Interview with Marc Starfield; Global HR Programme Manager

Interview with Marc Starfield; Global HR Programme Manager

Thu 9 Mar 2017 | Interview

Hensen Associates is delighted to launch our new interview series, aiming to constantly discuss and discover how the world’s leading HR technology experts think – and how their personal backgrounds have played an important part.

If you’d like to be considered for a future interview in the series, or know someone suitable who would, please email

We start with Global Programme Manager Marc Starfield. Marc has worked in a global capacity for AstraZeneca, BP, Barclays, Accenture and IBM.

  1. Your professional passion is connecting people, processes and technology to deliver new organisational outcomes. Which is the most important or difficult one of the trio and what does a good organisational outcome look like?

Throughout my career I think I have had the ability to engage with people at any level and have developed my level  of understanding them. I understand technology as well: how it works, what it’s meant to do and not do. Connecting those things with process seems simple, but never is! You have to see the three elements as one. I think there are lots of examples of big global programmes that have never really worked. I think they’re trying to bridge one or  two and not normally all three elements. Therefore, my passion is helping organisations understand the impact on all three of these elements. It’s not a singular.

In terms of difficulty I think the one that’s easiest is probably the technology. I was a SAP Consultant that did lots of configuration. The reason why you flip these switches is much more important than being able to flip them. One of my favourite sayings is: ‘If we do this, what does it mean in terms of the operating model behind it, the processes and how does this impact people?’

2. Do a third of all HR technology programmes fail, as per the general McKinsey ratio, or is this fake news?

I think that’s generous! I think that most ultimately do fail to deliver their benefits because a lot of the time companies say that they’ll implement this technology or programme to realise specific benefits, but very few organisations are really robust about realising the benefits and fully exploiting the transformative opportunity.

Even just six years ago, some big global companies were all implementing SAP HR at massive cost. These were $15 million to $40 million programmes. I have not heard of one that has achieved the predicted payback or full benefits. These are things that were meant to be a catalyst to transform HR and make HR business partners able to drive analytics to strategic levels of engagement and business partnering. What they’ve predominantly done is just replaced old systems with a better administrative tool.

  1. Where are you from and what languages do you speak?

I grew up in the town of Heidelberg in South Africa, it’s about an hour south of Johannesburg. My home language is not English, my wife and I speak Afrikaans too. The foundation is Dutch and there’s a little bit of French and English in there too. I once asked an elocution guy ‘could I soften my accent more?’ His response was ‘the only way to do that is to stop speaking Afrikaans every single day with your wife!’ I can’t do that, so I’m stuck with my dodgy accent.

South Africa has 11 official languages – another one is a great language that developed in the mines many years ago called Fanagalo. It’s a mixture of all these 11 official languages and it’s riddled with profanities because in the mines, there was no time to say, ‘be careful this rock is going to fall on your head!’ It’s a great example of a language that work in a specific environment and the importance of language,

  1. What brought you to the UK?

I joined PWC in South Africa, after my university degrees and completing the SAP academy. PWC wanted me to do global work and I was lucky enough to be sent on a two year secondment. That was a lot of fun because there was an end date and my wife and I saw it as a little bit of an adventure. I spent a year in Derby at Rolls Royce and then a year in Halifax at Halifax Bank of Scotland. When the two years where up, we returned to South Africa, where I bought a British racing green Land Rover Defender and said, ‘that’s it. I love the UK, but I’m going to stay in South Africa and see more of Africa first.’ Three years later I was convinced to come back for a great programme and we came back. This time there was no defined return date, so  we said we’ll stay as long as we’re having fun – and that’s been ten years!

I think Africa is a great place, so we haven’t taken a long or a short-term decision to stay in the UK. I think the UK is a fantastic country to live in and think we are very  lucky to live here, but if we no longer had fun and enjoyed our time in the UK we would certainly explore and be open  to moving. It drives my wife crazy, but I love the dynamic of new countries and cultures and people!

  1. How can HR collaboration technology can change company culture?

Forbes Most Innovative Company in the World last year was won by Tesla. The previous four years were won by What I am interested in is to try and understand what drives that level of collaboration because truly innovative companies are collaborating in different ways. If you think of Tesla,, Google and some of the others that we look up to and say, ‘these guys are churning out interesting stuff’ – why is that? Is it because of the culture of work there or is it underlined by the technology? Where did this come from?

I was at AstraZeneca supporting the Corporate Affairs function, where we put in a new global Social Intranet – it was based on, with 85,000 end users globally. The easy part was saying, ‘how do I get rid of all these hundreds of websites all over the world, then create a very good global intranet – something which allows translation and was a good tool for people to publish local stories?’ Ie changing it from 80% global stuff that nobody cared about to 50% global and 50% local market, so it’s the place you go to everyday.

The harder part was then saying, ‘how do you use that to drive a change in culture?’ An example would be scientists who are trained to fully complete their research and then publish it. How could or should you encourage earlier sharing and collaboration? We were trying to encourage early organisation-wide sharing and collaboration, exploring ways to connect people and get information to ‘come to you’ using hashtags and specific groups.

Linking back to the most innovative companies in the world,  I’m interested in understanding ‘is it because of really good technology?’ So think of Snapchat and a few others – or is it because of the underlying culture? I don’t have any empirical data at this stage, but I am trying to get my head around it. With some research I might do this as part of a long term doctoral programme, finding out what drives collaboration that delivers true innovation.

  1. Do you see a big difference in approach from pharma, energy, FS and IT when it comes to HR technology or is it the same at that global level?

I think there are things that are similar, but they are distinctive in other areas. I think the good thing about pharma is that it needed to start finding a mechanism to make it a bit more easy to respond to where I think the market is going. For me pharma is going to become much more focused on specific therapeutic areas.. What I mean by that is that many pharma companies used to want to get bigger and bigger and engage in many disparate research efforts .

I think now the cost of that and the pressure socially is going to drive more companies to become very focused on specific therapeutic areas, so it’s less about being all things to all people and choosing those where you really have a niche. That’s going to drive an uptake in  smaller collaborations, mergers and acquisitions. It’s not going to be about buying bigger firms,  it’s going to be about finding the small niche company that’s got a really unique way of looking at that specific compound within a therapeutic area.

Therefore technology needs to move to something that can enable more collaboration externally which is hard for pharma companies, but also making it easier to bring somebody in and on board, so really leapfrog how quickly they can get you on board, get you into our world and using our systems and process technology.

Financial services is in a little bit in a different space right now when you think of what the regulators are expecting. The regulators are expecting you to break up retail banking from investment banking and be able to ringfence operations. But this creates specific challenges for the banks that have invested in big shared serviced centres and for global HR systems.

I think it’s interesting that there is quite a difference in terms of needs, and this is probably true for petrochemical and energy firms as well, not just within these different industries, but also within the industries there is often a need for a differentiated HR service offering. Often in a retail environment it’s as cheap as possible, with line managers asked to perform many traditional HR events compared to Salesforce employees or investment bankers who need more of a white glove HR service. The challenge and opportunity is how do you build a global solution using software and service which gives you that service differentiating opportunity?

Global companies in terms of tech now are looking for more and more cloud-based solutions, and the reason for that is that it’s driving a simpler and more agile processes. It’s reducing the number of applications and it’s changing the way IT supports them. IT is no longer about big internal system environments, it’s about much smaller, simpler, agile environments and then using best of breed and then connecting these.

In that sense, I think all of them are in a similar space. It’s about consolidating that spend, getting it to a place where you can actually integrate all of this information, to enable and inform business outcomes. And, that’s why I think there’s a  hype about big data. It’s about how you can  leverage all this information from all these different areas, how do you get that to a place where it’s useful?

  1. Did you disagree with what your management consulting firm was prescribing you to do at one point?

Yes, I had an issue with that in terms of the expectation of how we would manage a fixed price piece of work. It was down to saying, ‘well, the client had signed that off.’ I was saying, ‘well, the reality is they don’t know any better, we didn’t say anymore and it’s not going to give us the outcome we need.’ There was often a back office debate about does driving a change request get influenced by comments such as; ‘we didn’t expect to spend so much time on this or this will eat too significantly into the  margin?’

I remember challenging by saying, ‘should we not have guided the client more effectively or made the potential challenge clearer, in other words the issue might be saying more about us as the consulting organisation than the client’s lack of understanding, and there’s a balance we need to find?’

I think it’s true in all consulting organisations, you’re always going to have a little bit of conflict around somebody that’s on the ground, trying to do the right thing and somebody that’s selling these things – there’s a gap in the middle. Having said that consulting organisations are a critical part of any organisations ecosystem and have and continue to enhance organisational performance.

  1. You’re looking to join the board of a children or education charity – tell us why.

It’s a passion of mine. I raise some money every year for children’s charities. Simply, I think children have infinite possibility and that’s why I’m passionate about them. I want to play my part in supporting a charity in whichever way. The one thing I’m looking at now is joining something once a week for younger adults trying to find their feet, so with my dodgy accent I might be from another place and time and it might help.

I’ve got a passion for children and keen to work in environments where I can help on a practical level or support in terms of a trustee. A friend of mine and I set up a charity a few years ago called 1 Day Alliance. It was really about saying to all the contractors I knew can we emulate the big corporates that help people support charities, by pooling our resources, knowledge and time to make impactful changes. We did some cool stuff for a school in London, which I loved. For me a charity day out the office, to make a difference in someone else’s life, is one of the best team work events you can initiate.

  1. The worlds of HR and technology were at one time quite separate and in some cases still are. What fuelled your natural interest in the area at perhaps an early age?

This was by accident! I had a bursary and I studied economics, but the company that had the bursary offered me a job to help them in their HR department to bring in more analytics and technology to deliver better reporting and HR function.

Then I realised that actually they didn’t have any way of doing this because there was no information, so I then wrote a little case to say why would you not invest a little bit of money and put in a better solution technically that will give us an ability to understand the workforce and the HR function? I really enjoyed that, so it was a bit of a mix of the more analytical structured approach to something which is often seen as more on the softer side. That started it off and since then my career has been built on saying how do we connect these things, how do we get value out of technology which does enhance the way people are managed and supported, but while also helping HR become much clearer about what it means to support the business.

You can see the role of technology come to fruition and now has the potential to even further disrupt how HR serves are offered and consumed. An example that might illustrate this point is that a Resourcing Leader recently said to me  he wants the organisation to ‘stop posting and praying’ in terms of attracting applicants for critical roles. He wants to be in a position to forward scout, looking for people before they even know that they’re going to look for a job.

So, it’s that change which I think is interesting and then connecting that with technology. It’s just something that I’ve accidentally ended up in, but then fell in love with. I’m fundamentally a people person. The other way I would describe myself is that I am an HR native and a technology immigrant. I love both, but my bias in the way I think is more around how do we make this work for the people and process, while linking  technology to that and you get a different outcome.

  1. What did you want to be when you was a kid?

I wanted to be an economist and that’s what I went to study and I liked it a lot. Then the  opportunity came up at the company headquarters, which sponsored my university studies, which also was in the little town I grew up in and importantly is was where my now wife lived!

  1. What was the last book you read and what was our favourite?

The last book I read was on holiday in December and it was John Grisham’s The Racketeer and it  was just escaping a little bit.

One of my favourite current reads is Creative Confidence and it’s really about dispelling the myth that we aren’t all creative. I sponsored design thinking at AstraZeneca and I got some money to take myself and four other people to Stanford’s D-School ‘Design Thinking School ‘and this was the book they give you there.

Why the book is interesting is because it’s challenging and questioning how do you really start understanding the true need of people, so this notion of empathy is presented which translates into a deep understanding and to come up with the right questions and then the answers and not your preconceived ones. Put another way, it’s about deep understanding, suspending judgement and looking at it all in a  different way.

  1. What was your favourite band growing up? Who’s your favourite band now?

Probably Bryan Adams and Bruce Springsteen. And my favourite now is Daughtry. Look them up on Spotify!

  1. If you had any job in the world now what would it be?

It would probably be supporting a good, global brand and doing a transformation programme. Ideally it would include  implementing an entirely different operating model, to drive a real change in the business, so changing the culture from the way it was to shorter agile cycles. Engaging with new environments from a global perspective and trying to change the way we think and do things.

The other one would be something that’s been on my development plan for a long time, but a long term one is run programmes for UNICEF. I’ve got an interest in using my programme management skills and experience to run very specific programmes, but I want it to be on the ground, directly helping children.

  1. What car do you drive?

BMW 330D. I had a Defender. That’s my favourite car. It’s a little bit like me. It’s a bit rough around the edges, it’s not necessarily handsome, but it does exactly what it’s made to do and will go anywhere. We had a lot of fun in the Defender as a family. Now we drive a BMW, it was more my wife’s choice than mine to be honest. I said to her, ‘what car will put a smile on your face?’ and she said she’d like a BMW. The next car I’d like to buy is a 1973 Land Rover Defender and build it up a little bit because they don’t make them anymore.

  1. What sector do you think would most benefit from HR technology improvement and which sector would you most like to work in? Perhaps they’re one and the same.

I think the one that would benefit most is oil and gas. It’s all very big, heavy, ERP environments. I think oil and gas in terms of the fluctuation in things like oil price and the way renewables and others are going I think that they will benefit most by really transforming, becoming simpler, cheaper, much more agile.

The one I would most like to work in would probably be pharma. I think pharma is a fantastic industry. It’s got this bad rep, but it’s like all industries where there is a balance to be found between the commercial realities and societal responsibilities. There is something really amazing about scientists, solving complex challenge to help save millions of people.