Microsoft’s culture of innovation



Microsoft South Africa has recently come out tops in the Top Employer certification, achieving an impressive ranking for a company that was once flat food shoved under doors and male-dominated conversations. Today, Microsoft thrives under the global leadership of Satya Nadella, a savvy business leader who turned the company around — it’s now a giant barge finding a new direction that empowers its people and is committed to doing the same for the rest of the planet. The goal? To achieve more by doing things with openness, and a willingness to learn and change. This ethos is reflected in the company’s growing global popularity as it slowly changes its image from a dominant child who didn’t want to play with others to a corporate that focuses on collaboration and growth.

“Our mission drives everything and our culture shapes the how of what we do — to empower every person and organisation on the planet to achieve more,” says Jasmine Pillay, human resources director, Microsoft South Africa. “The culture of the company has evolved over time and is different now since Satya came on board. He asked us to rediscover what the world would look like without Microsoft in it, and this helped us reshape our culture and mindset.”

The new culture of inclusion and diversity has opened the door for employees to experiment, innovate and explore new ideas. It also recognises the reality that all people are different and has focused on encouraging and embracing this, rather than trying to fit people into a singular mould. The result, for those who work at Microsoft, is a fulfilling and purposeful employee experience: many people are working hard to do more for, and with, the company.

“We believe that this is only the start of our culture evolution — the job definitely isn’t done yet,” says Pillay. “We are a learning business and we pay special attention to what we call ‘the distance between our aspirational culture and what that looks like in terms of the lived experience’. On a daily basis we provide people with the opportunity to learn and enrich themselves. We also provide an environment that fosters inclusion, collaboration and innovation.”

Often, in environments that purport to embrace innovation or inclusion, there’s a hit-and-miss result. Providing people with the tools they need to learn and grow doesn’t mean they will pick them up and use them, nor does it mean that the innovations they come up with are of value to the organisation. The goal is to build a delicate balance between what people want and need, and what the business needs to grow and thrive.

“We have paid attention to what we believe is a totally shaped environment, putting our people first in our HR practices, and that includes our strategy and standards,” says Pillay. “We are creating a workplace for all employees and they are diverse indeed — we have more than 144 000 across the globe. In South Africa we have people in Durban, Cape Town, and Johannesburg. So we have to manage all these different people, cultures and spaces in a complex and agile environment. It means that everything we put in place has to be efficient. And this focus is why we believe we’ve achieved the Top Employer ranking.”

Microsoft has been certified with Top Employers Institute for 12 years. When Pillay joined the company in 2018, the company was a participant, but needed to undergo a deeper refresh to gain the recognition it wanted. Microsoft underwent a rigorous audit process as part of the judging which was, according to Pillay, “not for the faint hearted”.

“I told the team that we should use this opportunity to check we were doing the right things and to assess if the processes we had in place were having the right impact,” she adds. “We hold the mirror up constantly and we know that we’re being evaluated against the best in South Africa, so we felt this was a prime opportunity to really see what needed to change.”

The results have shaped what the company has decided to do for its employees and to ensure that they work in an environment that helps them to thrive. Microsoft has manifested these in the environment, policies and conversations that have started to take place in the company, one of them being the conversation about the talent shortage.

“War for talent, talent shortage, skills gap: we have changed the dialogue to instead focus on the skills that are needed and how we can match them in our workforce,” says Pillay. “There is significant research by organisations such as McKinsey and PwC that shows how a large percentage of business executives believes that we need to retrain one quarter of our workforce by 2023. This is no surprise, but what we need to do is map global skills and upskill and enrich people in the roles that they already inhabit.”

At Microsoft, this need for skills and to provide people with the opportunity to refine them has become a huge part of the culture evolution. The company believes that this is critical for real and lasting change, because the concept of a growth mindset is an increasingly important quality for anyone entering into the realm of the fourth industrial revolution. The habits of curious confidence and independent learning are constantly emerging as trends in the marketplace when it comes to key employee skills and qualities and Microsoft is focused on building not just the appetite to learn, but the muscles as well.

“We’ve worked with IT to create a one-stop-shop with Microsoft Learning, also known as HR Web, where we have a plethora of learning resources available to every employee,” says Pillay. “It’s not just a bunch of learning chucked onto the intranet. We’ve customised the experience based on role, level and geography. When I started my job, the system immediately picked up my location and customised my learning experience for me.”

Another trend identified by Microsoft is the concept of augmented humanity. It’s considered an essential trend because if people don’t reskill and upskill, then artificial intelligence (AI) and automation can impact on lives negatively. AI has immense potential — from helping people to see and hear to changing experiences and quality of life — but it needs to enhance humanity, not damage it.

“Most executives and decision-makers believe that a combination of AI and people is better, that they are better together,” says Pillay. “From a Microsoft perspective, data and insights can be used in new ways to really change how we partner with business and shift from a more transactional role to one of business partner. With the right environment, technology goes hand-in-hand with people.”

The technology that Microsoft develops, such as Teams, is designed to provide employees with increasingly accessible and dynamic workspaces that help them to manage and prioritise more efficiently. It also provides a lot of data and intelligence that can be used to prioritise strategy and to refine transformation efforts. Part of the company’s focus on modernising the HR department is focused on reducing the idea of a “touchy-feely” department to one that provides support, measures engagement and makes tangible changes.

“This is not unique to Microsoft, but it’s a valuable mindset shift that helps us to achieve more with our people,” says Pillay. “We also do Microsoft poll surveys and the daily pulse survey every day. The annual survey is great: Office 365 has the largest graph of human interaction at work ever created and allows you to see trends over time, and our daily survey provides us with rich insight for precise points in time.”

Every week Microsoft employees are sent a personalised email that provides them with insights into their performance, which allows them to make their own changes in behaviour based on this feedback. In addition, the company is constantly measuring accessibility and diversity to ensure that it always gives people the right opportunities.

“Many people today will leave a company if it’s not inclusive,” concludes Pillay. “Pay and perks are not as important as a universal employee experience that embraces diversity. We continue to transform our culture day-to-day, to empower our people, and to design inclusive and equitable opportunities to accelerate our growth towards a more diverse workforce. We want our company canvas to be right, to constantly enrich our people and surround them with the things that matter.”

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Jasmine Pillay
Guest Author

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