The EFMD business magazine

The EFMD business magazine

Driving customer retention and project success through professionalisation


Atos is a global leader in digital transformation with 105,000 employees and annual revenue of €11 billion. It is the European number one in Cybersecurity, Cloud and High-Performance Computing, providing tailored end-to-end solutions for all industries in 71 countries.

Atos delivers digital transformations, and project failure is costly. Successful mergers and acquisitions had brought differing company-specific standards. They recognised their Career Framework lacked an offering for Senior Project Managers to help them progress to Programme Managers. Programmes are inherently more complex than projects, hence at higher risk of failure; therefore, well-developed programme-managers are key to reducing failure and retaining customers.

Atos’ senior leaders recognise that successful project delivery, i.e. hitting all the metrics whilst engaging and retaining the client, is only possible with a combination of technical ability (defined as the “What”) and inspiring leadership (the “How”). They recognised the “How” aspect was missing.

In summary, Atos recognised they needed global performance standards, complete career pathways, and development that retained their highest-level talent. In order that Senior Project Managers would live and breathe the “How” in a way that was focussed on business outcomes, Atos wanted the development to be totally grounded in Atos’ business reality.

Their task was to find a learning partner who could rise to those challenges.

The approach

Cranfield University is the UK’s only wholly postgraduate university, creating leaders for technology in aerospace, defence & security, energy, environment and agrifood, management, manufacturing, transport systems and water, and features in the UK top ten for commercial research, consultancy and professional development.

Cranfield Executive Development (CED) has access to university expertise and hence provides a unique blend of leadership facilitation, consultancy and technology-based solutions that move businesses to future desired states. CED utilises data-driven Design4Impact™ methodologies that ensure the clients’ business reality is at the heart of every solution.

Cranfield demonstrated the “How” could be addressed with a unique Grounded Experiential Learning (GEL) process. At its heart, GEL is a custom-built business simulation, so closely replicating an organisation’s realities that it feels real. Combining ideas, implications, experience, and reflection, delivered in a cyclical cadence creates behavioural shifts in participants, thereby shortening the gap between transfer of learning to the workplace.

Grounded: Cranfield offered to create from scratch a unique Atos business simulation comprising an unfolding (fictional) client story, weaving in Learning about world-class programme management, Atos’ processes, systems, and language.

Atos grounded experiential learning experience
Fig 1: Grounded Experiential Learning Summary

Experiential: The business simulation would mirror Atos’ typical project life-cycle, posing a series of challenges/dilemmas addressed by role-played meetings with key stakeholders played by Cranfield faculty. Participants would prepare the meetings; some would participate in the role-play; others observe and offer feedback during detailed debriefings. Debriefs would provide feedback on participants’ actions/behaviours, explicitly linked to classroom learning content. This would further ground the learning within reality to shorten the transfer of the learning gap.

Atos design4impact
Fig 2: Design4Impact

The solution

The programme focussed on critical Atos competencies, identified by examining global alignment: notably Financial Management, Managing customers and stakeholders, General Management skills and Relationship Management.

Cranfield interviewed a “diagonal slice of the business”, i.e. horizontal with a range of departments/functions to ensure breadth, and vertical with a range of levels including senior leaders, potential participants and those who would report to participants.

Cranfield’s Design4Impact™ methodology, a unique, systemic approach to impact management developed from Dr Wendy Shepherd’s doctoral research into ‘Organisational Level Impact of Leadership Development’. Design4Impact™ centres on five key drivers of impact that transform individual Knowledge Skills & Behaviours (KSB’s) into organisational level outcomes.

The KSB’s mapping against the Design4Impact™ Drivers and granular understanding of Atos challenges and culture enabled Cranfield to develop a bespoke GEL business simulation that replicated Atos’ reality. This ensured that every conversation within the simulation was aligned to Atos business impact.

The final design comprised face-to-face modules, intervening webinars, online learning, 360 feedback and coaching. While the design was totally grounded in Atos’ reality, the world did not stay still around Atos, so it was regularly updated to stay aligned with business realities. Senior leaders attended sessions, sharing insights and experiences from current challenges, e.g. Atos’ involvement in the 2016 Olympics.

We ran team-based evening activities to encourage networking for collaboration, including Scavenger hunts, “Cook your own dinner”, quizzes and motor racing using Cranfield’s Formula 1 Simulator.

And then COVID-19 appeared… When the pandemic hit, the programme had been running successfully for five years. The interactive nature of the delivery, and the real-life feel of the GEL simulation, were described as two key reasons for its success, so a switch to online was potentially detrimental. But to reflect Atos’ global nature, one GEL simulation already deliberately replicated the virtual world, testing participants’ ability to engage stakeholders when working remotely, so its inclusion in the original design was prophetic. Cranfield was able to swiftly re-design the whole programme to an online format without decreasing engagement or impact.

statistics summary
Fig 3: Statistics Summary

The impact

Long-term evaluation results demonstrated high adoption of the 5 Design4Impact™ Behavioural Drivers that create organisational change. Several themes emerged from each Driver:

Sensemaking and problem solving

  • More innovative, out-of-the-box thinking
  • Ability to resolve and reduce project “escalations”
  • Deeper understanding of issues

Conversations and communication

  • Stepping up to difficult conversations and politically sensitive situations
  • Working with diverse cultures
  • Bringing unconscious behaviours into consciousness

Engagement and motivation

  • Mentoring/coaching/developing others, sharing best practice
  • Using a wider range of techniques to achieve “buy-in” and tackle dis-engagement

Alignment and priorities

  • Strategic, big-picture thinking, customer focus
  • Better work/life balance
  • Taking ownership and accountability

Relationships and networks

  • Effective voice in senior/C-suite meetings/forums
  • Building value-driven stakeholder/customer relationships, partnerships and networks

In a long-term evaluation study involving in-depth interviews, every participant shared examples of projects saved from failure and improved customer retention, each citing £100,000’s worth of revenue.

Participants are from 26 countries, covering every major business unit and continent, creating collaborations across merger/acquisition lines. 76% of programme applicants enrol because they have seen previous participants’ successes. 49% of evaluation respondents were promoted after the programme. Those not promoted saw their career positively impacted by increased range and level of responsibilities.

The programme is now recognised across Atos as a career-defining programme that conveys a mark of proficiency and credibility. It is seen as the key piece for the transformation of Senior Project Managers into Programme Managers. Managers continually put forward employees, and some specifically to develop their successors.

The long-term evaluation study included managers who reported increases in project success and improved customer retention. Those who had previously been participants themselves described shifts in attitude and behaviours reminiscent of their own change post-programme. And the commonality of experience and vocabulary they now share enables more effective collaboration through greater understanding and trust.

There is now executive-level recognition within Atos of the positive business impact of Learning and Development. The programme is regarded highly within Atos as a key development for connecting, growing and retaining talent. All of this has been made possible by the commitment to collaborative working by L&D professionals from both Atos and Cranfield.

We created a video featuring Cranfield and Atos stakeholders describing the programme. Atos participants (on their final module) share their experiences, describing how the learning has already made an impact. You can view this here.

See more articles from Vol.15 Issue 03 – EiP’21.

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