Cultural vibe Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2008

At first, it might seem like an impossible math problem. One culture for 2,400 employees operating in 19 countries spread across two continents.

But that’s the problem that Bill Nelligan faced — and continues to face.

Nelligan is responsible for forming and perpetuating the culture across a large portion of the global footprint of $2.2 billion IMS Health Inc. As the president of the health care strategy and consulting company’s operations in the Americas, which generates about $975 million in operating revenue, he is responsible for relaying a uniform culture to employees in 19 countries with differing languages, customs and customers, all as the business evolves to meet the challenges of the ever-changing health care industry.

“It’s not uncommon today in the press to see the challenges that the entire health care industry is going through, whether it be pharmaceutical, biotech or organizations looking to provide and manage care for their population or constituency,” Nelligan says. “There are fundamental challenges in the current health care industry, and the reality is the challenge, while it resonates in our business, it creates a significant opportunity for us to go and do what we do, which is to help our clients understand what is happening in our business and help them drive the performance of it.”

Nelligan says a high-performance business must maintain a high-performance culture that is centered on communication, new ideas and a willingness to adapt to changes in the markets it serves.

But it all starts with a message from the top.

Lay the foundation

Nelligan says the company’s direction needs to be defined from the top, and it’s the primary reason why he continues to focus his work force around three objectives: staying client-focused, executing tasks at a high level of efficiency and contributing to the quality of the culture.

Nelligan reinforces the basic building blocks of the company’s direction through consistent communication — which is about more than just talking.

“I have a couple of beliefs,” he says. “First of all, I believe the leader sets the premise. Our job as leaders is to set the intent to create a great place to work. But I also say that it’s not just me saying that, which makes that happen.

“It’s not a top-down process. It’s getting employees engaged, passionate, enthusiastic, and that creates the environment, which, ultimately, is a high-performance culture.”

Nelligan says that when building an inclusive culture, it’s imperative to create a two-way dialogue with employees over the direction of the company. With that in mind, leadership at IMS Americas has rolled out a multifaceted communication plan aimed at giving employees many different chances to interface with management.

One of the most recent innovations introduced for internal communications has been what Nelligan calls the “vision cast.” It’s a satellite webcast that allows direct interaction between employees and management.

“It’s an interactive tool that we ran out last year, and it allows us to talk in almost an interview type of setting,” he says. “It allows employees to ask questions of us, and it allows us to do some polling so we can understand where our employees are.”

While the vision cast program is designed for large-scale gatherings throughout the IMS Americas footprint, Nelligan and his senior management team also conduct in-person meetings on a much smaller scale. The meetings are held in town-hall or round-table format and give Nelligan and other IMS executives time for some face-to-face contact with the field managers who have daily and weekly contact with the company’s front-line workers.

“I will sit with the top 100 leaders in a region and provide them with information and tools so that they can cascade the information throughout the organization,” he says. “What is important is that it’s not just from the top, but that we get everyone on board and understanding what is important with our business, internalize all of our activities and be able to communicate it throughout. It needs to be more than one or two people bringing the message.”

Promote a wide-angle view

Nelligan says allowing silos to develop within your company can choke off the total-company view for many employees, and along with it, your culture.

The leadership team at IMS Americas combats silos by putting the company’s customers in the spotlight. Nelligan calls it his “voice of the customer” program, and through it, he shows all of his employees at IMS Americas how their jobs impact the end result for their customers.

“Clients and customers see the ultimate output of what you do, not the pieces,” he says. “So it’s absolutely important that we always are thinking about the client and processes, what we do end-to-end, not solely in their frame or silo.”

As part of the program, IMS Americas recently recorded video of clients talking about their businesses and how IMS impacts their jobs. The videos were then broadcast during the IMS Americas satellite webcasts.

“We videotaped a number of our clients talking about what we do, how we serve them, how important we are to their business, how important it is that we execute for them,” Nelligan says. “So how do you bring the voice of the customer to every employee? That’s how you do it. You make sure they understand how important our work is.”

The leaders at IMS Americas also promote a wide-angle view by building cross-functional teams composed of employees from different areas of the company. In meetings, the cross-functional teams bring together different ideas and perspectives on a broad range of topics that affect the company.

The meetings provide another opportunity for Nelligan and his staff to refocus employees on maintaining a high-performance and customer-service-oriented culture. An added benefit is the opportunity to expose employees to other aspects of the company, which builds greater understanding among people from different disciplines and might even open some employees to new career paths.

“Cross-functional activity is critical,” Nelligan says. “It’s absolutely important that we are always thinking about the client and processes and what we do end-to-end, but we also see it as a development opportunity. If we know someone who has spent time in one business perspective, we see how we can broaden our knowledge, our experience and give them oppor-

tunities in other areas.”

However you build a wide-angle view, Nelligan says it will take regular maintenance to keep your employees thinking that way.

“It’s somewhat human nature that people often gravitate to a comfort zone or that people are just so focused day to day on the trees that they forget to look at the forest a little bit,” he says. “I think that’s natural. But I also think the ability to develop that skill (to take a wide-angle view) is an important part of leadership and management.

“One’s ability to look broad and dive deep is a critical dimension when it comes to looking at things end-to-end.”

Keep your culture adaptable

Building and maintaining a solid company culture can be a delicate balance. On one hand, the basic principles around which you’ve formed your culture and the way you do business probably won’t change. On the other hand, your company and culture need to stay mobile enough to adjust with the times.

Nelligan makes a differentiation between changing and evolving when it comes to culture.

“To me, change seems like a little bit of an inflection point, that I’m going down one path, then I make the decision to go down another,” he says. “It’s a trend break, as we might call it in our business.”

Evolution, on the other hand, are the adjustments any business needs to make as technology progresses and markets shift.

As with just about anything else that pertains to culture, your ability to evolve comes back to your employees and their ability to withstand — and embrace — change.

Nelligan says he wants adaptable, forward-thinking people in key management positions with the company. The more easily people in high-profile management positions can adapt, the more easily the rest of the company can adapt.

“We believe that we can set the environment, but it’s ultimately the employees who are responsible for their own careers,” Nelligan says. “We’ll provide them opportunities for skill development, for challenging roles and projects, but they have to work with the tools we provide to move ahead.”

Nelligan says you can’t just hand employees the tools of the trade and forget about them. You need to measure their progress and, by extension, the progress of the company. That’s why IMS Americas places a high degree of importance on human resources metrics.

“We look at everything from the number of people who have been promoted to attrition rates,” he says. “On an 18-month cycle, we do an employee survey. We go out and ask a number of questions about the environment, the culture, do they understand the strategy, do they feel it’s a great place to work, do we provide career opportunities.

“We literally take that survey and use it as an opportunity to go build strategies and incremental priorities on how we want to go drive improvements and achieve employee satisfaction.”

There are many ways to build a culture that promotes great customer service, discourages silos and remains adaptable with changing conditions. But before you start down the road of building or improving your culture, Nelligan says you need to remember two things: cultures are built and maintained by employees, but the foundation for the culture is built by management.

“Leadership has to set the agenda,” he says. “You have to set the frame. You have to create the foundational pieces that make that happen, and that has a lot to do with human resources. Above all, you need to communicate, put the right people in the right jobs and then let those people do their jobs.”

HOW TO REACH: IMS Health Inc., www.imshealth.com