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AstraZeneca: Change management must be a core HR capability

As one of the world’s leading pharmaceuticals companies, AstraZeneca’s 67,000-strong team works across international and technical boundaries to create innovative treatments for some of the most significant and serious medical conditions. Having spent more than 17 years at the company, Hiedi Bourne, Strategy and Business Excellence Director for Global HR Services, talks to the Sunday Times HR Business Network about AstraZeneca’s approach to change management.

Successful businesses know that standing still is simply not an option. In fact, faced with so many different pressures – from increased competition to shareholder demands, economic downturns to technological innovations – change has become a constant for many organisations.

In her new role as Strategy and Business Excellence Director for Global HR at AstraZeneca, Hiedi Bourne acknowledges the importance of managing change.

“Being adaptable and agile is key to any company’s success, especially in a challenging economic environment,” she comments. “And that means change management must be a core capability of any HR team.”

Globalisation has been one of the main motives for change within the pharmaceuticals industry in recent years. With operations in more than 100 markets around the world, AstraZeneca is increasingly focusing on creating efficiencies and economies of scale by introducing global standards.

“To unlock the true potential of working globally, we need our people to be able to look outside of our individual markets and functions and work across geographical and functional boundaries. This often means making changes – whether it’s launching a new product or putting a new system in place,” Hiedi explains.

Think global, act local

Ahead of any major change to the business, AstraZeneca sets up a core change programme team. Members of the team are chosen for their capabilities and experience and, for major change programmes, might include change management experts from external consultancies. Stakeholder management is critical as part of the change process, right from feasibility to business case to implementation, and the change plan runs from beginning to end to ensure successful change.

“In a nutshell, change management is about defining where we want to get to and planning carefully for how we will get there, so that the end outcome is successful. By inviting people to engage with the change planning process, it becomes collaborative,” says Hiedi. “We’re passionate about the customer voice, for example; we have to be sure that any changes we implement will meet our customers’ needs.”

For international change programmes, the team works closely with the markets and functions that will be affected and there is normally a phased implementation.

“When we’re introducing a change across a number of different markets and functions, the team has to be aware of local differences as well as key differentiators. One country might already have a whizz-bang solution in place and for company-wide benefit and to achieve worldwide standard solutions for the right things, the change may seem like a step backwards. Equally, it may lift the whole company up to a new standard. It’s the job of the programme team to understand the true customer value generators, work through any concerns and implement a successful change,” Hiedi explains.

If working well, this means that cost, benefits, statutory rules or cultural requirements are kept in balance to optimise the economies of scale in using a global standard.

Start up the communications engine at the right time

Hiedi also acknowledges the importance of internal communications in the change management programme.

Once the core team has defined the desired outcome and implementation plan – and has a sense of the impact of the change – it considers how it will be communicated to the affected internal stakeholders, using a range of communications channels.

“We segment our internal stakeholders and focus on developing compelling messages for each group. Your senior executives are going to respond to different messaging to the broader employee base, for example,” says Hiedi. “In my experience, there is often a core group of stakeholders at middle management level that has the greatest impact; they have enormous influence in their teams and can really make change happen. If you can harness their collective power, you can achieve a lot.”

Long-term measurement is key

“My background is in finance so I’m a big advocate of using metrics to help change. After all, if you don’t measure it, how do you know that you’ve got there? Often you have a gut feeling about whether something’s worked or not, but if you haven’t measured it, you can’t prove to yourself – or others – that it’s been successful,” explains Hiedi. “Hard facts and figures count for a lot and can give the team a real sense of achievement at the end of the project.”

Hiedi recommends integrating a maximum of three high-level Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) in the initial planning phase that can be tracked throughout the project. Monitoring any deviations to the expected plan and taking remedial actions will help you to demonstrate with confidence that you have realised the benefits you set out to achieve.

“It’s so easy to walk away at the end of a change programme and not think about what happens next. It’s absolutely crucial that the project is handed back as ‘business in usual’ and that the new owners commit to regular post-project reviews. Only then can you be sure you’ve really unlocked the benefits,” she comments.

Nurture change management skills

The increasingly global focus of AstraZeneca – and many other companies – indicates that the pace of change in business is unlikely to slow down, and is likely to need to move faster. So what does this mean for HR professionals?

“Change management skills are going to be even more essential, especially if you’re working across borders in this global business environment. I think we will see a move towards organisation change management centres of expertise rather than having change management experts in individual functions – that could really increase the success rate of change programmes,” concludes Hiedi.