An upfront strategy to engage with clients during the GFC was successful for Unisys. Leanne Ward believes the company's strong links to end-user needs helped pave the way for such collaboration. By Jason Day.
When the global financial crisis really emerged in late 2007 and early 2008, the first instinct for most was one of protection. Whether it was margins, market share, sales levels, customer retention - and the rest of what makes businesses survive or not - companies battened down hatches.
It was the unavoidable response in many ways, affecting business and the suppliers they relied on. Service companies, no doubt themselves putting the knife to discretionary project spending, couldn't expect anything less from clients when it came time to reviewing monthly bills.
For many account managers, sitting tight and hoping didn't often avoid the request: 'You cut your bill by 15 per cent; that will work for us'.
Some companies managed the outfall better than others. One particular strategy based on close collaboration was used by IT services company Unisys.
"Some companies waited their turn to have their budgets cut," says Leanne Ward, Vice President and General Manager for the Information Technology Outsourcing (ITO) and Infrastructure Support Services (ISS) for Asia Pacific.
"We decided early a quite deliberate strategy to go and really take this front-on with our customers."
To do this, Unisys - who have a strong focus on supporting end users and have a high proportion of their own people actually working at client offices - actively struck up dialogues with their customers.
"We went and sat with them and asked 'What do you need to do? How can we work through this together?'. That's not what every company did, but we thought it was better to go in there and say 'We're going to work with you'.
"It was risky but, in the end, I think the strategy was right because financially we actually did quite OK during the GFC," adds Ward.
"Collaborating on the problems allowed both parties to get through it. If we had another crisis, I'd absolutely repeat that strategy. Even when clients have their own crises, I think the lesson learned is to go in there and have that dialogue up front."
Unisys has some 23,000 workers worldwide, 1200 of those in Australia. While not so long ago its IT product portfolio was the dominant offering to customers, the company has transformed itself to one offering mostly IT services. Regionally, Unisys is strong in Australia and New Zealand while growing quickly in the north, particularly around China.
The company focuses on a few key areas supporting end users: running data centres; doing IT security work, and IT applications, as well as supply services such as IT help desks or on-site support. Key clients include airlines, financial institutions, and government departments such as defence and immigration.
Grappling with change
Ward's own role is to run a business worth about $200 million per annum across Asia Pacific. "They come to me and my team because of the expertise we have in running IT services to let them get on with running their core business," she says.
Ward believes that, despite the vast amount of change in technology that's affected business over the past decade, the emergence of social networking and mobility issues represents huge change and challenge.
"Personally, I think the last really significant change in IT was the internet," she says. "That's only 17 years ago, so it's not that old. But now what we're seeing is the 'consumerisation of IT', a phrase coined by Gartner. The outcome is that we're seeing people bringing a lot of their own devices into the business environment and companies not being well prepared in how to manage it all."
Rise of social networking
These issues are of major and increasing concern to companies: security of data, data ownership and intellectual property questions when staff move on. It's an area many organisations are wrestling with - in policy and practicality - and not all successfully.
"Social networking is huge," says Ward. "We say there are three big populations in the world: China, India, and Facebook. Businesses are grappling with what you do with the rise of the technology and behaviour around it, just like they did with the internet when that first came out.
"But you can't ignore the use of the new technology in an organisation. When we take our market research and have a conversation with clients, it's been interesting to see the way in which some of them actually respond to the need for change.
"It ranges from a complete lock down because of a fear of not having control, to, perhaps surprisingly, institutions such as the Department of Defence, who realise that they have a very young workforce, and they need to figure out how to make it all work."
Ward ticks off a list of the typical considerations for companies when dealing with the consumerisation of IT. How do you take advantage of the revolution? How do you get a commercial advantage? What do you do first? Where's your return on investment? How do you manage data management, privacy and security issues in your particular environment?
Unisys itself takes a firm and quite liberal stand. It is one it believes drives innovation and empathy for clients' needs. "Instead of locking everything down, our view is you open everything up for employees," explains Ward. And to overcome the usual risks of the potential for the abuse of such freedom, Unisys has a social networking policy and education program.
Unisys staff use a portal called My Site, which is similar to Facebook. "It's meant to allow us to collaborate. You can have your own blog; you can have whatever you're interested in; work with people around the world; they can find you just by looking up what criteria they want, you'll pop up, and away you go."
"This is the way we get innovative people because, when we don't stop them from using, they start figuring out how you use it. From there, they can see better how you would use it as a client. The way to fuel creativity is not to lock it down, but to open it up."
Using social media
Unisys says there are a number of standout ways in which some companies are using social media as part of product development or marketing. An increasingly common one is using a networking tool like Facebook to support product design.
"You can float an idea out in Facebook - which can be a clever way of getting feedback for nothing - and then use that feedback in the designing of your product before you put it to market," says Leanne Ward.
"You can also provide incentive. There are examples where people have done that with financial products and then said, 'Because you gave me the feedback, here's a special offer just for you as a community'."
Ward says other examples of leveraging networking forums include premier banking customers being able to get online with an adviser in real time. "The Department of Immigration uses YouTube to house video for how to get a visa to come into Australia."