Articles, People & Culture, Strategy & Decision-making

Air Liquide: Focus on People, not Tools

Air Liquide is an international company with a presence in 80 countries. Founded in 1902, it has a long tradition of innovation. With 68,000 employees worldwide, it specializes in gases, technologies and services for industry and the health sector.  Now, after decades of experience adapting to evolving customer needs, Air Liquide is embracing the digital age, on a new transformation path involving their customers and employees worldwide. This case study was first published in “The Organization in the Digital Age” in December 2016. Photo credit: https://www.airliquide.com/

Social as a Foundation

Jean-Pierre Duprieu, was Executive Vice-President and principal sponsor of the digital workplace transformation program until his retirement in September 2016. He made it clear from the beginning, “It’s not about the tools. It’s about how we are going to work together.” Incorporating a social collaborative dimension into the Group’s 2011 international managers’ meeting helped top executives start to understand and engage with the transformation early on. Air Liquide’s model for their digital workplace—called Kite—was based on “people as our foundation.”

Adam Cutforth is the organization’s digital transformation and collaboration program manager and in recent years has been part of the guiding coalition of HR, IT and Communications responsible for initiating this digital workplace transformation. His interest is in enabling different business units within Air Liquide, as well as colleagues in diverse geographical locations, to work effectively with one another, sharing common tools and data and becoming a learning organization. “We are a decentralized, ‘networked’ company, and we have definitely passed through a major gate in terms of getting everybody onto a single platform for the majority of their daily working tools…

People have the scope to reinvent what it is they do based on the platform. We give them guided principles, then let them steer their ship and course based on their means, priorities and specific contexts.”

Network of Digital Workplace Champions

The Air Liquide deployment model was based on a network of power users in every team, known as “Kite Champions,” selected for their knowledge of digital and tool-related issues, and their openness to change. They were also chosen for their enthusiasm and ability to show empathy when helping others. Jean-Pierre emphasizes, “The main challenge is human: how people, all our people, will take over at the end of the day. We have our teams of ‘boosters’ who are moving things forward, and we are getting closer every day to reaching the whole population.”

Monique Bowens, Electronics TGCM Manager (for Total Gas & Chemicals Management), adds, “It’s one thing to push a corporate change from the top. It’s different when someone local tells you about changes, what to expect and makes you feel like you’re included in the process.”

Power of Collective Intelligence

Having made the big switch through 2014-2015, early feedback has been positive. Colleagues have adapted to the changes in the way they work with one another, in how they problem-solve and create solutions. Frédéric Geoffrois, Strategic Account Director for Large Industries, notes the power of collective intelligence to create new value. “We have achieved the low-hanging fruit of cost savings as have most companies including our customers. We are starting to co-create value in ecosystems thanks to the power of new ideas and collective intelligence. Teams of engineers, salespeople, technology experts, and legal specialists—on our side and on the customer’s side—interact. Through close, sometimes real-time, collaboration on documents, as well as in video conversations we are accelerating business in ways that bring value to everyone.”

There is still a certain way to go, however, with regional differences impacting speed of rollout and transformation across the enterprise. Community facilitators like Evelyne Duchemin, Community of Practice (CoP) and Expert Network Manager within the company’s Large Industries business, are working to increase collaboration across geographies. “An engineer in China builds a calculation tool that could be used in France. It’s the same math everywhere! One community is building an App Store so people can find and use what others have created.” Evelyne’s job includes closely tracking how expertise needs evolve and, in collaboration with the top experts in different domains, looking for ways to address the challenges.

Knowledge in Both People and Systems

Monique comments on how the emphasis remains on people themselves not technological solutions. “The system can’t know everything that a person knows and so cannot completely replace a person. There’s a lot of knowledge each individual has about the product, the supplier, the customer or how to handle certain accounts or certain materials that you can’t enter into a system.”

Nevertheless, through the efforts of Evelyne and other facilitators, some of that knowledge is being codified and recorded in order that it outlasts employees’ time in the organization. The new digital infrastructure makes this information and guidance available to others.

Connecting People to People 

Tomorrow’s leaders are brought together in an Air Liquide University program called Stretch, co-designed and delivered with the London Business School. Adam explains, “Participants work over several months in small groups to build projects, something useful that will be tested in the field. For example, how to create more value for customers using the digital workplace, open innovation, what model of digital workplace governance fits our needs and so on. They then present, or should I say ‘sell’ these ideas to senior managers in a ‘digital workplace marketplace’ event. A good example was one about the impact of digital on the leadership role. This group produced a whole set of learning materials which were then rolled out in several regions, before being replicated in other places. It was done ‘by executives for executives,’ which gave it extra credibility.”

Future thinking underpins Air Liquide’s internal transformation work.

Another example is the use of gamification to promote awareness of digital. The “Kite Learning Game” allowed 150 people to experience decision-making under time pressure and physically removed from each other. Such simulations force participants to adopt the new collaboration tools to reach rapid decisions, while other fun events have helped people to take stock of key digital trends and how they may be affected. Adam adds, “this kind of ‘on-the-job learning’ is a real catalyst and accelerator for spreading the change; you get this army of ambassadors out there in the field in strategically important positions and they’re the ones that will secure a long term adoption and change.”

Accepting Uncertainty

As the outgoing executive sponsor, Jean-Pierre is looking to the long-term. He accepts that with change comes uncertainty, pockets of resistance and slowness to adapt. He feels the success Air Liquide has had so far is due to several factors. First, the digital workplace project was placed within a global transformation program, making it a strategic necessity for Air Liquide. Second, Air Liquide avoided the stop-and-go syndrome, sometimes moving forward slowly, sometimes quickly, but never stopping.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the management team agreed to the level of uncertainty one has with digital transformation projects where the end game is not predictable.

Jean-Pierre specifies: “At all points in time, we made sure the benefits were clearly communicated. The world is changing and we are moving forward. We are ambitious and our people are interested, curious and empowered. As our teams lead us into the era of the Internet of things (IoT), big data and artificial intelligence, it is clear that the digital workplace is happening at the right time and is a wonderful framework for our future.”