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At Korn Ferry, Great Search is Step One Toward Great Collaboration

Bryan Ackermann

This week, Korn Ferry Senior Vice President and CIO Bryan Ackermann joins us to talk about the business challenges that come with aggressive mergers and acquisitions and how SharePoint and BA Insight software has helped them not only mitigate the frustrations of growth, but keep their eye on a future in which search is only the first step toward invisible, secure collaboration for his company anytime, anywhere in the world.

Korn Ferry is a key player in leadership development as talent and recruiting partner to 93% of the FORTUNE 100. The company is approaching 50-years-old in just a few years and currently moves 100,000 people through its leadership programs each month.

Bryan Ackermann

Bryan Ackermann
Korn Ferry


Pete: Welcome to “Shared Insights,” the podcast from BA Insight. My name is Pete Wright and I am joined today by Bryan Ackermann, senior vice president and CIO with leadership development from Korn Ferry. Bryan, welcome to “Shared Insights.”

Bryan: Thanks, Pete. Happy to be here.

Pete: First of all, I’m very excited for you to be joining me in this conversation. It’s been a long time since we’ve had a CIO level, a person talking to us about the challenges that you’re facing at the organization. And I think, you know, approaching it from a higher level, it’s gonna be very interesting to them. I’m curious about the challenges you’re facing. So let’s start a little bit with your business challenges, right? Korn Ferry is a talent recruiting partner to 93% of the Fortune 100, is a key player in leadership development, companies cresting towards 50 years old. And currently it was a hundred thousand people through your leadership programs each and every month. So what’s going on at Korn Ferry right now that makes data and quick access to search that data a key concern for you and your team?

Bryan: Pete, in order to answer that, it’s helpful to turn the clock back a little bit. And I’ll start when I joined Korn Ferry as the CIO in 2013. The firm was already, you know, known as the premiere executive recruiter in the world. And, you know, we like to say we put a person in a job somewhere in the world, roughly every three minutes. And we had a wonderful brand and a wonderful business of about 2,600 people worldwide. And we were, you know, more or less $850 million or so in revenue at the time. We had been publicly traded for some time. And just, you know, the holders of the crown jewel of the recruiting business. But what we began to see was that the executive recruiting business had a couple of attributes that we didn’t take advantage of.

One was that in 2013 we had, you know, several business challenges that we wanted to work through. First, is that executive search by definition is pretty cyclical. It’s, you know, a very, very good when times are good, and can be challenging in bad economic times. And second, it’s very reactive. So as you might imagine, there aren’t a lot of public notices that a company’s gonna make a change at a senior level. So as a result, that combination of cyclical plus reactive made Korn Ferry very vulnerable to all the headwinds that happened in the economic climate. But probably even more than that, here we had these spaces for a wonderful relationship of engaging with leaderships and C-level executives and board members across the world. And really, we were solving only one problem for them. When we figured that because of the way we do search and the intellectual property we develop, there were lots of other places in the life cycle of talent management at a company that we could provide value to a client by sustaining the relationship with them in other areas.

So we had started and then accelerated a business initiative and a business transformation that would broaden what Korn Ferry does. And we invested very heavily in building the human resources, professional services side of Korn ferry, and building an advisory practice that brought ultimately services around helping a company define their organization, helping them map that organization to the business strategy of the firm, helping them find the right people to staff the organization, whether inside through services like succession and development and assessing leaders across the organization, to outside the firm regardless of level. And then help them understand what kind of impact and value they would have in the market through pay compensation and ultimately do that at scale. So whether we’re talking at the senior levels of an organization or throughout the organization.

So between 2013 and 2018 now, the firm has completely transformed. From a business perspective, we’re not yet, you know, at the technology component of this. So as I sit here in 2018, we’ll, with both employees and help that we get service providers, contractors and the like, we’ll come pretty close to 10,000 people in Korn Ferry. Our revenue has, you know, more or less doubled. It’s about 1.7 billion and change this year. And more importantly, we deliver services across many, many different places in the talent lifecycle of a company. So we’re very, very different place. As the CIO, that introduced really just a large number of very fundamental challenges. That growth happened over a period, generally speaking, 36 to 40 months. So three years or so.

Pete: That’s pretty stunning. I mean, it’s just the idea of just how much catch up you must be playing as the internal human resources needs change and then technology change to be able to adapt.

Bryan: Absolutely. And so if you are an employee of Korn Ferry in 2018, more likely than not, you have a heritage. You’ve come to Korn Ferry through one of these building blocks, whether acquisition or organic growth that we’ve had over the last several years. And chances are the firm deliver services that are much broader than your particular area of expertise. So when you combine that kind of rapid growth with a rapid expansion of the business services, you have kind of a fundamental challenges, challenge that as an individual, whether you are doing business development or relationship management or some kind of delivery. Chances are you really can’t talk to and provide expertise across the value chain that we’re trying to bring to our clients, which completely takes the question of collaboration out of the realm of personal productivity or back office IT and makes it, you know, the business imperative. We had the business challenge growing that fast to how do you align that workforce with everything that we do properly in front of a client anywhere in the world at any time. And, you know, that’s kind of a collaboration challenge that lots of professional services firm faced by the way. But for Korn Ferry, it was the difference between this transformation being successful or not from a business perspective.

Pete: Before we go on around your technology and business challenges, how did you approach the cultural challenges that I’m sure you have to have faced? You know, reaching out and telling these, you know, nearly 10,000 people, this is how work is gonna happen for you now. What kind of, any sort of push back, any sort of experience of, “Whoa, you have to be kidding me, right,” kind of experience?

Bryan: Completely. And as you would expect, you know, this isn’t a one and done, right? This is a challenge that we continue to work through today, because you do push the limits of how much change people can consume and you really, you know, Korn Ferry probably skate that edge of it. But you certainly have to balance how much change can be consumed. But it’s also a recognition that even with that goal of being one Korn Ferry in front of our client, they’re not only are different heritages that have to be respected, but dramatically different consumption patterns of technology. So you have everything from our executive search business that is highly collaborative, but generally speaking, small groups. One on one, typical example, a recruiter and a candidate. The elements of collaboration are episodic, and you who scheduled an interview. That interview better be ultra-high quality because chances are that interview is with somebody who’s been the CEO of a company. But it’s a very specific pattern.

Our advisory businesses, our consulting businesses consume technology totally differently. Their age demographics are different, their use of science, and data, and IP, and precision, and a consulting methodology is totally different from executive search. So their needs are different. And then as you move into our outsourcing business, our recruitment process, outsourcing business, future step, which recruits at scale, they are, first off, skew, you know, much younger. So it’s very much more of a millennial crowd, very technology hungry. They are typically embedded with their clients not sitting in a Korn Ferry office, and so their technology patterns are completely different. They do volume, video interviewing at scale. So the culture changes how much you consume, but also a combination of respecting the business goal of bringing all of Korn Ferry to a client while still understanding, you know, you cannot impose one way of interacting, you cannot impose one way of collaboration, and yet you still have to provide everybody access to all of the combined IP of the firm. Quite a challenging problem.

Pete: Yeah. And you just hit on something that I hadn’t connected, that because of the nature that is, again, not unique to Korn Ferry but to the industry, not only are you challenged with delivering the right resources and the right people to your internal teams, but you have to make this sort of permeable to the folks who are not completely internal, right, the people who are your recruiting and placing, and meeting them where they are, skating to where the puck will be, so to speak.

Bryan: Well, that’s right. And I’ll even take it a step further. More and more of that electronic collaboration is happening between Korn Ferry and our clients, right? This isn’t…no longer is this a world where you have a lot of internal collaboration or communication and then we throw a deliverable over the wall to the client and then they respond to it and throw them back over the wall to us. That collaboration mode, again, depending very much on the line of business in many, many cases more and more actually includes the client. So, you know, the challenge of doing that securely in mobile. And you know, one other dimension of this that I failed to mention is during that period of growth, our geographic footprint changed pretty dramatically. And we went from predominantly a U.S.-based organization to about half our footprint and a corresponding amount of our revenues sitting outside the U.S. So the global nature of this became a very important dimension as well.

Pete: Can we talk a little bit of the specifics, like how you approached the technology through the M&A activities that you mentioned here. How did you approach the project to bring these tools and systems together to making sure that you’re delivering the right resources when people are searching for them?

Bryan: It was kind of a healthy balance of, you know, obviously some very, very tactical activities, you know, connecting dots and infrastructures, remediating, you know, systems that couldn’t support the scale they were now going to be demanded to support. So the very traditional M&A, certainly efficiencies and the like that we wanted to introduce. But also there was this goal of at the end of the process, we just did not want to be connected to each other. So I’m taking the islands of Korn Ferry and connecting them to the islands, a future step in the islands of Korn Ferry Hay Group. But we really, we’re providing a single infrastructure of information that was consumed through multiple channels depending on, you know, the person’s role, where they sat in their particular mode of communication. So we started out pretty early on with that design goal. And then, you know, M&A provides a great excuse, a hammer, a burning platform to implement the kind of disruptive change that sometimes is required to get this kind of thing done.

Pete: Let’s talk a little bit about Office 365 since we’ve sort of anchor around a lot of conversations around Office 365. You’ve migrated to an Office 365 infrastructure.

Bryan: It became very quickly more than just about, you know, where’s your email and where are your files. What we made the decision, and in a lot of consultation and after taking several very deep breaths, is that Korn Ferry, even though we were larger, we’re still a size company that was right within the sweet spot of saying we’re gonna be all in on Office 365 because the integration capability across various tools in that platform ranging from the authoring tools like Word and PowerPoint all the way through the search engines, SharePoint, Microsoft’s strategy there, which when we made this decision in 2014, was far from implemented. But the vision was right, and it fit what we were trying to do.

So we started a, you know, kind of a multi-year journey that some of it was disruptive, you know, moving email boxes around. Some of it was fun building of a new search capability and others was a specialty around the concept of how to be secure and mobile at the same time. But as we sit here now, you know, all 10,000 people, not all the time more or less, all 10,000 people are on one flavor or another of Office 365. Our legacy file shares are dwindling. So the legacy islands of data are systematically being transitioned so that they’re accessible not just to, you know, remote users via Office 365, but really that they feed the Office 365 index so that they can be found anywhere they are. And we are starting to embed elements of interaction and elements of collaboration, like Yammer as an example, into the places that our users go to work, and go to author, and go to collaborate so that collaboration takes a very real-time feel.

And the last thing that I’ll just touch on because it’s been a big transformant for us is we were an early adopter of Microsoft Teams. And my favorite story is we literally just turned it on. We didn’t do any user training at all. We just turned it on to see what would happen, no communications, no nothing. I had 500 teams within Korn Ferry within two weeks that founded, started using it. And because we had laid the foundation and it automatically integrated across everything we had been building over the three-year period before that, it went from 0 to 500 in a matter of weeks. And it’s now racing through the organization.

Pete: I think that’s fantastic. You read my mind. That was just the sort of question I was going to pivot to here. I wonder, can you think of an area or an example where, you know, this sort of virality of Teams has actually served to solve a problem for you that you’re facing?

Bryan: Absolutely. So I think it’s helpful to step back for a second and understand the real kind of fundamental challenge here. When you grow this quickly through M&A, when you have so many people that don’t know everything that the firm can offer and yet are trying to drive a relationship of some kind with a client, a couple of things happen. The amount of time… We start to think of things in terms of the time to search and find, the time to share, and then the time of collaboration, which is where you add the value, right? So there’s no value in searching, there’s no actual value in sharing. There certainly is no value in taking the time it takes to find something. All of the value that we do in a services firm is when there is collaboration, whether it’s with each other or with your client or both.

So the goal of all of this is to take the time to search and find things inside of the firm, reduce it as far as possible, right? Make that information as easy to get to and bring it as close to the person as I possibly can. Then give them absolutely frictionless ability to find other experts inside of the firm and share that information with them for the purpose of collaboration. That’s the non-value-added part of all this. But if you think about it, that’s the piece we spend the most time on is where to find things and how to get them to the people that I need collaboration with. We exchange emails, we make phone calls, etc. And really maximize the time that team spends enriching the document or the IP or the data that they’re working on with the other people.

Pete: Or in fact the directory information. I imagine one of the greatest resources, even maybe more than a documenting, your kind of organization, is being able to find the right human at the other end of another keyboard somewhere.

Bryan: Yeah. Based on criteria that are very, very, very, very rarely about the org chart. You know, and it’s a significant part of this challenge. And we can talk about how we solve for it. That’s the problem we’re really trying to solve. And so the example of that is this, you know, senior client search partner, who typically in Korn Ferry, it’s the search organizations that are the deepest into the organization and have access to a lot of the relationships in the organization. So picture a Friday afternoon and this executive search partner who at the end of the day is a recruiter gets a phone call from their client. Every professional services firm has gotten this phone call. “Hi. You know, I was watching Korn Ferry did a blog and a podcast on your succession planning services. And I was with my CHROs [SP] and we’re about to start a project on internal top talent. We’re starting on Monday. I know it’s late, but do me a favor, I need a proposal for you to help me with succession planning on my desk by Monday morning so that you can be included in the discussion of what, which partner to engage.” And it’s Friday afternoon.

Before this, what happens? That partner who knows that we provide the service, maybe they, you know, have been involved in an engagement or two where it’s been done, but certainly is not a subject matter expert and certainly cannot credibly put together a proposal over the weekend. What do they do? Well, they pick up their cell phone and they start trying to figure out who in the firm has done this before, who’s done it in my industry, who’s done it with my client maybe that I wasn’t aware of? What is it exactly that we do in the pharmaceutical industry because this happens to be a pharmaceutical client, and oh my God, where are these people in the world? What are they doing right now? Can they stop what they’re doing, all come to the office, and work over the weekend on a proposal that has to be ready for the client, including QA-ed, priced, buttoned up perfectly seamlessly and sitting on their relationship counterpart’s desk that Monday morning? Yeah, happened every day at Korn Ferry. And the bigger we got, the less likely that through heroics or personal knowledge was that search executive as an example, although it certainly happens across our other line of business, would have been able to solve for the problem.

So what happens? You don’t make the deadline. It’s late, or worse, it’s not a very good attempt and we don’t, you know, we don’t get the chance to help the client. Well, all of that changes, right? So now I’ve got 10,000 people, you know, all with the same directory. I’ve got them all accessing an Office 365 index that, by the way, also includes thanks to BA Insight, includes enterprise data from outside of Office 365, and in our case, engagement and financial data from our ERP and opportunity data from our CRM, neither of which are Microsoft.

So now when they search for their client, their industry, the solution, they get not only the org chart version of who has help, but they get things like, you know, the match of an engagement in an industry with the solution and the people who were part of the engagement or the opportunity. They get the assets that had been curated that can help accelerate the pitch deck. They get the emails that they had, you know, put in their filed folder two years ago about the solution launch. They get the document that they might’ve had buried on their computer somewhere that gave them a pitch deck that they did for the client last that the client liked.

So all of this gets presented. It’s not Star Trek, this is our Office 365 search today. And then they, you know, they select the people that the search results came to them, they right click, and they created a Microsoft Team. And they launched an email, the team gets an alert, and they’ve got their, you know, file collaboration area right there with all the documentation. They’ve got, you know, access to have that Skype conversation and schedule that meeting and prepare all that document, prepare the proposal. And because it’s ubiquitous and mobile, they do it from wherever they all happen to be. I’m after an awful lot of heavy lifting. I’m very happy that that’s not Star Trek. That’s life in the firm at this point.

Pete: I have to imagine that people obviously who are most impacted are the people who are picking up the phone at the end of that day on Friday, you know, and they’re now enabled to do things. It feels like they have a super power. What’s your general feedback been like?

Bryan: It’s that use case that… It’s funny, you know, as a CIO, you a lot of times take what you think is a great idea and you push it into the organization and then you hope it takes hold. The scenario I just described, which is an absolutely true story, was a self-discovery by a senior client search partner in one of our offices on the east coast. And it happened to be an office that, because of its size and where it sits, was doing a lot of cross line of business work anyway. So they had had these versions of this problem before. And by pure happenstance, it happened to coincide with the rollout of Teams. And the best thing that can ever happen to a CIO happened in that this particular, you know, leader in the business changed the way he and his team responded to their client and began to tell other people.

And then the engine took hold of itself, and I, to be honest, I’ve been sitting back and with a smile that doesn’t always come to my face. I got to smile and watch it. I got to smile and watch it happen. But that’s, I mean, admittedly that happens not every day. But when it does, you wanna grab hold of it and tell as many people as you can because that’s how you affect change when it takes root in the business, in this case by itself.

Pete: Not to go dark on you, but I’m curious at this point, what keeps you up at night? What is the thing that you find is you have some concerns about next steps or things that you just wish you could resolve but have not yet?

Bryan: Well, I would say probably an evolving problem that certainly keeps me up night in this space is that every time I try and bring an information closer to the individuals and bring it to them and make sure it’s accessible and current and as frictionless as possible, by definition, you know, I’m starting to be concerned about making sure it’s secure. The closer I get and the easier I make it, I have to be very, very careful that I’m not making it also easy and frictionless and close to people that I don’t want it to be easy, frictionless, and close to. And one of the goals here was to be able to prove that mobility and security are not countered to each other. One of my…the examples that I enjoy is that we were halfway through this journey, probably in 2015, in terms of the heavy lifting. But if you wanted to do the scenario I described, it was secure, but you had to pull off the side of the road, find a hotel with good Wi-Fi, login using dual factor authentication to our secure VPN portal gateway. Then you waited for a virtual desktop environment to load. And then four or five minutes later, you launched, you know, your file share and then you cut and paste the document. And you know, you had none of the…it had all of the security and none of the friction.

But that balance point, how do you balance currency, closeness, security, and mobility absolutely keeps me up at night. And we continue to make changes even here to keep our people in our data, and more importantly, our clients’ data safe. For example, we just completed a rolling multifactor authentication full time across the board, everywhere in the enterprise, to every person in the enterprise. That’s, you know, a significant behavioral change for an awful lot of people around the world. Took a fair amount of engineering to do in as frictionless a way as you can, but it gives us the confidence to keep pushing data to our users wherever they are and not worry about, not worry as much about, I should say, who else has access to it?

Pete: Well, that takes us to a question of vision. Here we are. You’ve been telling the story of things that have happened over the last five years. Let’s take us out to 2023. Paint a picture for us of what 2023 at Korn Ferry looks like for your associates.

Bryan: That same scenario, if it’s 2023, you land in, you know, you land in London for a meeting, maybe you land in London in an autonomously driving half-car, half-plane because it’s 2023.

Pete: That’s optimistic.

Bryan: You land in London for a meeting and with a client, and it’s a client that you haven’t met with yet. And you know it’s a service that you’re one of a few, that Korn Ferry, that you’d know about one of the few that Korn Ferry provides, but it’s a multi-line of business opportunity. You land in London and your, you know, 2023 device of choice, knows where you are so it understands the context of your location. It knows your role and by speaking into the device gives you the pop up of who are the local experts in both the client, the solution, the opportunity, specifically the problems the client has, and all of the, you know, relevant material and intellectual property and data that could assist in that first meeting because it knows when it’s gonna be prepared. It provides and sets up and provisions the collaboration environment for this group to use. And by the time you are, you know, out of that car without wheels and you get to my London office, even though you’ve never been there, the collaboration environment is ready, waiting, and staged for you to begin the real value-added work. And again, that’s the collaboration part of this, not the search, find, and share.

That’s our current vision. To be quite honest, in this world of bots and voice, you know, integrated technologies, we don’t believe it’s going to take us till 2023 to get there. We think it might take us, you know, maybe another year. Because a lot of the hard work, that intelligent contextual search experience is there. And so now it’s more of a question of morphing it, evolving it, providing different versions of it that match the different ways that Korn Ferry employees consume work and in collaboration with each other and take advantage of the, you know, the great advances that we see these days that make it easier to do that.

Pete: That’s a great story. I can’t wait to be there. If it’s a year, consider me on my flying car. This has been a great conversation, Bryan. Thank you so much for taking the time and sitting down with us and sharing the story and the vision. You all have been through a lot, and to be able to continue to provide such robust services for your users and your outside users, your clients, it’s a stellar accomplishment. So thank you. Bryan Ackermann, CIO, Korn Ferry.

Bryan: My pleasure, Pete. Thanks.