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Managing Organisational Change: a Case Study of Transition of the Australian Astronomical Observatory video transcript

For: Employers and managers Information seekers

Presentation given by Clare McLaughlin, Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, at Comcare's Mental Health Community of Practice in November 2018.

View the video of Clare McLaughlin's presentation.


Thanks very much Jill. And we're working. We're away. Jill's given a really tidy summary of the first few slides here, but I'm going to show you them anyway. Simon had lovely photos of children and I've got lovely photos of telescopes, and I'm really, really keen to share those with you. So bear with me while that happens. So just a quick outline. I'm going to talk about what led to this change, who was affected. Mostly focus on what we did to support the staff in the transition. As Jill said, there weren't many of them, but it was absolutely mission-critical for all of them. And then a little bit at the end about whether it worked or not. So most of the photos in this presentation are mine. I'm a bit proud of them. This is the Anglo-Australian Telescope. It's a Siding Spring Observatory near Coonabarabran.

It's been working for a really long time and it's fantastic for its class, and the people who use it and the people who work there will very, very quickly tell you how incredibly useful, productive, scientifically important it remains, even though it's old, and even though it sort of has been overtaken technologically speaking. The best telescopes in the world now are in Chile. So as Joel said in the Atacama Desert, this is the very large telescope, astronomers sometimes try and come up with good names for these things, but they don't always succeed. And the astronomy community is extraordinarily organised. When you're asking governments to find very large quantities of money for you, it pays to get yourselves organised. And the astronomy community in Australia does a decadal planning process and they've identified access to eight middle-class telescopes, which is what these are as their number one priority for investment in astronomy.

The AIO, at both sites operating the telescope and near Coonabarabran, but also doing optical instrumentation work in North Ryde in Sydney costs something in the order of $12 million a year to run was a division of our department. But its funding wasn't secure after about the next two years. So there was a funding cliff for the AIO. ASO, the people that operate these things, offered Australia a strategic partnership which happened and it was genuinely a coincidence to cost around $12 million a year. Making the case to government for investment in the best telescopes in the world was a lot easier than making a case to government to continue to fund old but brilliant telescopes in Australia. And so that's what we did. The thing that happened at the same time was that the astronomy community said that if we could pull this off, they were prepared to "sell the firm".

And what that looked like was that a consortium of universities would come together, led by the ANU to operate the telescope and that they would pay to do that, operate the telescope at Coonabarabran, and that research infrastructure funding elsewhere in the system would support the optical instrumentation pay set at North Ryde. So we got the money, joined ASO and then had to pay for it essentially by transitioning the telescope and the people who were running it out into the research sector. It wasn't completely clear at the time of that announcement, but there was never going to be as much money to run the AAO in the new structures as they had been in the old, and that was always going to be a challenge for us. So that was the stuff that we were talking about. Our department has all industry officers all over the country and in some ways has a reasonably decentralised footprint, but most of us work in Industry House in Canberra, and the staff of the AIO had been in the department for about 10 years and we were never completely integrated into the department.

So there was already some distance, if you like, which was a challenge in this process, particularly for the people at Siding Spring. Anybody who's been to Coonabarabran, it's a really long way. It's not easy to get to, and it's really easy to feel like you're a very, very long way from everything else. The other thing about it I guess is that there were lots of different modes of employment. The growth at North Ryde was almost like an academic workplace, and there were lots of three-year, non-ongoing and very project-based contracts. And so for us bureaucrats dealing with how you transition those people and what their rights are and what they need in this move was something of a challenge.

Okay, what did we do? We did lots of things. And when I say we, I need to be really clear, this was a big change and it had to happen in a reasonably compressed time frame. We were very lucky in that we had very, very strong and active support from our deputy secretary, my head of division. I had a reasonable sized team in my branch. But really importantly we had support from the whole department, our finance, our legal people, and especially in this context, our HR people, Emma [Purdy] and some of her colleagues who are here were extraordinarily engaged and supportive in the whole process.

I'm glad this aligns a little bit with the last presentation. We communicated the hell out of it. We had senior managers visiting both sites again and again and again. I think they were something like 10 or 12 separate visits to Coonabarabran during this process by various SES officers and others. There were more visits to North Ryde, lots and lots of conversations with groups and individuals. We put in place a new role within the AAO organisation, which was a manager for people and culture, who was responsible for having as many one-on-one conversations with people at both sites as she could, sending out a weekly update to all of the staff, whether there was anything to update them on or not, telling them what we knew the answers to and what we didn't, and when we would tell them when we knew. We set up a newsletter which went out every couple of weeks to the whole community, so all of the staff at AAO, but also all of the astronomers. You can actually get to all of the astronomers in Australia reasonably easily. They have a very well organised email list.

Leaders of a whole lot of universities that were implicated and anybody else who wanted to be on the list. Ultimately that included the Community and Public Sector Union. And so we had completely unsegmented communication with anybody who cared about what this transition was about. There was one occasion in the Senate estimates where the opposition spokesperson had that newsletter in front of him and was asking me questions off it, and that's how we wanted it to be. We wanted everybody to be getting pretty much the information they needed at the time that they needed it. So we were pretty fanatical about that. Probably for the first six months of this transition, a bit from the budget until the end of last calendar year we didn't do enough of that, and we kind of paid for that a bit.

So we got feedback that there were rumours circulating in Coonabarabran, so we went out there, met with the Chamber of Commerce, met with the council, met with whatever other community groups we could find, had all staff meetings at the site and started really ramping up at that point the amount of information that we were giving people. We provided individualised support, so for the two different groups of people whose jobs were moving out of the Commonwealth into different university consortia, there were two different approaches. The people at the telescope were in the position where they basically had to apply for a smaller number of jobs that existed. What we did for those people was a lot of them had been working there for a really long time, hadn't had to apply for a job for forever. So we worked with our HR colleagues to get someone up there to offer them both collective and one-on-one training about how to write an application, how to do an interview, how to put your CV together.

That person was able to continue to work with them after they'd spent a week on site. And the feedback on that was really fantastic. We threw a lot of resources in making sure that they weren't going to miss out on a job because they hadn't written an application for a long time. The other group at Macquarie had a slightly different path in that the university essentially did their own workforce planning and work mapping, looked at what their requirements were going to be going forward and chose people. And so that was harder and easier. And for the people who weren't chosen, it was harder because they hadn't had an opportunity to put their hand up or argue their case or anything else. So for all of the staff in both of those situations, we had put together a summary of all of their circumstances, whether they were ongoing or not, what their employment conditions were and what their entitlements were on being made redundant, which was going to happen to all of them at the end of June.

What their aspirations and goals were, what their skills were. We were able to have one-on-one conversations with them and find out, "If you don't get a job, what are you interested in?" And everybody was looking at it from the point of view of, "Well, obviously I want to do what I'm doing, but if I can't, what would I do next?" So in the case of the Macquarie group at North Ryde on the day that people found out whether they were being offered a position or not, they had a brief conversation with their own manager and then the people who weren't offered positions were very quickly in another conversation with my boss who'd made it her mission to make sure that every single person got caught and taken care of individually and dealt with on a one-on-one basis.

And they moved very quickly into, "Okay, what are your options, what would we do?" And depending on what that person wanted to do, they received letters of support, references of future work opportunities. My head of division was ringing around people in the science agencies and throughout the university sector actively trying to help people find other positions. People were given access to retraining and funding for training and all kinds of opportunities well ahead of the point at which that might normally kick in. So we were very keen, particularly when people were found out in April-May, that they might not have a job in the new structures, to let them go and explore other opportunities to the extent that they could as early as they could.

What else did I need to tell you? Access to counselling. So we had told all of the staff early in the [inaudible] the Employee Assistance Program, but we arranged to have the psychologist onsite. The challenges of dealing with people at a remote site who are already feeling disconnected from the department were real, and a lot of the focus was on making sure we had people there onsite to help them. Particular key decision points, when the staff found out how many jobs there were going to be, when the staff found out whether they've got one or not. There were a handful of key moments at which was really important to have people there. I talked before a little bit about training for those expressions of interest. The feedback from that was really fantastic. We thought it would be useful. I don't think we thought it would be as powerful as it was. And I think that people really, really got a lot out of that.

What else did we do? I've got my whole estimate spread here, I'm not going to read it to you. We were expecting to get all sorts of questions and we mostly didn't. So yeah, basically the key thing was to try and make sure that we were telling all of the staff everything we could tell them at whatever point we could tell them, and that they knew who they could go to if they had any questions about anything. And the really key thing in all of this was that from January until June, my head of division was also head of the AIO. So she had both jobs, which is not actually sensible or feasible in terms of her own workload, but she, as I said earlier, made it her mission to make sure that everybody was really supported at an individual level.

So did it work? The telescope kept going, it was pretty good and it still is. And that was an objective of ours for a range of reasons, partly because it needs to, but also because at the same time as we were managing this transition of people, ANU were trying to make sure that all of the rest of the universities were going to pay to keep the telescope running. So there was a real need to keep the level of service up and the engagement of authority university sector through that period. And it happened, the group at North Ryde, most of whom now work for Macquarie university have kept their work going. They've put in a bid to build a new instrument to go on one of those very big telescopes in Chile, and they're likely to get that. They've just been successful in winning a $5 million contract to do data processing for their large telescope, which is also very exciting. So they've continued to do their jobs.

Most of the people who were involved in the transition were really pleased with how the department handled it. We've got a lot of positive feedback, including from people in Europe who were waiting to find out when it was all going to fall over and go out really badly, and it didn't, so that was good. And the new structures are already bearing fruit, as I said. The thing that we wanted was for this transition to result in these two groups of people continuing to do what they were doing, and the telescope continuing to run. The idea of it all was that we would join ASL and keep what we had to the extent that we could, rather than have to give it up.

This is a very happy quote from the operations manager at the AAT. He kept his job of course. Most of the managers in both sites kept their jobs, and one of the things that worked well was that that was known and identified really early so that they became stable change agents rather than frightened people. That was an extraordinary help to all of the parties in this process. And the other thing that we did was we marked all of these transitions. There was a series of morning teas and dinners and lunches and events and things and cake. So this is my deputy secretary and head of division up at the telescope with a big cake, with all of the staff there saying goodbye and reflecting on what had happened during the process and where that all ended up. And that's it. Thank you.

Kirsten: Thanks very much Clare. We're working. Excellent. Thanks very much Clare. That was... It's working at the moment. Still going. Excellent. A really interesting story of transition and I think as you said, and others have touched on this afternoon too, organisational change is almost a constant. And here you had not just the movement of a group of people from place A to place B, but actually out of the sector into a different sector, and the enormous uncertainties that that obviously creates. I certainly had a similar experience some years ago when I was heading up an organisation called [ComSuper] which processes most of our, in this room I suspect, superannuation payments and entitlements every fortnight. And it transitioned out of certainly the APS into the investment arm of Public Sector Superannuation.

And so we had the closure of an organisation, different employment conditions, different culture, and it is a really, really big thing. And I don't know how old this organisation had been as distinct from the age of the telescope, 74, which is not that old, is it really? But certainly I know with ComSuper it's about 90 or something years old. And so the closure piece is really, really important I think in that context for people. So really, really welcome your presentation. We might have as always a little bit of time for questions. We've certainly got one from Sydney and one from Melbourne as well. So Sydney team, over to you to ask your question of Clare.

Alice: Okay. Can you hear me?

Kirsten:We can.

Alice: Excellent. Alice [inaudible] the Sydney office. I'm just wondering, Clare, we've heard a lot about some really good things on what we could do in terms of organisational change. Is there anything that perhaps was done during that change that didn't work quite as well that you could offer us as a lesson learned? What maybe not to do next time?

Clare:Yeah, that's a good question. One of the things that we've just been through as fairly serious lessons learned process with my team to try and document these things, and one of the things that we would do differently if we had our time again would be to work harder on that direct communication much earlier, there was a period when the leadership of the AAO had been... They were actually involved before the budget announcement, they were involved in the development of the proposal and all of these things. And we relied on them to communicate quite a lot about the change in the early few months. I wouldn't do that again. It's not a reflection of any of the individuals who were involved. It was just that we learned as we went along, that we needed to be much clearer and more specific about what we knew the answers to and when, and what was definitive and what was speculative.

People hate uncertainty and that's fair enough, but they also don't deserve to be made more uncertain by not being able to give real answers to things. So I mean that's the main thing that I would do. I guess the other thing that we really learned as we went along was that the organisation wasn't necessarily in order at the beginning. So every time we went to try and explore something about how to transition from what we felt were pretty standard APS conditions to something else, they weren't. And I think if we'd known that at the beginning we would have spent a lot more time trying to understand that upfront. We kept being bitten by it all the way through.

Kirsten: Thanks Leanne. I think there was a question in Melbourne, so Melbourne team, you've got the floor.

Speaker 4: And still I'll kind of explain again. My question [inaudible] a little bit from what Kirsten said about one of the three things that doesn't happen well. You mentioned one of them being that communication. The third one was that lack consideration of the effective job design. And so I'm interested probably in the two pathways. One with how important was job design as you were working through that transition. Was the two different processes of redeployment, did they impact on that [inaudible] Was job design an important component in that? The two different ways you go in between the Macquarie and Coonabarabran.

Clare: Yeah. That's a really fantastic question. One of the interesting thing I learned a lot about, industrial relations law during this process. And one of the things that it's important to recognise up front I guess is that this was a transition of business activity. So basically in the actual movement of people, we had everybody being made redundant from the Commonwealth and employed in these two new institutions and because of the transfer of business, they weren't able to open up those new positions to their normal employment processes. They had to take as many of these people basically as they could afford. So the job design work really happened inside of ANU I knew and inside of Macquarie and I spent quite a lot of time cutting it off, if you like, to match what they were going to be able to afford, and who the key people were that they knew they needed to keep.

So those two processes did have a very different impact on [inaudible] We probably, if it would have been up to me, or even if it had been up to the Commonwealth, probably wouldn't have done them differently. Our preference would have been for the most to be done in the way that Macquarie ended up doing it because the activity at the telescope had some characteristics of a spill in the field, which with a relatively small community and people who have known and worked with each other for a long time can be really dangerous. Wouldn't have been our preference, but it wasn't our choice because these organisations had to go through their processes. So I think it did make a big difference, but whether we would have been able to do it differently, I don't know.

Kirsten: Now the question's from the state's [inaudible] at the moment. Okay. So over here to Canberra, questions, comments? I might just ask a question while people are percolating. I'm just thinking clear, in terms of the particular group of people you're dealing with, obviously some super, super technical, highly specialised, I would expect very, very conscientious, passionate, intrinsically about the value of what they do, how did you use that kind of skillset and almost the value set in terms of how can you build on that in order to explain why this change is happening. Because I think some of us would observe that sometimes leaders can seek to almost erase the history of an organisation and say none of that matters anymore. Now we're going in this direction, which can actually alienate a lot of staff who have actually invested very heavily into the history of an organisation or institution and who care really deeply about the function. So I'm just interested in your communication, we've all talked about how critical that is, how you took account of the particular type of work and the particular type of staff that they were.

Clare:Thank you for the question. It's fascinating and not a way that I had necessarily thought about it. I'm sure we didn't do it necessarily very consciously. So I talked a little bit before about the fact that we managed to maintain continuity of operations of the telescope, and that goes absolutely to the really, really deep commitment of the staff there. They do difficult, complex technical work all the time, and they take enormous pride in how well it runs and how often it is able to be used. And they keep that really, really strong focus the whole way through. The other thing about both groups of people is that they are absolutely embedded in the astronomy community. And so the fact that the astronomers had been trying to get the Australian government to join ASO so for 20 years means that they were on board at least at that kind of high level with the overall mission.

So to be able to join ASO and give the astronomers access to those facilities without losing what they had, was something that they believed in. The other thing that really helped was there was someone who'd been working at North Ryde who had previously worked at ASO and knew all about it, who ANU appointed as the director of the Siding Spring Observatory. So this is not only that telescope that I showed you before, but all of the ANU telescopes and all the other telescopes that are on the side mountain. So he was someone that they had worked with at both sites, that they knew and trusted and who absolutely knew what he was talking about. And the appointment of him early this year, well before the actual transition, made all the difference. Just massively increased the level of trust and he was able to help us navigate all of those sorts of issues, and really kind of consolidate some of that strong science thinking into this process. Yeah.

Kirsten:Thanks a lot Clare. There's a question towards the back there. We'll just grab a mic.

Ingrid Krauss:Hello Clare. I'm Ingrid Krauss. I'm from the Australian National University. So thank you for your presentation. My question is more around what was your findings around timeframe for the time to process? And this might be a question for Kirsten as well. We often find that change processes take way too long or can be dragged out for such a long time.

Clare:We've talked a lot within the department around whether we had too long or not enough time. And I think the reason it wasn't really enough time was because we were trying to do so many things in parallel and that that really kind of hurt us. So if at the beginning of this process we had already known who the universities would be that would contribute to the running of the telescope and I knew had already set up the basis on which that would happen, and if we'd known which university was going to end up being the host for the other group of people and how that was going to operate, then we would have had plenty of time to manage the staff transition. We didn't know which university was going to take on the North Ryde group until Christmas, and we didn't know how much money there was in the pot, if you like, for operating the telescope until around the same time, maybe even a little bit later.

So some of the really key things that had to inform and underpin that staff transition pace were known really late in the process. So that's why the first six months of this year felt like a mad scramble. And why a lot of the staff through the second half of last year were really frustrated that we couldn't give them any answers. I don't know. That would be my sense of it. I'm going to be a bit rude at this point and ask Emma Purdy if she has any comments on this, because she's actually a practitioner and knows what she's doing. She's up the back. Brian... I'll go on.

Emma P.:[inaudible 00:27:11].

Kirsten:

Hang on. We'll just get you a mic, just to say.

Emma P.:It's dangerous to give me a mic. I think in this situation we had a number of other constraints. We had to wait visit and budget announcements to be made and then we were actually given a date for when the AAO work would wrap up with the department and transition over to ANU. So I take your point that sometimes these change processes are really drawn out. In this instance we actually had timeframes that we had to stick to, so that was one of the issues in this instance.

Kirsten:I wonder if that raises really interesting public sector issue more generally, which is sometimes when you're doing internal change, maybe you've got a bit more latitude over choice or in timing. But in the case you're describing it was driven by government decision, and all of us who play in that world will know that there's absolute confidentiality for obvious reasons up until the decision is not just taken by the nouns particularly, which can really constrain timing. And I'm not sure whether that's a positive or negative because to the extent that a change process is drawn out and out and out and out, people can get really, really over it and that uncertainty as they might perceive it for that length of time.

On the flip side, when it's really compressed, it can make all that communication activity correspondingly more compressed and with less time for people to process and find if they need two alternative pathways, but I do think that that's a real challenge even the world in which we work. Other questions, Gretchen? It's actually from you. We'll just get you a mic.

Gretchen:It better be a [Dixa] Thanks for your presentation Clare. You talked about how often you communicated with everybody involved. What was the balance between communicating with the AAO people specifically versus the entire rest of the department, and how do you avoid giving them communication fatigue of, "Oh, here's a message again about those people out in the middle of nowhere that we don't understand what they do"?

Clare:Yeah, that's a good question. Not a Dixa, but I'm happy to take it. So we didn't have a very structured program of communication within the department. There was a regular working group meeting within finance and corporate and there was a regular maybe weekly meeting that my branch had with all sort of relevant partners throughout the organisation. They were at sort of key milestones, they would have been. There were reports to the sort of senior executive and managers and so on. I guess as I said earlier on, we had a huge amount of attention and focus and time from my head of division and our deputy secretary, and they fed whatever they needed to into their processes.

So we didn't work that hard on that pace. Most of the communication was focused on the staff who were affected and on making sure that we actively spoke with their industrial representatives at the sort of key points. I'm sure everyone was sick to death of hearing about it by the time it was done. But you know, it got done.

Kirsten:Other questions?

Speaker 8: Did you set out placement services out of curiosity. I know you said your director did a lot of work looking for jobs for people who didn't get permanent positions. I'm just interested in your experience about external outplacement services.

Clare: Look, I don't think that we did. Some of the people who didn't get jobs and really would've liked them were astronomers, and they knew where they wanted to go and who they wanted to work with. And so it was a matter of phone calls to the deputy vice chancellors research or heads of astronomy groups or whatever else and supporting them in their normal applications. So yeah, they were in the mind, the sort of people who really are pretty focused on where they want to end up. And in fact, I think in almost all cases where people didn't get the job and wanted one, a few people chose to retire and various other things, but they all came to the end with really good ideas about where they wanted to go and what they wanted to do or what they wanted to retrain as. And we gave them a fair bit of support on finding courses at TAFE or wherever else it was to do things. But no, we didn't end up using external services.

Kirsten: Any other questions? All good? None others from the states, Gretchen, no? All right. Well, Clare, thank you so much for your presentation. I'm just going to wander out here again, I need to get my track right. Just this whole thing. Thanks so much. Much appreciated. Could you join with me in thanking Clare for her presentation?

Page last reviewed: 20 March 2020
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Date printed 02 Jul 2020

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