Magazine article Personnel Journal

Through AT&T's Turbulent Decade, HR Excels

Magazine article Personnel Journal

Through AT&T's Turbulent Decade, HR Excels

Article excerpt

Ten years ago American Telephone & Telegraph Co. was a monopoly that employed a million people. The New York City-based company operated exclusively on U.S. shores, ushering in technology at its own orderly pace, rather than one driven by competition. It had a well-established service ethic, but it wasn't focused on differentiating the company or meeting customer needs. Employees expected jobs for life.

All of that has changed. With the 1984 breakup of the Bell System, AT&T lost its monopoly, hurling it into a competitive environment. It had to introduce new technologies much more quickly, recognize that its customers have worldwide needs and bring new people and other businesses into the organization--often bringing significantly different cultures along with them.

Today the telecommunications giant employs only 314,000 people--70,000 of whom joined the company as a result of acquisitions and 50,000 of whom work overseas. These people no longer believe in the job-for-life scenario but understand that career opportunities come and go as a result of their investment in the company.

All of this transformation has occurred during a time when the economy sagged, causing huge losses for many titans of corporate America. Despite the external forces, AT&T survived--and prospered. Accomplishments include launching Universal Card Services in March 1990, a company that markets and provides customer services for AT&T's combination long-distance calling and general-purpose credit card. Just 18 months after its inception, the organization won the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award in the service category. In 1991, AT&T dramatically transformed itself into a diversified high-tech global powerhouse by absorbing Dayton, Ohio-based NCR Corp., a leading computer manufacturer that's well-established overseas.

Through this, AT&T's HR function has emerged as a world-class operation playing a vital role in the company's transformation. "All of the systems of HR must come to bear on the change process," says Harold Burlingame, senior vice president of human resources. "The selection and development of people, the education programs, the compensation, the performance standards, the management process and on and on."

Human resources initiatives include creating state-of-the-art work and family programs, developing top-notch training procedures and establishing a data-intensive succession planning system that links management development needs to global strategic plans. In addition, through a Safe Landings process, the department helped ease the pain of downsizings by aiding more than 500 employees land new jobs that kept them on their career tracks both inside and outside of the company.

In taking the initiative to help the company bear with change, the HR function has become a change agent. "We deal with the emerging strategies by anticipating some of the issues that are in front of us and how they express themselves in HR terms," says Burlingame. "That's a whole range of things."

For example, the changes in the organization require a different type of leadership than what AT&T traditionally required. The human resources function has spent a significant amount of time and effort helping leadership make the conversion. "The transformation in leadership has been rather dramatic, including at the most senior levels," says Burlingame. …

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