The nitty-gritty of going solo

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With all the latest management jargon, from inspiration to innovation and creativity to cultural intelligence, it may seem at best humdrum and at worst distinctly boring for a company to engage some of the best business-school brains to help improve the way processes are carried out.

But for a company such as Visa Europe, the card payments organisation that represents some 5,000 European banks and financial institutions, the reputation of both it and its member banks depends on the quality of the management processes when it introduces change.

"The question is, how do you get it right first time, every time," says David Joyce, head of customer services in Visa Europe's payment processing services department. The question has become particularly critical at Visa Europe over the past year.

On July 1 last year Visa Europe was incorporated as a separate organisation from its parent, Visa, and the European company took control of its own information technology systems.

At the same time the organisation had to roll out the chip-and-pin anti-fraud technology rapidly across its member institutions.

So Visa Europe turned to IMD in Lausanne, Switzerland, with which it had worked several times in the past, to help develop new processes for introducing change.

Dealing with the nitty-gritty of processes is not everyone's cup of tea, acknowledges Xavier Gilbert, professor of international business dynamics at IMD. "Project planning is like whisky," he says. "It is an acquired taste."

Some of the six Visa Europe managers charged with developing the change processes had already acquired the taste for it, some had not. But it was by mixing managers from IT, finance, human resources and marketing, and from several European countries that Visa Europe was hoping to get the best results. "Two of the six will open it up; four will try and close it down," predicted Mr Joyce.

The six people comprised one of seven project teams participating in last autumn's Booster programme from IMD, a curious hybrid of an open enrolment and a customised programme. (Visa Europe also had a second team participating in the Booster programme.)

Each team was charged with working through a management issue at their organisation with the help of IMD faculty and staff - much as organisations would do on a customised programme. But for the plenary sessions, all the groups from different organisations worked together, as is customary on an open- enrolment project. As with many customised projects, interdepartmental communications was one of the goals, says Mr Joyce. "One of the objectives is to get people from right across the organisation working together."

Although the biggest benefits to the Visa Europe team were in this "custom" part of the course, there were some advantages in working with other companies in other sectors - in this case the food, construction and healthcare sectors - says Sarah Goodbody, the team leader. Their corporate culture and their input to the sessions were very different to that of Visa, she says. "For our group it was quite an eye-opener . . . It made us appreciate our culture."

The biggest advantage the Booster programme has over a traditional customised programme is the cost, says Thomas Malnight, professor of strategy and general management at IMD and director of the programme.

The Booster one-week programme comes in two formats. The basic variety - the Visa Europe experience - costs SFr100,000 (£45,000); the extended version, which includes more coaching in the company before and after the programme, costs SFr170,000. But as Prof Malnight points out, traditional in-company programmes are much, much more expensive. "This is one common process, seven mini projects," he says.

Even with the (non- extended) Booster programme, IMD has some input before the course. Prof Gilbert, for example, visited Visa Europe in London several weeks before the programme began to determine the aims and the organisational nuances of the project.

This preamble also helps IMD determine that the top management in the company supports the project and also that it isof adequate scope, says Prof Malnight. "We would discourage someone from sending in a project which is not important."

The sponsors in the company have to be involved at both the beginning and end of the programme. The directors sponsoring the Visa Europe programme flew to Lausanne as the week came to its conclusion to hear the team present its ideas. The bosses were "very positive", says Ms Goodbody, and Prof Gilbert was "incredibly insightful" in his comments.

At the beginning of the process Mr Joyce was reluctant to state too specifically what he wanted the project to achieve, for fear of stifling new ideas.

"Success looks like some sort of process aligned with some sort of organisational change," he hazards. "What we want are simple decision-making criteria." The bottom line is that there would always be a financial benefit, he adds.

At the end of the day, this is what the team recommended - a "mini department" through which all proposals above a certain cost, plus all changes that affected other departments, must be processed.

Since returning to their offices in mid November, the team has had weekly working sessions and each member of the Visa Europe group has spent between 30 and 40 per cent of their working week on the details of the project and on finalising the proposal.

Although all departments will be involved in the changes, it is the IT department that will be most affected, says Ms Goodbody.

For Mr Joyce, the initial aim of getting people to work together across departments was achieved. "It's great to see a group of people working together as they did."

Ms Goodbody also believes this was one big benefit from the programme. "One comment I had [from one of the team] was: 'I've learnt to trust people from other departments who speak a completely different language.' "

The final proposal will go to the Visa Europe board next month. Only then will the team discover just how successful its project has been.

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