Building the Next Generation Organization – Culture that Drives Engagement and Performance [Session Summary]


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The following article is a short summary of a presentation by Varun Bhatia, Chief People & Culture Officer, AirAsia at The CHRO Virtual Summit 2018.

AirAsia, based in Kuala Lumpur is one of the shining lights in international low-cost Airlines. Highly decorated and well respected, the airline has undergone a consistent period of growth over the last ten years. However, it has aspirations to grow even further and become a truly international organization servicing a huge market. To do this, HR at AirAsia has embarked upon an ambitious ‘future ready’ program that seeks to augment the company culture and employee experience by adopting a unique blended approach between ‘high-touch’ and ‘high-tech’ methods.

Varun Bhatia, Chief People & Culture Officer for the organization presented a fascinating overview of this process at The CHRO Virtual Summit recently. To future ready the culture, Bhatia says it is imperative to re-define the employee experience life-cycle, based on the core principles of the organization. AirAsia began as an entrepreneurial led organization, and now desires to shift towards a model allows for “entrepreneurial-inspired professional management”. To do this, the whole organization of the company is shifting; from hub-and-spoke operations to a matrixed model, from intuitive management to agile/data driven management, from hierarchy to networked teams, and from high touch interactions to a blended high-touch, high-tech model. Bhatia states that the only way to successfully bring these two concepts together, is through building a culture that embraces both high-tech and high-touch as symbiotic.

“In today’s world there is a more and more complex set of interactions between humans and technology. We will continue to have people serving customers and guests, but high technology will support this”

In order to get this transformation underway, it was imperative for AirAsia’s HR leaders to agree upon the key employee experience touch-points that exist throughout the employee life-cycle. Bhatia says this process is made more complex by taking into consideration generational mindset shifts, as well as how high-tech has augmented interactions between employees, third parties, and the public. Thrown into this mix, is the fact that AirAsia works closely with a selection of external technology partners (such as Workday), which need to be taken into consideration in the transformation process. Some of the key touch-points defined for this life-cycle included:

  • Recruiting is still fundamentally high-touch, but more complex people analytics tools and processes are coming soon, so being future ready for predictive is analytics is essential.
  • Onboarding is strongly values based, but through the use of Workday, it’s moving slowly towards tech, which essentially increases the connection potential between employees and the organization.
  • Agreeing on goals is more easily facilitated by tech but remains high-touch.
  • Learning & Development is classroom based, but will become more high-tech in the new future, allowing an “omni-blended” experience.
  • Growth opportunities are facilitated by new technologies, and staff are encouraged to be internally mobile.
  • Cultural fit assessments and performance reviews now take place with high-tech tools that provide greater insights to managers, ensuring the best information is available for HR.
  • Rewards are high-touch (family seat allocation for flights, participation at industry events), recognizing a holistic approach to the employee’s contributions to company success.
  • Taking smart risks, along with a base in strong compliance practices are better enabled through tech outreach.
  • Employee well-being is essential and fundamentally high-touch (gyms, healthcare, day-care services), but this too will become more high-tech in the future, with the assistance of increased employee analytics.
  • Employee feedback touch-points are going to be enhanced by technologies, which further allows a flattening of communication barriers between all staff – right up to the CEO.

So how has this process gone thus far? Bhatia summarises five key lessons learned:

  • [It’s essential to set the] Tone from the top
  • Fail fast, fail often, adopt fast
  • Hybrid model of dedicated talent and external partners
  • Early success stories [to demonstrate the value in change]
  • Be clear why we’re there, every day… every moment

As a final note (and more than a footnote), Bhatia suggested the ‘Dinosaur Manager’ model is going to be replaced by the emergence of the ‘Digital Leader’ type. This change is not only going to be felt in theory, but in the practice of AirAsia’s operations. It’s clear from the presentation that with a cultural transformation towards a digital model, there are going to be significant challenges. Agility, transparency, high touch/high tech models, leader-led change, and creating meaning-driven organizations will threaten the manner in which many ‘Dinosaur’ managers and companies operate. HR leaders will clearly have to be Digital Leaders – speaking the right language of transformation, with a firm grasp of the high-tech, high-touch model in today’s world.

If you missed Varun’s presentation (or indeed any others), you can sign up on The CHRO Virtual Summit website for free and view it until June 30th!


The 3rd HR Congress Brussels, November 27-28 will feature a selection of sessions that will explore this topic and much more! Make sure you follow The HR Congress Blog and #HRCongress18 to stay posted on all the latest news, updates and content from the world of work!

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