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The Evolution of the Shared Service Centre in Global Mobility – Where to from here?

Shared service centres (SSC) have become a common feature of Global Mobility teams, providing offshored administrative support to the function at a fraction of the equivalent cost in the HQ or regional office locations. This model maximises cost savings by defining optimum delivery methods according to the complexity of the work involved – one set of duties is ascribed a certain level of complexity and so requires X solution – another set of duties is ascribed a lesser level of complexity and so can be conducted more cheaply by way of Y solution. It works – but we don’t live in a stagnant world, and those locations in which SSCs are typically situated – India, the Philippines, Eastern Europe – are developing rapidly, and their populations are increasingly looking for meaningful work with defined career paths. So what happens when SSCs mature? How do you know when your SSC is operating to its maximum capability level? And where is the logical conclusion? Global Mobility is ultimately a support function. Is there an expiry date on regional hubs and HQ mobility teams – are we all heading for a SSC future?

Alex Gasmena works in Manila and has years of experience in setting up SS teams – at Accenture, Amec Foster Wheeler and now Pearson. What does he feel are the advantages of a smooth running, highly evolved SS team?

“The organization can achieve process simplification, process efficiency (i.e. faster turn around time), and process consistency,” he says. In Alex’s view, a truly great SS function is involved at every level of the mobility process. Alex sees a bright future for SS teams if the business has the courage to move away from purely transactional focus to a more all-encompassing view of SS’s potential. “Given the right technology deployment and SSC leaders understanding the business, the future is moving away from just transaction processes in the SSC to the entire end to end processes including policy development. The reason for this is, as you move to end to end support, the SSC has access to complete data that gives them a holistic understanding to actually craft the policies aligned to business imperatives.” Alex clearly envisages a much broader scope of responsibility for SSCs moving forward. Which begs the questions – are SSC employees ready for this shift? “SSCs today are fast evolving. Many are starting to use AI and robotics in their transaction processes, so SSC employees have time to do more strategic roles and help drive business results. Skillset wise,  SSC employees need to develop skills with data analytics, customer experience, business acumen, strategic and critical thinking…however, this can only happen if the SSC first ensures the right technology is deployed.”

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So that’s the view from a SSC perspective and typical SSC location – there’s much more potential to be exploited, in terms of efficiencies, cost savings and basic human capability. But what about in house teams – are they quite as optimistic?

I met with Sarah White and Aiesle Ascrate of Wood plc. Both are based in the Singapore office – Sarah as the regional mobility manager, and Aiesle as an advisor in her team who recently made the leap from the SSC in Manila to the “front of house” role in Singapore. Their SSC has been running for four years, and has evolved from the early days of struggle with systems, data failures and high staff turnaround, to a “phenomenal” support team today.

What makes a truly great SSC? In Sarah’s view, there are several aspects in which the Wood team excels. Firstly, it was vital for the consultants to feel trust in the abilities of their SSC colleagues, and ensure clarity on the roles. “When we originally set up, the team here were used to doing everything themselves, and losing that control was a big issue for them, and they just kept working in the way that they always worked. So when we changed the team we had a completely different mind-set when it came to what is our role and what do we do. We realised we must leverage on SS. We’ve always been quite clear when new advisors have come in that this is what you do and this is what SS does.”

Initially, there was resistance – a reluctance to hand over responsibility for work previously done with little problem by advisors to others. Sarah explains, “I think it’s a lot to do with trust and time and quality, because at the beginning we were waiting a long time for things and the output wasn’t accurate and we thought – why aren’t we doing this ourselves when it would be easier and it would be quicker?” This was addressed via a temporary assignment of one of the Regional Managers to Manila for a year, whose focus was to get things working smoothly. Sarah believes this “cross pollination” was key to the ultimate success of the team. “I think someone from mobility going there has a different level of capability, because if you’ve got a SS mind-set you don’t understand the customer as well. The Regional Manager was able to say, “I know what the consultants want and we have to tailor what we’re doing to be able to support that” and I think that was really positive.” 

Also vital was the initiative to look at responsibilities within the team. Previously, responsibilities in the SSC were clearly defined, with teams just doing cross projections, some just doing offer packs, and so on. This was changed drastically. Sarah explains: “Everyone was cross trained. They highlighted the capable employees and made them leads and audit checkers. We are always thinking about improving.” This meant that everyone could do everything, and so provide back up if their area was quiet to busier teams. As a bonus, people got to improve their skillsets, and potentially enhance their own careers.

The final objective was to clean up assignee data, which was in a parlous state prior to this exercise, following an acquisition and subsequent merger of two assignee populations.  Now, reports can be run with confidence that the data is accurate. “Last year we did a complete overview and checking of our population. We’ve got really good data now and because of that SS is able to run three reports a week. We are proactively using that information, and it just makes us look good.”

Overall, Sarah sees her SSC colleagues as true peers. “It’s not a one way street. Yes, we are the customer, but we are no more important than they are. It’s very much a collaboration”.

“No more important” – Sarah’s quote reflects a key shift to achieving a truly great relationship with your SS team, and how to get the most from that team. It also indicates the positive attitude to the development of employees within Wood – meaning all employees, including those in SS. Aiesle was identified as a top performer, and when a role arose in the Singapore office, her name was put forward. She has now made the switch from SS to an advisor position in Singapore. How has the transition worked out? Sarah says: “Having Aiesle come over is such a value add for us. She was recognised a top talent, she’s progressed and it gives SS something to aim for.” Aiesle agrees, “It’s really nice that Sarah considers that she can really rely on SS. It’s an opportunity for the team to aim for something, to look forward to a different task.” When asked about the challenges she faced having made the transition, Aiesle’s response is illuminating: “I think one of the things I really struggled with when I came in was understanding how GM works. Having that background with SS is an intro but it’s not enough. I didn’t know the full meaning of me doing a particular task, but now I have the full picture. When you understand the purpose of what you’re doing it makes you more proactive, dedicated and engaged. If you give people that context they’re going to be more engaged.” Clearly there is a direct link between a task and the context of that task in terms of its impact. Now that Aiesle has gained an in depth understanding of the role SS plays – ironically only by moving out of the function and into an advisor role – she is able to communicate this in language easily comprehensible to her previous colleagues back in Manila.

Her move has also had a positive influence on the Manila office – it’s given them something to aim for. It is perhaps rather arrogant to mine low cost locations for basic, administrative skills and not look at the true people potential amongst those staff, whose career ambitions may be just as far reaching as a young consultant starting out in Singapore or London.

But is there a limit to what a SSC can do? As Alex Gasmena says above, there’s a definite evolution that needs to happen, but it’s certainly possible to imagine SSC teams doing everything within the scope of mobility. There is no inherent lack of skill in typical SSC locations – only a lack of experience. So what are the skills that SSC employees need to work on? Aiesle says of her colleagues back in Manila: “Everything can be automated now. So I think if they are to evolve they need to improve their communications skills, service delivery skills – those are the skills you cannot automate.” Moreover, there is a growing desire in these locations to expand. “It’s unexpected that someone from SS could move. But now you can see that they are becoming more proactive, more engaged. They are more curious.”

Sarah’s view is a little more conservative. For her, there is a definite line between providing a back office service and facing the business. Currently, exposure to the business in the average SSC is limited, and that has a knock on effect in terms of service levels. Sarah says “I always said global mobility is not rocket science, but if you get something wrong, if you misconstrue some due diligence, these things can have massive implications. It’s very impactful. It’s extremely technical, it is about service but it’s also about having that technical capability which I think is a definite leap at the moment.” Relating back to Aiesle’s point about context, those working in SSCs are rarely close enough to the business to have a true understanding of locations, policies, assignee experience etc. Within the Wood model, which is fairly typical, it’s only been possible for Aiesle to gain this through making the switch to an advisor role. Sarah elaborates, “If there’s a question about the project, about the context, Aiesle has been to the project, she knows the manager, she knows the terms, she’s got all that experience. The SSC could say parrot fashion what’s on the summary statement, but to give that context, to give that real meaning – currently they wouldn’t have the background.”

That line, however, is not set in stone, nor is the very valid scenario Sarah describes above. If you add a focus on communications, service provision, exposure to the business to an ambitious, focussed workforce – who knows where we will be in 10 years? One thing is certain – a SSC, which operates in isolation from the rest of the GM function, cannot succeed. And the more integration there is, the fainter that line becomes.

Caitlin Pyett is a Mobility industry veteran with 20 years’ experience gained in London and Singapore. Currently in Hong Kong due to her husband’s recent relocation, she now finds herself in the unenviable position of “trailing spouse” – a fresh perspective on mobility after 20 years! Caitlin is available for senior in house opportunities in HK, mobility consulting work and freelance writing assignments. She can be contacted on +852 9655 6657 or connect with her on LinkedIn. 

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