Digital transformation at the Swiss Post – when digital meets physical
More than technology, successful digital transformation is about the changes in processes and structures in an organization – in other words, about the employees. In order for teams to be able to react quickly and flexibly to new conditions, they have to redesign their cooperation. As Head of Technology, Strategy & Steering and Member of the Executive Board of IT at the Swiss Post, Laetitia Henriot Arsever is all too familiar with this challenge. In this interview with Nikolaus Obwegeser, director of the Institute for Digital Technology Management at BFH-W, she takes us into the depths of embedded IT organizations and how the Post strives to preserve and renew their value proposition in the digital world.
In your career you went through various roles and functions, ranging from IT, to operations, to sales, to finance, to managing a start-up incubator. How does this compare to your current role at the Swiss Post, can you build on your prior experience in all these areas?
My current position is much more focused on core IT and the strategic part of it, but I still feel I can use a lot of the different knowledge I acquired over time. Business alignment is still very important when defining the strategy and the operating model. On the innovation side it is very useful to understand how to get new ideas started and financed within a bigger corporate environment. Throughout the different stations, I’ve learned to use finance as a strategic tool to push the topics that are important to me. Another aspect is the importance of listening to people from the field, drivers of post cars or IT developers and testers to validate ideas and get buy-in from the team. Having worked myself in the field in operations, I learned to be humble and that really helped me.
Let’s talk about what you found when you started your position. How is the digital transformation of the Swiss Post going, and what are the big challenges?
One of the key values that Swiss post holds very high is postal secrecy. Today, you trust Swiss post to transport you, your money and your information, mostly through physical services. Our strategy is to leverage our value proposition and translate it into the digital world. We want to ensure that we continue to provide relevant services for the future generation. And we are convinced that there will still be the need for a service public, guaranteeing secrecy for the population with physical infrastructure but also in the digital world. It is about providing trustworthy IT solutions to empower people in Switzerland and to support the economy. We play a key role in it, and we see ourselves as a partner in terms of the digital transformation for Switzerland as a whole.
How does the Swiss Post translate these physicality – the brand, the USP, the secrecy – into the digital world?
I think this is the biggest challenge that Swiss post must master. We need to provide both – physical and virtual services and they need to be seamlessly integrated. We cannot just move fully into the digital world because we have this primary service for all. This public mission is a mandate for the state. We also need to make sure that we keep providing services for the people that maybe are not comfortable with digital solutions. Our challenge is to see how we can satisfy those two worlds and make them work together. For example, let’s imagine that you download and print out the sticker for your parcels, but then want to bring it to the post office physically. These are – what we call phygital – solutions we are working on. Voting is another good illustrations: We will continue to transport physical letters with votes and making sure they arrive in a timely manner, preserving privacy, but we also want to push for e-voting solutions. The challenge lies in creating new digital services that are aligned with our strengths (transporting secure information, being a trusted partner, our public mission) while integrating and maintaining our physical services.
From an IT perspective, this sounds a bit like a nightmare. You have to do everything at the same time and make sure all the actors are aligned, the data is having the same formats, everything has to fit together. How do you deal with that complexity, of integrating both physical and digital worlds?
We have really pushed the last years what we call the embedded IT organization. With this complexity you can’t have a separation between IT on one side and business on the other. IT is business. There is a need to be aligned on all the different levels. Teams should be given end-to-end responsibility as much as possible and organized along value generation. The idea is to make the business and IT share responsibility and ownership to generate more impact. We created dedicated teams along delivered services and we have the business integrated into those teams. They take part in the prioritization and decision making in the same way we do and are part of their meeting. We can observe that the traditional barriers become more and more blurry and it becomes more like one team.
We have really pushed what we call the embedded IT organization. With this complexity you can’t have a separation between IT on one side and business on the other. IT is business.
How does that look like in practice?
Well, we have a set of services that we deliver for a business unit that is focused on a certain value generation. All the people working on these services and these applications are together in a team within the IT. You have different roles including business analysts, requirement engineers, DevOps developers and engineers, testers, operation security experts, all embedded with business roles such as the business owner. In addition, architecture experts are also part of those teams but in dotted lined. Architects are also linked across services in dotted lines, making sure that the overall architecture also makes sense.
Let’s talk a bit about your role as a digital leader. How do you lead a team with such diverse backgrounds and profiles, bridging business and IT roles?
There are a lot of different tools out there that are available, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I personally like these 2 frameworks: Sociocracy 3.0 | Effective Collaboration At Any Scale (sociocracy30.org)) and SAFe 5 for Lean Enterprises (scaledagileframework.com). I believe in trying, practicing, learning and adapting. There is no one size fits all and it is important to find out which tool or element of these frameworks will mostly help your team. Some teams may find it difficult to make fast decisions. Then you might look at what are the different ways that you can make better decision. We practiced a lot in the last two years the tool «Consent decision-making” that we use for important and strategic discussions. I find it useful because it helps to remove these emotional tensions and discussions and allows you to make fast decision that have strong buy-in.
How do you deal with your role as a leader to make sure your team trusts you and is open and honest with their feedback?
I think what we have in Switzerland, and not only in the Swiss post, is a culture of compromise. This is how our system works, how we make political decisions and create new laws. And this has been very successful, right? So, it’s something that we see as very positive. And I think it has a lot of positive sides, but when you combine a hierarchical top down respect and the fact that you try not to have conflict and prefer to find compromises, it becomes difficult to have direct candid critical feedback. Without sharing what you really think, no trust can be built on the long term.
With more interactions between Digital, Technology and Business experts, Leadership skills will become even more critical to ensure you have impact and perform in a complex environment. That means skills such as conflict resolution, how to have constructive arguments, how to sell your ideas so they make sense to different audiences will be more relevant.
So, conflict is seen as something negative and then avoided?
When I started in my current role, I realized that my team found it difficult to have strong arguments or to engage in conflict. They would rather try to avoid a topic, especially when it involved the boss. They learnt it is too risky in a top-down culture to challenge your boss as this may have impact on your bonus, on your next career step, it can be seen as a lack of respect or even threatening.
That’s why I felt it was important to show the team that I wanted to have those “healthy” conflicts and that I valued that. So, we trained it. For example, I introduced a role play where I would say: “okay, every meeting, we will have another person that has to be critical and challenge what is proposed”. After a while it became like any other task that has been assigned and people started to feel more comfortable. This way they could practice and realize: “oh, it’s okay to give critical feedback, this is actually even good for me when I engage”.
Do you have another example?
Another thing was that I didn’t want to have agenda points for our meetings. I asked the team to name tensions. What are the tensions that we want to resolve in this meeting? For example, “I need an information from you” can be seen as a tension. Or “I want something to be done”. “I want to make sure everybody knows about this project”, but also “I have something that is not working, and we need to make a decision”, or “I see something that should be done differently”. Considering tensions as part of daily professional routine, normalize it and encourage people to bring critical points.
What’s the next «big thing» we should have on our radars?
We will see more and more digital technologies like cloud or automatization penetrate our organizations. I believe that digital leaders need to create value exactly at this interface between IT and business. With more interactions between Digital, Technology and Business experts, Leadership skills will become even more critical to ensure you have impact and perform in a complex environment. That means skills such as conflict resolution, how to have constructive arguments, how to sell your ideas so they make sense to different audiences will be more relevant. Convincing non-experts with storytelling is such an essential skill today. When I compare with Anglo-Saxon culture, I think in Switzerland schools should integrate it much more in their curriculum. For example, stakeholder management is so much about storytelling. The higher you go, the simpler it must be. And making complex things sound simple is a very difficult task. I find it easier to speak with an IT architect about complexity than to speak with Board member that has no idea about technology. But I need to convince them and explain what we need to do. To be a successful digital leader, you therefore need those storytelling skills. So that would be a great thing to prepare your students for!
About the person
Laetitia Henriot Arsever is currently Head of Technology, Strategy & Steering and a member of the IT Executive Board at Swiss Post CH. She holds a Master’s degree in Computer Science from EPFL. Before joining Swiss Post, she was CIO EMEA at the lift company Schindler, where she worked in various positions for over 10 years. She founded Schindler’s digital innovation hub in Berlin and held positions in finance, sales, and operations, which gave her a broad and strategic perspective. Before that, she was an analyst at the consulting firm Bearing Point Switzerland for 2 years.
About the Institute for Digital Technology Management
The Institute for Digital Technology Management at the BFH Business school is an expert hub for digital innovation and transformation. Our experts accompany the digitization of industry & society, organizations, and individuals. We help with the development of a coherent vision & strategy, the prioritization and evaluation of options, the planning of the implementation (roadmap), and with the realization of digital value – beyond prototypes. To this end, we work in a research-based and technology-neutral manner, with a network of experienced partners. Our common goal is the responsible and value-creating use of digital technologies.