Aligning IT and HR for Employee Experience Success

In this episode of CXOTalk, the CIO of Suncor Energy, John Hill, explains how HR and IT can collaborate to create a positive work environment, provide employees with opportunities for growth and development, and use technology to improve employee engagement.


Jun 08, 2023

In episode 791 of CXOTalk, we explore the intersection of Information Technology (IT) and Human Resources (HR) with John Hill, the Senior Vice President for Digital and Information Technology at Suncor Energy. 

John explains how HR and IT can work together to create a positive work environment, provide employees with opportunities for growth and development, and use technology to improve communication and collaboration. He also discusses challenges these departments face in driving employee engagement, and strategies that he's used to overcome the issues.

Here are key points in the discussion:

John Hill is the Vice President of Digital and Information Technology for Suncor Energy. John joined the company in March 2020, bringing over 30 years of experience in information and communications technology, and deep expertise in leading significant digital transformations. Prior to joining Suncor, John served as the Chief Information Officer at Rogers Communications. He has also held executive information technology roles at Enbridge, Capgemini and SaskTel. John is a Professional Engineer and graduate of the University of Saskatchewan.


Michael Krigsman: We're discussing collaboration between IT and HR to improve employee experience. Our guest is John Hill, Senior Vice President for digital and information technology at Suncor.

John Hill: I am currently the senior vice president here at Suncor Energy based out of Calgary, Alberta, Canada, and I'm the senior vice president of digital and information technology, which is a combined role of CIO and chief digital officer (to some extent). Currently, a global role. We're overlooking all of the digital and IT services across the Suncor operating assets and corporate offices.

The intersection of IT with corporate culture and employee engagement

Michael Krigsman: John you have a very broad mandate. To what extent does your role intersect with corporate culture, employee engagement, and so forth?

John Hill: We are one of the fortunate corporate functions that has accessibility and access to every employee in the company, whether it's through end-user devices such as desktops and mobile phones, to all the productivity services, collaboration tools, and the like. We have full access, and when our services are down, it can impact the entire organization.

It is an opportunity for us to put synergies and thoughts across the organization on driving simplification, looking for improvements in the user experience. We're fortunate to have the touchpoints that we do and taking advantage of it for improvements.

Exploring the relationship between Information Technology (IT) and Human Resources (HR)

Michael Krigsman: John, when you describe these touchpoints, to some degree it sounds like you're overlapping what would be traditionally HR activities and HR responsibilities.

John Hill: It's a great thought. I believe we're actually a synergistic partner.

When you think about what a CIO organization or IT organization is doing, it is around customer experience. It is around employee experience.

Quite often, we are partnering with our HR team. In fact, they're an embedded organization standing up as a product model for solutions delivery and support.

We're often taking a look at the same problem. How do we solve talent management? How do we solve things like hybrid work environments?

The nirvana for me is when you walk into the room where we have our embedded IT organization with our HR business partners. You can't tell the difference who is who. To me, that's an effective, high-performing team.

Upskilling teams and the workforce in a remote work environment

Michael Krigsman: We live in a period where this remote, disconnected workforce that you were just describing is so reliant on upskilling and working with the teams that you were talking about. Elaborate a little bit more for us on that.

John Hill: Certainly. Suncor Energy is a fully integrated energy company. But if you look at the core of our business, a lot of our operations in the regions, it's a mining organization.

You have employees who are administrative in nature. You have employees who are driving heavy equipment (large, 400-ton trucks and shovels) that aren't necessarily needing the same type of information and digital connection that a corporate office employee would be. We've got to manage all of those effectively, and the big challenge is how do we get the right information to a disconnected worker that they need.

To me, it's around simplification of the access management, so having access to a network that's ubiquitous. A seamless mobility improvement whether you're in the field, in the mine, or in the office. And getting that information quickly to where they need it. You have to have a super-easy onboarding experience for access management and access to the right corporate information that they need.

Michael Krigsman: Your role is obviously much broader than infrastructure.

John Hill: Yes.

Touchpoints and planning in the CIO / CHRO relationship

Michael Krigsman: How closely do you work with the CHRO at Suncor to accomplish these goals?

John Hill: A couple of factors. We, on an annual basis, will attend large-scale tradeshows. We're debuting our HCM system as an example, so we'll partner. We'll bring joint teams together.

Our groups will travel. We'll sit, and we'll coordinate sitting in on different sessions. We'll compare notes afterwards.

The outcome of that exercise is the creation of an annual plan, and that's a strategic plan and our operating plan, if you will, for our HR department, which will have a heavy bend on technology opportunity.

There are very few HR solutions that we don't manage and/or take care of. And so, having evolution, care, and feeding, having investment on those platforms and solutions in partnership with HR to substantiate the investments we're doing is super important.

That's a major touchpoint. There's an annual planning cycle, which is HR and IT together.

The other element is we'll have M&A activity where you'll have a significant amount of people impacts on a merger or acquisition (or divestiture in some cases) and the partnership with HR and IT is typically the most complex and important to coordinate in those types of engagements. Different benefits plans, different salary plans all impact the HR systems that we are supporting.

Michael Krigsman: This collaboration then is not just ad hoc but is fairly structured and quite well organized.

John Hill: Yes, it is. We have a quarterly planning session together with our major suppliers and also as two business partners within the company. Then we have dashboarding and stewardship that will show how we're progressing to plan. And so, to me it's an embedded function that is working very, very well.

How IT simplifies technology to improve employee experience and engagement

Michael Krigsman: And this theme of simplification ultimately is what has that impact on employees and employee engagement and broadly that employee experience.

John Hill: I challenge my leadership team, and I know our HR business partners are joining on this. If we see friction in the employee base on getting to information or getting access to their personal benefits, what is it we can do to remove friction to make their jobs easier so that they can focus on the things that are important for their business role?

Less administrative tasks, easier access to onboarding and offboarding employees, development plans, talent management plans, making those simplified is our mantra.

Michael Krigsman: John, this close collaboration with HR, from what you've seen among your CIO peers in other organizations, do you think this is fairly common or are you somewhat unique?

John Hill: I think it's more common than people understand. I would say the relationship with CIOs, with finance, and HR are very common.

This digital world, which has a very important aspect to privacy and personalization and cultural transformation, the strength of HR and IT in digital organizations, I think, has grown significant in the last few years. It's not new, but it certainly is more prominent.

Michael Krigsman: I love that: privacy, personalization, and culture change. Have you considered creating a chief experience officer role?

John Hill: We haven't officially yet. I expect that in all of my delivery team leadership and the working functions to actually consider the employee experience first and foremost.

We had a centralized function in the IT organization that was design-thinking and user experience, but it got to a level of maturity where we actually disbanded it and it's now an integrated function across all of the organization.

Embedding the employee experience mandate within IT

Michael Krigsman: Really, employee experience, user experience is embedded, as you said, within IT, and it permeates the fundamental aspects of your thought process about how you approach IT.

John Hill: That's exactly right, Michael. Two facets that we are using in that space (our architectural principles, our design principles) have an element of user experience sign-off.

I'll give you an example. If we're putting in a solution or someone is bringing in an application that is a negative experience to the employee or we're doing an upgrade enhancement, if it doesn't improve the employee experience, we simply won't do it.

Managing a disconnected workforce using technology

Michael Krigsman: John, let's talk about managing this disconnected workforce. How does technology and IT come into play in managing this very large workforce that your organization has?

John Hill: Quite simply, with the disconnected workforce we have, or what we call remote working workforce, we have common technologies around security sign-on and access and authentication that, regardless of your location, it's the same platform.

For example, my PC that's in front of me here today, I automatically connect to the corporate wi-fi system. I have backup with mobile private LTE.

When I take it home, it's automatically connecting using a combination of biometrics, single sign-on technology, zero trust technology – all important solutions to make the remote worker accessibility much, much easier.

Michael Krigsman: John, so much of Suncor's work is mining, as you described. Can you give us an example of remote workers who are really disconnected and how you make it easy for them?

John Hill: Two things: We'll have a remote worker who is maybe an occasional login. A lot of them (in some situations) may not have any electronic device other than a personal mobile.

If it's a personal device, how do I get them information around safety, broadcasted updates for that mining operation in a safe and secure environment? To set up a mobile device, if it's a personal device, quickly and once, and having the ability for that employee to go and pull information very quickly or push simplified versions of information that they need.

For example, year-end taxes. Employees in Canada here need to have access to what we call their T-4. It's a slip that shows annual compensation. That's sometimes the only time a contractor or employee logs in to grab that information.

When you're only doing that once a year, having to go through an entire login process that you're not accustomed to can be a challenge. Introducing seamless technology, single sign-on, biometrics, things like zero-trust technology have helped us make that so much simpler.

Even giving access to our HR system, which is Workday, having the application very functional on the mobile app versus having to go back to the office, log in to do time entry and vacation time, you can do that all with your smartphone (whether it's a personal device or your corporate device). This mobile workforce with mobile technology is much simpler these days if it's managed properly.

Evaluating success with metrics and measurement

Michael Krigsman: What kind of metrics do you look at? How do you evaluate success in this kind of environment?

John Hill: Number one, we're looking for constant employee feedback. And so, as we do surveys or we have anecdotal conversations with our employee client base in the field and operations, we're constantly looking for areas of improvement and seeking feedback.

Hardcore metrics, looking at solutions that are put in place. How often are employees accessing it? Are there errors in trying to log into it? Is the online time to an application very brief and short, causing one of two things to be investigated? Is there a connectivity problem or is there a usability and value perspective problem?

There's a fine line between how far you go with that in terms of privacy of information. You're not going to be big brother looking over their time on the device and what they're actually doing. But more genericized and anonymized information on the application shows us trends. Automatic ticks pop up and go to our service desk, into our network engineering team, and they'll proactively look for trouble hotspots.

Workday's role in helping Suncor achieve employee engagement goals

Michael Krigsman: John, Workday is making our conversation possible, and I'm grateful to Workday that we have the chance to talk. You've mentioned Workday several times. Tell us about your relationship with Workday.

John Hill: Workday is our standard and single HCM solution for the HR space and solution. I find the relationship with Workday leadership extremely positive, very engaging.

I believe they have a really strong approach to working with IT and our HR business partners in unison. Not all software providers know how to do that, and I think that's an effective method and methodology.

What really drove us to Workday was best-in-class access to HR information. The mobility aspect and the innovation aspect, the search capabilities of Workday are very, very powerful for us.

I see nothing but more improvement on the product set. We're excited to see where the product will continue to take itself through artificial intelligence and automation, much like all service providers and solution providers are focusing on. But Workday has actually brought that to life from day one.

Michael Krigsman: How does this relationship with Workday support your employee engagement goals (as you've been describing all along)?

John Hill: I think Workday has driven the mobility agenda, the simplification agenda for us very, very well. When it comes to having information around performance management, going in and setting up my corporate objectives on goals and priorities, and having visibility from our CEO down, cascading those priorities for the year into individual goals, our employees actually having a line of sight for activities that they're working on around expectations all the way up to our CEO.

We know we're behind thousands of organizations that are using Workday in an optimized experience. And being a natively cloud solution, those enhancements just come along with the solution, which is fantastic.

Michael Krigsman: And so, Workday fits right into that HR/IT relationship that you've been describing all along.

John Hill: Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely.

Impact of data strategies on employee experience transformation

Michael Krigsman: John, employee experience transformation efforts are driving changes in data strategies in the technologies. Can you tell us a little bit about how this impacts Suncor?

John Hill: What employees and leaders are looking for is real-time information to aspects of their role that are important. How many sick leaves do I have across the organization? How much onboarding do I have in the queue? Who is trained? That access to information in a single HR solution with a single helpdesk between IT and HR for service support is absolutely crucial.

The data information, for me in particular, we have a very heavy focus on "a great place to work" survey results. We take a look at building in strategies around the cultural shifts that we want to make.

HR data for the employee is important when it's personal. HR data for the leader, having full access to the state of the union, if you will, of the people workforce (both contract and employee) is super important, and having a single source of information to look at. As you see in the world, information and data, comparative analysis reporting across different regions, different companies in terms of work remote strategies, having access to that information through your own HR systems and then having best practices shared with advisory services or companies like Workday, who can give you some of that comparative information, is very important.

The role of mobile, AI, and ML in employee experience transformation

Michael Krigsman: What about the role of mobile, artificial intelligence, machine learning? Obviously, that's an important part of this transformation. When it comes to these topics, how important are they in your evaluation and selection process for new technologies, new products?

John Hill: I want to take advantage of it to remove friction and stress in the work environment, so taking advantage of these tools as they're embedded into our collaboration suite or our HR systems or ERP systems. We expect suppliers, and we evaluate our software partners, to make sure that that path is in place, that the solutions already have embedded intelligence, and validation on data entry upfront is super important for us, making sure that it's built into the system and it's got an evolution path.

The other side of this equation for me is when does that technology become disruptive or when can you trust it. And so, we've invested in policies around ethics in artificial intelligence. We're working closely with committees and government agencies around what privacy principles are coming in through artificial intelligence.

Taking advantage of it from a business, there's no question it's going to help us, as IT leaders, if it's managed properly. But being very cautious of how far do you go with artificial intelligence and having policies, having privacy standards, and having an approach to managing that effectively is very, very important.

Advice to business and technology leaders on IT / HR collaboration

Michael Krigsman: Let's drill into this IT/HR relationship. What advice do you have for IT leaders and for HR leaders to have a better collaboration?

John Hill: It is very difficult in this digital age to have a people conversation without having a fast followed or parallel conversation around technology solutions and digitization. My advice to organizations who have two separate versions or views (and not necessarily fully integrated), built that relationship.

Embed your IT organization with an HR function. You'll have a much more powerful relationship, first of all, and I think you'll have solutions and user groups that are far more effective in an organization. A case point is I would say our HR organization is becoming more technology savvy, more IT-centric, and we want to be partnered in that conversation and not isolated in that conversation.

The concept of business technology exists and is growing in nature where your IT thought leadership and your digital thought leadership is worrying less about the plumbing and the nuts and bolts (traditional infrastructure leaders) and becoming more business engaged around strategy and partnerships. That's the whole concept of engaging in business technology and business architecture. I think ubiquitous availability of cloud solutions and advanced collaboration tools is starting to drive that conversation far more than ever before.

Michael Krigsman: John, you just mentioned embedding IT within HR. Earlier, you described HR embedding their folks within IT so that the teams are virtually indistinguishable at times. How important is that mutual cross-pollination?

John Hill: I think it's extremely important. And in our situation, we have different locations. We have corporate IT and corporate HR groups, in some cases pro-located, in some cases daily stand-ups, in some cases we are absolutely cross-pollinating leaders, as I mentioned earlier, in employees, and each brings a unique skill set.

I'm not expecting my cloud leader to become a talent management professional on compensation and benefits. But having a conversation, understanding the business and understanding the technology capabilities to do a better job of compensation and benefits long-term is a huge advantage.

When we look at program teams and strategy, it's a combined strategy conversation that is in partnership with HR and IT. It's not one without the other. If you think of the fundamental concepts, HR systems are becoming data-centric and more technology-centric, and IT systems are becoming more human-centric for the employee experience.

Michael Krigsman: During an employee transformation effort, at what point should IT and HR start to really work closely together?

John Hill: The digital and IT strategy is not done in isolation without supporting a business function. I believe, as soon as there is a direction made on something HR-related that has a personalization, a data element or technology element, having that conversation upfront is super important.

I expect my IT leaders to understand the HR business strategy before solutions are even talked about. There are going to be situations where we'll bring a solution to HR without having being asked for it. And HR will bring in a requirement for technology that they may have seen that IT is not even looking at.

What is a simplified employee experience?

Michael Krigsman: John, as we finish up, you've been describing this simplified employee experience. Very briefly, can you tell us what that is?

John Hill: Our principle job is to make our employees' work processes much more simple. And having removal of multiple applications that provide similar function, having seamless and easy-to-set-up and standardized solutions to remove that friction from the employee base is really what we're about.

Supporting their business strategy, giving them more think time, giving them the ability to have more free time to do what they need to do to change the business and run the business. To do the things that they need to do and enjoy doing versus administrative tasks behind the screen.

Michael Krigsman: We can call that user-centric IT.

John Hill: Absolutely.

Michael Krigsman: John, before we go, I have to ask you a personal question. What have you learned that you wish you knew earlier?

John Hill: I would never stop asking curiosity questions. And if I were to provide advice to CIOs and CTOs and CDOs, don't stop learning, always be curious, and don't accept no as an answer the first time.

I believe the longevity of my career and the diversity of my career has been asking the curious questions. Situations in my past, I wish I would have jumped on those opportunities earlier than watch to see if someone else takes it.

Grab it. Run with it. Solve it.

Michael Krigsman: Thank you so much for taking time to speak with us today.

John Hill: My pleasure, Michael. Nice to see you.

Published Date: Jun 08, 2023

Author: Michael Krigsman

Episode ID: 791