Profile: Microsoft – from the inside out

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Posted in: Profiles, Sustainable Development

Profile: Microsoft – from the inside out

May 01, 2004

Ask for the human resources department at Microsoft UK and you’ll be directed to a door marked “Great Company”.

On paper at least, the high-tech company goes a long way to living up to this aspirational name. Its guidelines, which cover everything from the latest equal opportunities procedures to enthusiastic commitments on professional development, read like a best practice tome. But is there more to being a good corporate citizen than being a responsible employer?

Mission minded

The company’s employee strategy has acted as the advance guard of a larger internal discussion about Microsoft’s overall vision and direction. The review concluded in 2002 with a clear articulation of the company’s six core values, linked under the common theme of ‘enabling people and businesses throughout the world to realise their full potential’.

The values reflect Microsoft’s status as the world’s largest technology company and its determination to remain so. Understandably, notions such as innovative leadership, trustworthy computing and connecting with customers feature heavily.

But staying ahead in the technology game demands more of a global company than simply dreaming up the next cutting-edge gadgetry, essential though that remains. Faced with immense regulatory pressure both in Europe and the US, Gates and co. have been compelled to look beyond their gizmos and consider the role the company and its technology plays in society. The company’s reformulated mission also commits it to a “global, inclusive approach” to business, including a specific pledge to show “leadership in supporting the communities in which we work and live”.

Great Company

As ambassadors for the company’s values, Microsoft’s 55,000 employees are rightly seen as pivotal to the success of the new mission statement. Indeed, ‘great people with great values’ is a core value in itself.

“It doesn’t matter where you touch, see, hear or feel Microsoft, we’d hope that you’d get the same experience from the people you are meeting”, explains Kay Winsper, who, as head of Great Company & Governance in the UK, is responsible for ensuring that this is at least true for Microsoft’s 2,000 employees.

Recruitment is one obvious mechanism that Winsper’s team has taken up to achieve this goal. Every applicant to Microsoft UK is probed hard at interview to determine whether their personal ethics, work patterns and career goals accord with those of the company.

The link with Microsoft’s corporate citizenship objectives is self-evident, interjects Amy Clarke, Microsoft UK’s new CSR manager. “By attracting the right calibre of people who will live and breathe our values helps us with CSR because it translates directly through to how we go about our business,” she points out. She speaks from recent experience, joining the company from PricewaterhouseCoopers only six months ago.

Once through the recruitment filter, Microsoft UK has developed a comprehensive people development process that re-emphasises the company’s potential-boosting mission. The programme relies on improving employees’ innate talents, rather than trying to train them up in areas they are naturally weak.

“Creating a strengths-based organisation is not about acquired skills, knowledge and competencies. What we do differently here is put people’s natural limitations aside and identify what people’s natural talents are and allow them to play to their strengths”, enthuses Winsper. With only a fifth of working adults in the UK saying they find their jobs fulfilling, she points out, it’s a message to which other employers may do well to pay heed.

The HR function has done much of the job of internalising the company’s values – a key starting point for any CSR strategy. Winsper is quick to admit, however, that HR has drawn heavily on the company’s charitable activities as part of this internal change process – particularly in terms of helping employees make an emotional connection with the company’s new value set.

By way of example, Winsper cites the company’s annual conference. The event is designed as the company’s primary vehicle for publicising its next three to five-year vision. Last year, the conference simply focused on four stories related to Microsoft’s impact on society. One of these profiled a dyslexic child at a local primary school. Previously struggling with his studies, the boy is now a high performer by using Microsoft’s new Tablet PCs with their built-in word recognition. The resonance with Microsoft’s goal of ‘realising potential’ couldn’t be stronger.

At a more hands-on level, Microsoft UK offers employees three days additional annual leave to take part in the company’s volunteering programme. Launched in 2003, the programme focuses on the themes of education, young enterprise and IT. The volunteering opportunities are primarily co-ordinated through Microsoft’s five strategic community partners: Businessdynamics, Central Berkshire Education Business Partnership, School Governors’ One Stop Shop, The Princes Trust, and IT4 Communities.

While the emotional appeal may fall on some deaf ears, simply knowing about Microsoft UK’s philanthropic reputation (it has a £7,500 matched giving policy, for example, and last year gave away 7.7% of its pre-tax profits) means that no employee can fail to appreciate the seriousness with which the company takes its new values.

Meanwhile, re-branding its community involvement strategy under the Unlimited Potential brand [see factfile below] demonstrates how community affairs is beginning to be used to communicate Microsoft’s new mission to an external, as well as internal, audience.

Flexibility

As one would expect from a high-tech company such as Microsoft, the company is a vocal supporter of remote-access working.

“I enjoy being able to catch up on what’s happening in the office when I’m not there”, says Elena Bonfiglioli, Clarke’s Brussels-based colleague. As CSR director for Europe, Middle East and Africa, Bonfiglioli relies heavily on the company’s communications technology to manage the CSR network, which stretches from London to Johannesburg, via Dubai.

“It would have been impossible for us to even start the process of co-ordinating a global CSR strategy if it relied on all the concerned parties meeting face-to-face. If you want to make things happen in Microsoft, then learning to build up remote networks is one of the first things you need to pick up when you come to work here”, she emphasises.

The HR function has pioneered this management trend towards operating in ‘virtual teams’. As a relatively new function within Microsoft, the CSR team has adopted the innovation enthusiastically.

The virtual network model also serves to engage managers from other functions into discussions on CSR-related issues. Microsoft UK is currently operating a cross-function working group, for example, to discuss the company’s strategy on diversity. It is an initiative Clarke plans to roll out to other aspects of the CSR agenda in the near future.

The networked organisation also has its dangers, however, potentially blurring the lines between home and work. Although Microsoft offers guidance on home-working, Winsper has no qualms about saying that responsibility ultimately lies with employees themselves to decide their working patterns.

That said, the efforts Microsoft UK put in to helping employees make such a choice (it’s back to that word ‘enabling’ again) are impressive. The company’s UK headquarters on the outskirts of Reading, for example, boast private banking facilities, a dry cleaning service, a day nursery, numerous restaurants and café bars, and even its own putting course.

In addition, all of the 900 or so employees based at the Reading site have access to a professional health clinic. The Wellbeing Centre offers medical advice on everything from stress management to pregnancy support. Free annual health checks, vaccinations, alternative therapies and a strange tension-releasing chair also appear on the Centre’s menu.

The company operates a 24-hour personal support phone-line. The confidential service aims to help employees “make sense of the things that happen in your life”, to quote the company brochure. The list runs from career challenges and relationship difficulties to housing debt or alcohol abuse.

Microsoft UK clearly prefers an integrated, rather than balanced approach to the work-life conundrum. The strategy might not be to everyone’s taste. Lucy Kellaway, the Financial Times’ famously acerbic columnist, for example, found it all a “bit frightening” when she did a one-day job-swap with Winsper in May last year.

Yet, the universal feedback from internal surveys indicates Microsoft’s employees thrive in the environment that the “Great Company” team has created. Over nine out of ten staff (93%) feel proud to work for Microsoft, with almost as many (89%) going as far to say that they love working for the company. A similar number (92%) report that they would miss the company if they left.

Certainly, the familial atmosphere invites few complaints from those taking a break from their spread-sheets to defeat aliens at the many X-Box gaming stations dotted about Microsoft’s Reading campus.

CSR strategy

Clarke, Bonfiglioli and their CSR colleagues in the US have arrived on the scene much later than their HR colleagues. With the ink still wet on the findings of an external six-month gap analysis, Clarke admits that Microsoft is still in the early stages of developing a systematic CSR strategy that makes sense for the business.

It is not a case of CSR playing catch-up, Clarke insists. “We are coming at this in a very different way from other organisations. We have looked at behaviour, we have looked at attitude, we’ve given a lot of training to our employees – all before we’ve actually begun to consolidate what the CSR strategy and vision actually looks like. Because fundamentally it’s our mission and values that form the building blocks for our CSR strategy”, she states.

The next critical step for the CSR function will be to successfully scale up the work HR has already done in integrating the company’s values. “What CSR needs to do is knit together what’s been going on in HR with other programmes – in corporate governance, community, environment, health and safety, ethics, and customer relations – and then see what the final picture is”, Clarke explains.

Another advantage for the CSR team of this values-driven approach is that it has access to the proven implementation mechanisms already developed by HR. Winsper and her team, for example, have a sophisticated internal communications system in place. They use a weekly email, intranet resources, monthly slots on Microsoft’s internal TV channel and the quarterly staff magazine to engage staff on values issues. Refining these messages to pick up other aspects of the CSR agenda should prove relatively straightforward.

Future

The pressure is on for Microsoft in the UK to develop a wider CSR strategy. The subsidiary not only has strategic importance within the Microsoft family as the largest operation outside the US, but it finds itself in a relatively well-developed market in terms of corporate responsibility.

There is no doubt that having its values-led HR programme already in place puts Clarke and her colleagues on the front foot with regard to building up a wider CSR strategy. The role that community affairs has played in this programme, meanwhile, demonstrates that the link between HR and CSR need not necessarily be one-way traffic. As a possible sign of things to come, the CSR function recently teamed up with colleagues in HR and marketing to initiate a half-day programme for all UK employees on ‘living the brand’.

In the final analysis, however, CSR is much bigger than either HR or community involvement. Resolving how the theme of ‘realising potential’ applies to Microsoft’s suppliers, customers, partners and other stakeholders remains the outstanding challenge for Clarke, Bonfiglioli and their virtual contacts within the organisation. It promises to be no easy task – but then nor is saving the world from aliens on your afternoon break.

UNLIMITED POTENTIALIntroduced in 2003, Unlimited Potential is a global programme that focuses on improving lifelong learning for disadvantaged young people and adults by providing technology skills through community-based technology and learning centres. By providing training and tools, the programme aims to create social and economic opportunities that in turn transform communities and help people realise their potential. Last year alone, Microsoft and its employees gave more than $246.9m in cash and software around the world.http://www.microsoft.com/mscorp/citizenship/giving/overview/

Corporate Citizenship Briefing, issue no: 75 – May, 2004

Amy Clarke, CSR manager, Microsoft UK – Amy joined Microsoft UK in October 2003. She is responsible for developing the UK CSR strategy, while also working with Microsoft EMEA and the corporate HQ to devise the group’s global CSR strategy, vision and management framework.
Immediately before joining Microsoft, Amy worked for Pricewaterhouse-Coopers. In total, she has over nine years experience advising on CSR strategy, management and reporting. Her previous clients include Abbey National, BP, Orange and Shell, as well as a number of leading international development banks and local government agencies.

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