Aligning Technology to Business Outcomes in Staffing: A Conversation with Rob Waddell, CIO, Apex Systems (Part 1)

landscape-1763948_640Nemawashi. Have you ever heard of it? I hadn’t either until recently. I was attending an executive roundtable event a few months back and heard a staffing executive mention this concept in a discussion about technology. The meeting brought together industry leaders to discuss how technology will continue to play a critical role for national and global staffing firms. Naturally, I was curious to hear how nemawashi fit into this discussion.

Fortunately, the person who introduced the concept to the group agreed to educate me and share how it’s played out at his company. He is Rob Waddell, CIO of Apex Systems, one of the largest staffing firms in the United States. This blog provides insights I gathered from our discussion, which will be followed up by a second blog post directly from Rob sharing lessons he’s learned over the last 10 years using this approach to deliver business outcomes at Apex.

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My first step was to seek a definition. Rob shared that Nemawashi is a Japanese term that means nurturing and preparing the soil for transplant. It is a gardening best practice for transplanting a tree to ensure it is accepted into the soil. This approach was highlighted in Marc Schiller’s book, The 11 Secrets of Highly Influential IT Leaders.

Nemawashi in Action

The definition alone was interesting, but I was curious how this applied to the business world today, especially at a huge staffing firm known for operational excellence. Rob explained that getting to nemawashi involves laying a good foundation for change by building collective consensus through skilled conversation and feedback with stakeholders. Rob was using this approach to create alignment between his technology group and the business stakeholders which is a known challenge across many industries. He shared these specific examples of how he uses consensus building at Apex:

“Anyone who has been in a role related to business requirements translating to technological solutions knows the difficulty level of getting the requirements, solution, and expectations aligned properly for success. The practice of skilled conversation ensures these things are already in motion with consensus before the implementation plan begins. I have two good examples of committees that ensure our success with this consensus building approach. The first example is the development of a Configurational Control Board (CCB) in partnership with the CFO and COO.  The CCB is a council of voting members (HR, IT, accounting, legal, sales, and delivery) that reviewsbusiness requests or suggestions to change processes from anywhere in the business. There’s a cost-benefit component in the request process that ensures valuable time is spent only on business-worthy ideas. With this prep, a high-level conversation ensues to massage the idea and drives discussion on: need, ROI, alternatives, etc. This helps us get a good start on business requirements, and then it goes through the next process of PMO scheduling and the software development lifecycle. Often these requests are born out of another committee. The second is Apex’s Field Technology Working Group, whose charter is to be forward looking for innovative technological solutions that bring competitive edge to our business. This committee is best described as an emerging technology group of both technology and business (systems) analysts that focuses on asking questions and gaining understanding up front to come up with differentiating business process and solutions. Some of these solutions are home grown, but many are easily integrated cloud solutions we plug into our critical back and front office platforms.”

Creating a Culture of Consensus Building 

Rob was quick to share that this was not an overnight success, nor can it happen in isolation. He coaches his teams to keep the concept of nemawashi in mind as they conduct their own discussions with the business. Further, he credited the culture at Apex for helping to foster success with this approach. For example, the members of the technology team are encouraged to ask questions and challenge each other to do better work. He shared:

“We had to grow as a cohesive team to work closer with the business requirements group, and we had to grow the business requirements group to leverage the business analysts to have more discussions and understand the next level requirements. You also need to have a developer there to say if the information isn’t enough and you need to get deeper. This shift was as much cultural as it was technical. You need to build a culture where it’s okay and expected to have a developer tell a BA it’s not good enough, and they will accept that and come back with something better. Incent them to have those conversations and not be afraid of them. We coach the team to not take things personally – this is all about getting to the right economical answer for accelerating the business.”

Building influence and understanding the perspective of your peers to deliver a better solution is a skill set that can pay dividends across many roles within a staffing firm – or any business. In part 2 of this blog series, Rob will share lessons he’s learned from adopting nemawashi and how it contributed to building a best-in-class technology organization at Apex.

MORE: An ambitious and concerned workforce

Leah McKelvey

Leah McKelvey
Leah McKelvey is director, global enterprise operations, at Bullhorn. She can be reached at leah (dot) mckelvey (at) bullhorn (dot) com.

Leah McKelvey

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