Tanfeeth: The value of HR as a strategic partner

Written by
Mary Appleton

27 May 2016

27 May 2016 • by Mary Appleton

While some organisations limit the HR function to support and administration, others are reaping the benefits of widening its remit. This successful strategy is exemplified by Tanfeeth, which started out in July 2011 as a fully-owned business process outsourcing subsidiary of Emirates NBD (ENBD), with a staff of 20, but now has a 2,200-strong workforce and runs all of ENBD’s and Emirates Islamic Bank’s back-office units.

During this period, Tanfeeth has increased its customer service levels by up to 50% and reduced the bank’s operational costs by more than 30%. The organisation now also delivers end-to-end transformation and advisory services and acts as an innovation hub for the group.

A dynamic partnership between Tanfeeth’s chief people office (CPO), Hessa Al Ghurair, and its CEO Suhail Bin Tarraf, is the secret behind Tanfeeth’s achievements. Al Ghurair acts as a trusted adviser to her CEO and the two have a professional chemistry – an aligned thinking and approach – which enables them to collaborate successfully. This power-sharing relationship has set Tanfeeth apart within the region, and illustrates the benefits a big picture mindset.

Embedding HR at the frontlines

The HR function at Tanfeeth has moved away from conventional support and administration to contribute much more to overall business strategy, taking on a larger role in driving growth.

Al Ghurair relays data relating to talent acquisition, up-skilling, attrition, retention and engagement to Bin Tarraf, using workforce analytics, so the latter can establish predictive HR trends to leverage his strategic planning. Together, they tackle organisational challenges that could impact company objectives, and agree a stance. They create momentum, boost morale, and generate action within their workforce.

For Al Ghurair, playing a role in changing the face of HR within the Middle East has been the biggest achievement of her career. She says: “At Tanfeeth, I have had the opportunity to break away from conventional HR thinking. Working alongside Tanfeeth’s senior leadership, we embedded our unique line of HR support within the business.

This meant moving away from ‘corporate’ HR that  offered remote and infrequent support, towards a system where HR is literally embedded within our frontlines. We implement successful, tactical and measurable HR interventions and people practices.

“We recently received an award for innovation in HR tech and analytics utilisation by the CIPD, in recognition of our drive to break through conventional HR thinking and revolutionise processes, capturing predictive insights through workforce analytics,” she adds. “Our approach has been praised by industry experts including the Society for Human Resource Management and Harvard Business School, which made a case study out of our journey. They have identified us as being at the cutting-edge of progress within, and outside, the region.”


Q&A with Suhail Bin Tarraf and Hessa Al Ghurair

We find out from Bin Tarraf and Al Ghurair how they work together to ensure HR has a direct impact on the bottom line and serves as a strategic partner within the business, and why C-suite focus has turned towards workforce investment, planning and analytics.

What does you HR strategy comprise?

Al Ghurair: “HR is critical to organisational resilience. Our business success is directly linked to our people practices and implemented through our innovative HR infrastructure. This is built around four key pillars: hire, manage, review, and communicate.

“We have established a highengagement culture, fuelled by integrated communications, which increases and sustains performance. We hire young, aspiring graduates and professionals and build their capability through learning and development training, coaching and mentoring, and certification/up-skilling programmes.

“We have designed a fair and transparent performance and rewards system, with a context-specific structure, to incentivise and reward our highest performers and cultural ambassadors. We employ a scientific, data-driven approach to finding and managing talent through a custom-built talent model, based on extensive data analysis with more than 350 variables, covering the entire employee life cycle. Finally, we use predictive hiring models and forecasting to reduce time to joining, and ensure we have an in-house talent pool.”

What are the main HR challenges you face?

Bin Tarraf: “Within this region, the HR function is commonly perceived to be administrative. We understand that HR can play a tactical role, which can improve customer service, talent acquisition, training capacity, and professional development.”

Al Ghurair: “One major challenge is finding new methodologies through which to measure employee engagement and its relation to business impact. We have just conducted our Annual Souwti Employee Engagement Survey. The results show a promising 12-point increase in job satisfaction; but does this really provide us with the insight we need?

“We have not yet seen convincing evidence that the engagement that is measured in our survey correlates with, let alone predicts, business performance. When employee engagement took a small dip last year, our attrition also decreased, while productivity increased significantly – which makes no sense in terms of conventional engagement wisdom.

“Another challenge is cultural, and is about being able to build and maintain trust. Job security is a major pressure; if you lose your job, it is considered a great dishonour, so employees may be less inclined to speak out about problems or provide input, for fear of punishment or humiliation. My greatest challenge has been to break down this idea that if you speak out, this will threaten your employment. I ensure my leadership team follows an open-door policy, practises transparency, and is open to two-way communication.”

How has having a CEO with an HR background influenced Tanfeeth’s people strategy?

Bin Tarraf: “It has greatly impacted my unwavering commitment to putting my people first. We commit to providing 40-plus training courses per year for every employee. Spend on learning and development is 2.5% of my operating budget, which is a core part of Tanfeeth’s people strategy.”

How would you characterise your leadership style?

Bin Tarraf: “There is no barrier between myself and my team. Dialogue should be nonhierarchical, and I use nonconventional approaches, such as WhatsApp. It’s casual, quick and to the point, and provides a social connection that emails cannot offer. Ultimately, I believe in my senior leadership team, and trust in members’ decisions.
I make sure the people heading my department are experts in their field and empower them to drive forward Tanfeeth’s strategic business agenda. I am here to leverage their capabilities, not to micro-manage, pull rank or create a bottleneck within processes.”

Al Ghurair: “I am frank and open and do not mince my words. We have a lot of fun in my team and everyone knows the role they play within this business.”

Why are people important to you?

Bin Tarraf: “People transform culture from well-crafted words into a collectively understood set of behaviours. The bond between people and organisation is bridged by corporate culture.

Therefore, you must invest in people. This doesn’t mean offering big bonuses; it means providing challenging work which has an impact, offering career development, leadership and mentoring, and continual learning.”

Al Ghurair: “We give weight to chats in the corridor, informal feedback, board discussions, focus groups, lunches with senior leaders, among employees at different levels of seniority. Informal, as well as formal, approaches are key for us.”

How do you influence each other?

Bin Tarraf: “I provide broad, strategic scope and Hessa tailors it to key areas of the organisation and turns it into practice. Where I am macro, Hessa provides the micro. The CEO and HR partnership ensures that our people are at the heart of everything we do.”

What is your vision for 2016?

Bin Tarraf: “I want Tanfeeth to become a knowledge centre rather than just an operating centre. To achieve this, I am aiming to turn it into a strategic hub with greater digitisation, streamlined processes and re-engineered operations that revolve around a customercentric model.”

Al Ghurair: “From an HR perspective, we want to drive a technology-fuelled, gamification agenda. We recently launched ‘Tanfeeth University’, which is a user-friendly online learning system with training models geared towards enhancing soft and hard skills, accessible 24/7 from work or home. 

“We are also introducing an online social rewards and recognition platform to improve collaboration and innovation through gamification principles. 

“We want to drive female empowerment and Emirati development. The RAK call centre we are launching early in 2016 will be staffed and operated by Emirati women. We want to train and develop local women to be confident, and provide them with the tools to become our region’s next leaders.”

How do you use your partnership to influence boardroom strategy?

Bin Tarraf: “If you can align HR practices with business impact, the board will always approve. Rather than simply debating the merits of a pay increase to boost engagement, demonstrate how a small investment in pay can avoid attrition costs and lead to savings. Frame your HR initiatives within the context of a business case and let the numbers speak for themselves.”