We had to break all the rules to become truly digital

Within KPN Digital, Karin Croon helped lead the shift towards the agile and self-organising way of working. She and her colleagues, Claudia Hoogwerf and Liubov Kononenko, discuss how this organisational and cultural transformation made room for innovation and enabled them to become more customer-oriented, productive and resilient in a fast-changing and disruptive environment.

Can you tell me about KPN’s digital transformation and how you work together in this new team structure?

Karin: Within KPN Digital, we are saying goodbye to the old-fashioned management function. All teams report directly to one person who is responsible for the entire IT department. We created a support circle to help him fulfil this task. Within this structure, I lead the people and team development centre and am responsible for all coaching activities. Technically, I guess you could say I’m responsible for all the people within our digital department – but at the end of the day, we are a self-organising environment and the teams are responsible for themselves. When we began this cultural transformation, I also had to undergo a complete personal transformation. I traded in my old-fashioned management role and exchanged it for a new connecting, coaching and inspiring leadership role.

Claudia: As a technical consultant, I help my colleagues access the data and insights they need. For example, we built a self-service system that gives teams within the company access to all information on engineering appointments and call details so they can build their own reports to identify trends and resolve problems for our customers. As we work on becoming a data-driven company, our goal is to use the data we collect to be predictive rather than reactive so we can anticipate our customers’ needs.

Liubov: I work as a front-end developer on the e-commerce mobile team. We build and maintain KPN’s online shop where customers can purchase phones and tablets with a KPN subscription. In advance of the iPhone 8 release, we started developing a new online shop with a new technology stack. I worked on designing the architecture of the application and developing functionalities according to business requirements. I started at KPN six months ago, and I really enjoy this way of working. I get to be really creative and take ownership of my work. Even though we all have our own responsibilities in different departments, we have events within KPN Digital that help us improve our skills and knowledge and also give us the chance to collaborate with other teams. As a result, we have a great working atmosphere, and it feels like we’re a big family here on our floor.

Why does KPN Digital organise itself differently? What results do you see in your day-to-day work?

Karin: In 2014, KPN decided to merge the innovation activities of several departments. In Digital, we saw a big, beautiful environment that didn’t work for us anymore: if we needed to change, it would take us months or even years. We decided to break out of it. That’s when we started this new way of working. We completely changed our leadership approach. Instead of a department based on control, commands and KPI reporting, we became one based on trust. Instead of having managers decide our technical direction, we had real technical people like Claudia and Liubov to help us make the right decisions and dial in our technical capabilities. Our next step completely went against KPN’s tradition. We built an open-source decoupling layer that allowed us to decouple the front-end layer, or the customer interaction layer, from our big, old and slow legacy systems.

Claudia: We can definitely feel the difference. Before this transformation, there was a big distance between the digital department and the rest of the company because we lacked transparency. We only did changes in big software releases, so everyone had to wait a long time to see the results, and there was a large risk for errors and changes during the process. Now, we can build something every two weeks that our colleagues can immediately use. What’s more, our teams and colleagues are sitting on the same floor, so we can communicate much faster. Since we became more flexible, we have been receiving 9 and 10 ratings from our internal customers. This is a big step forward for us.

Liubov: On the technical teams, we also feel the difference. We have the freedom to choose how we work and select the technologies that we think are most effective. For example, for the new shop, we chose to use Angular 4 with Typescript, even though our other projects are based on other frameworks. All of us are responsible for the results, so feel ownership for our products and our work. The leadership knows that we as developers are finding the best path to the best results and empower us to do so.

What do you do to create a culture of innovation within KPN Digital?

Claudia: Besides our daily work, Karin and I are part of the communications scrum team, and we work hard to create an innovative environment here at the office. Twice a year, we host a 24-hour hackathon where people can create and demo products while enjoying nice drinks and an office sleepover. People are really enthusiastic. We also have innovation days where people can take certain Fridays off from their regular projects to work on cool assignments and personal projects. Our floor is a fun and creative space: we have a football field, a pool table, a game room and a tennis table. We also bring in inspirational speakers and offer workshops so that people can develop new skills.

Karin: Leadership facilitates an environment where people can experiment, make mistakes and try again. We give our teams a lot of trust, but we also get a lot of trust back. Perhaps the most important thing we do though is hire people from all over the world. New and old colleagues share experiences, skills, culture and all kinds of fun things. We encourage diversity in every way, and we are especially trying to hire more technical ladies on our team. We believe that combining different perspectives is the best way to create a truly innovative environment and ensure we have the best ideas to choose from.

What tips do you have for young girls who want to study or work in digital technology?

Liubov:  If you study computer science, you have so many opportunities and can choose the most interesting field for you from the huge range of professions. Because technology is changing so fast, what you know is constantly becoming obsolete, so the learning is never-ending. Attending conferences and meet-up events also help you stay up to date. There are many events specifically for women who are interested in digital technology. For example, in October, KPN hosted the first Front-End Developer Women Meet-Up in Amsterdam.

Claudia: When looking for a job, it’s important to focus on not only the technical content of the job, but also the environment. Find a company that suits you. I’ve been working in this company for so long because I love the casual atmosphere, the freedom I get as an employee and the colleagues I’ve met along the way.

Karin: You don’t have to be ‘the best’ but you have to be willing to improve yourself. It’s important to be open-minded and dare to speak up when you don’t know or are unable to do something. As long as you are willing to learn and change, you will do fine.