrained by such things. They just want the best solution for their clients.”
Having acknowledged the value of experts, Atos is determined to attract and retain the very best in each area in which it operates. “We want to show that there’s a real career path for experts in this company. You do not need to become a manager to make a career for yourself in Atos.”
“With our experts working in so many different countries and service lines, we need them to see beyond their geographical and functional boundaries and develop an ‘end-to-end’ view of the business – understanding what the client (and often the client’s customer) wants and how the whole organisation works together to make that happen.”
Which is why, in 2013, Atos started looking for a provider of executive education that could develop a talent development programme for its experts that would mirror its existing ‘Gold for Managers’ business leadership development programme. From the start, the Global Talent team had a clear sense of the kind of education provider it wanted. To give the programme the appropriate level of prestige within the organisation it had to be one of the world’s leading universities or business schools and it had to be willing to create a programme tailored very precisely to Atos’s needs. Those needs included working with the University of Paderborn in Germany.
Getting two universities to collaborate on programme development and delivery certainly added to the complexity of the task. But Atos had a very good reason for insisting. When it acquired Siemens IT and Solutions in 2011, it also took over its relationship with the Cooperative Computing and Communication Laboratory at Paderborn, known as C-LAB. C-LAB is a joint research and development laboratory, originally set up by the pioneering German computer company Nixdorf – itself taken over by Siemens in 1990 – in which academics and experts from Atos work together on a range of research projects. For the Gold for Experts programme, C-Lab was always going to be a core part of the delivery team.
Atos presented its requirements to some of the top institutions in Europe and the US and chose the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Manufacturing. Ramon said: “We were very much looking for a partnership – an organisation which would be willing to co-develop a course with us. If you buy something off the shelf, your competitors can do the same. This was not our philosophy. The IfM had the expertise we were looking for around innovation and technology management, the experience of developing and delivering successful executive education programmes and was prepared to work with us and our colleagues in Paderborn to create a programme that is unique to Atos.”
The Universities of Paderborn and Cambridge have some similar features. Paderborn may only be 40 years old but it is recognised as a leading centre of computing research and is home to the world’s largest computer museum, the Heinz Nixdorf MuseumsForum.
Cambridge, meanwhile, has been in the business of advancing knowledge for more than 800 years endowing the city with a very unique architectural and cultural heritage. Judith Shawcross, Head, Executive and Professional Development at IfM Engage said: “Those of us who live in and around Cambridge take it for granted but it does provide a genuinely inspirational setting for our courses.”
From Paderborn’s perspective, working with IfM Engage was also an opportunity to hone its own executive and professional education capabilities. Professor Gregor Engels from the Faculty of Computer Science, Electrical Engineering and Mathematics at the University of Paderborn said: “Extending our teaching beyond students to people working in industry is one of the University’s primary objectives. Working alongside an experienced education provider like the IfM Engage has taught us a lot about how to structure and present courses to industry.”
Creating the course
IfM Engage uses the Kirkpatrick Business Partnership Model to underpin its executive and professional development programmes. To get a clear picture of the context for the programme, Atos’s first recourse was to Journey 2016, a report produced every two years by Atos’s ‘Scientific Community’ – a group of the company’s top experts – which anticipates the technology shifts that will affect the business environment over the following four years.
The IfM Engage team then worked with Atos’s senior executives to understand the business, its strategy and challenges, how they defined their ‘expert talent’ and what they wanted them to achieve. Armed with this information, IfM ECS was able to guide a process of programme development structured around clear themes which integrated IfM’s expertise on innovation and technology management and Paderborn’s on the technologies themselves. The result was a programme of three one-week modules taking place over a sixth-month period, the first and last held in Cambridge and the middle one in Paderborn. In both locations, the course is delivered by a combination of Paderborn and Cambridge tutors and very senior executives from Atos.
Ramon said: “Cambridge has guided us very well through the process of defining programme aims, module aims and learning outcomes of all the sessions. The end result is an integrated programme with a variety of sessions, some existing Cambridge and Paderborn ones tailored to our needs, some newly designed sessions and some provided by Atos people.”
Going for gold
It is hard to get on the Gold for Experts course. Just 30 people are selected by the Atos Group Executive Committee to join each intake and the programme is only run twice a year. The chosen participants, understandably, have very high expectations of it. Ramon observes that the profiles of the experts can present something of a challenge: “With the experts, every group is different with different interests which means no course is ever the same.”
Feedback from the participants can reflect the demands they make on the course. A member of the most recent cohort, while expressing his appreciation, made it abundantly clear that he was not prepared to take anything as read: “You interested me, challenged me, surprised me, even irritated me sometimes but you certainly did not leave me indifferent. I have had some very inspiring times and appreciated all this knowledge put in its global perspective giving a consistent vision of the challenges we, as Atos, but also as individuals, are going to face in the coming years.”
Learning through doing
‘Active learning’ is central to IfM Engage’s design ethos: applying new principles both within the modules and back in the workplace so that they are fully understood and assimilated. A further benefit of this highly interactive approach is the bond it forms between participants. After six months they know each other extremely well, and leave with a network of fellow experts they can call on from across the business. A key component of active learning is project work. Every participant submits a project proposal designed to address a real issue of strategic importance. Six projects are selected by Atos and the participants choose which ones they would like to work on. Based on those preferences, five are assigned to each project, supervised by three tutors: one from the IfM, one from Paderborn and one from Atos. They work on the projects throughout the sixth months of the programme and present their findings on the last day to a panel of very senior Atos Executives.
Some of the project ideas have already been taken up and are being developed within the business. For example, the thinking behind Atos’s current new offering for Hyperscale Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Hyperscale Services, due to be launched in 2016, was developed as a project idea. These services are already live for a number of customers and further innovations in this area are on their way.
Judith Shawcross said: “Projects are a really important way of ensuring that new skills and knowledge are fully assimilated by the delegates. Putting what you have learnt into practice, with the support of your tutors and in-house sponsors, is an effective way of learning and can, of course, have very immediate benefits for the company.”
Atos has just signed up for another two years. The Global Talent team is already seeing higher than average retention levels amongst those who have been on the course. And, as Ramon explained: “What we are getting out of the programme are ‘trusted advisors’ and ‘networked influencers’. ‘Trusted advisor’ is an important concept at Atos. To be trusted you need to know what you are talking about but, crucially, you also need to recognise your limitations and know who to ask to get the right answers. And that’s why being part of a network is so important.” As more and more experts go through the programme, the network expands. And this is going to be critical in helping Atos realise its ambitions.