Mid-year, our CEO Richard was a guest of Tim Bosenick and his beyond your business podcast. Tim is a transformation consultant and pioneer of the Employee Experience (EX) movement, which aims to establish employee-centric organizations. He wanted to know more about the genesis of iCombine and the ideas behind our software’s solution approach. The interview was published on 12/06/2021 and can be listened to on Spotify or Apple (in German).
Tim: Hi, Richard, have you read “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” by Douglas Adams?
Richard: Please enlighten me.
Tim: It’s a slightly older science fiction book and it’s pretty wicked. Since I’m an absolute fan, everyone or anyone gets a section from that book in hopes that they will then read it if they haven’t already. I also always try to then make a connection to the topic. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a guide to the universe, and there are some interesting things in it, including towels. I’ll read that briefly now.
“A towel, it says, is about the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can have. Partly it has great practical value. You can wrap it around you for warmth as you bound across the cold moons of Jaglan Beta; you can lie on it on the brilliant marble-sanded beaches of Santraginus V, inhaling the heady sea vapors; you can sleep under it beneath the stars which shine so redly on the desert world of Kakrafoon; use it to sail a miniraft down the slow heavy River Moth; wet it for use in hand-to-hand-combat; wrap it round your head to ward off noxious fumes or avoid the gaze of the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal (such a mind-boggingly stupid animal, it assumes that if you can’t see it, it can’t see you)”
So, what the towel is in the galaxy, iCombine is in project management, something incredibly practical. That was my great bridge now. And maybe you want to share a little bit about what iCombine is and how you guys can actually help companies in a really great way.
Richard: Yeah, that’s a very nice image that you just transported into my head. In fact, what startup doesn’t want to be the universal, deployable towel? The challenge, of course, is to focus on one use case first and then expand it incrementally.
Our startup has been around since 2016, and in 2018 we completely refocused and zeroed in on project management. So what do we do? We build software that connects people within an organization with appropriate project roles, with training, but also with colleagues.
During our exploration phase, we saw that a lot of organizations don’t even know what competencies, interests or even availabilities their employees have. This has a very negative effect on the coordination of projects: Teams are not put together optimally because of this. The work results are poorer because the fit between the team and customer requirements is not high. Ultimately, the customer is dissatisfied, and employee motivation suffers as well.
So we thought: Okay, this should be done differently. On the basis of data, but also with the involvement of the employees. In our software, we record the competencies, availability and interests of these internal experts in a very structured way. Moreover, freelancers can also be invited to join our software. Then iCombine calculates the fit between the competence profiles and open project roles, trainings or requests from other colleagues.
This maximizes the fit between employee competencies and external customer needs. It promotes knowledge sharing between colleagues and an internal network between departments. Companies can respond more quickly to market demands. Employees are engaged and asked, “Hey, are you interested in helping out with certain things?” Of course, our tool can increase utilization as well. Through data analysis, we also manage to promote further training and qualifications in line with actual demands.
Tim: Cool, how did you come up with that? It’s pretty special, you said you did a pivot. Was there an initial circumstance that brought you to it?
Richard: We started with an idea in the field of recruiting. I originally come from a personnel consulting background. At that time we noticed: People have an incredibly hard time with job titles they search for on the Internet. No one really knows what is actually behind the various titles. Our first idea was therefore a job platform where you, as a job seeker, no longer need to know the job title, but ultimately state what you are capable of and what interests you. Our platform then shows you suitable companies and vacancies. In developing the idea, however, we very quickly reached the limits of the chicken and egg problem: It was difficult to get job seekers and employers on the platform at the same time. We wanted to solve this by cooperating with trade fair operators.
During a small pilot at a convention, we got to know a manager from a medium-sized consulting firm. He was complaining about how difficult and opaque it is for him to fill internal projects with suitable people. Just like in the job market, he had a problem assigning people who offer competencies and people who are looking for these skills. Just within his own company. Many managers like him use outdated CV databases, calendars and excel spreadsheets to plan project assignments. We learned from over 100 interviews with other companies that it takes an incredible amount of time to put together project teams. At the same time, many colleagues feel that their assignment to project roles is done rather arbitrarily or based on nose factor. So really no one was happy with the process. That was the initial hook for the idea that we have now turned into a software.
Tim: Cool! Does it make sense to use this software only for companies of a certain size? I can imagine that in a smaller company you probably know the employees better and can judge everything faster. Is there a threshold where you say: “From there on it makes sense”?
Richard: Our smallest client actually started with 35 employees. After onboarding the staff, it became apparent that the colleagues actually had a much broader range of expertise. It came out that these people would be qualified for many more tasks, but so far they have been allocated in a rather one-sided way. It quickly became apparent that ad hoc project rescheduling can now be realized much better. This means that within our software, I can say as a project manager: I am taking colleague A off a project role because there is another customer request. But I see that colleague B would be a good alternative and ask if he is interested. Particularly in fast-paced project contexts, our software can deliver significant added value, even for smaller project-oriented companies. We see a threshold at around 50 employees, then it gets really complicated in highly dynamic environments. Precisely because we as knowledge workers can constantly acquire new skills, it’s important to keep an overview of how people are developing. As an employee myself, I can adjust my skills and interests within iCombine at any time and accordingly see which initiatives I fit to within the company.
Tim: Could it work as push and pull: employees create their profiles and see which projects fit? Conversely, as a leader, I can look: Which employee fits in?
Richard: It works both ways. Depending on the corporate culture, I can say: Everything is transparent, I want my employees to be able to see all project roles and trainings or find suitable people for collegial exchange. But if the organization is still on the way towards the collaborative world of work, then I can start with the classic top-down project staffing and gradually switch to the bottom-up approach.
Tim: Project work a the company can generally be very difficult. You have your normal job on the line and then someone comes along and says: “Now there’s an extra project and you have to do it 8 hours a week”. Then the fight starts for the hourly budgets. Do you have any experience whether these problems occur less when the people fit the project well? Do you notice a difference in companies that use your software? Has the quality of the project work developed positively?
Richard: For employees, the reason why they are requested for a certain role becomes apparent. Of course, this also increases motivation. As an employee, if I see that I can contribute, that my expertise is needed and valued, and if I understand how my role fits into the overall picture of the project, then I am naturally more motivated to deliver. We can definitely observe this with our customers, we also get this feedback. With our customers, it is mainly the case that this line work does not exist at all. It’s a pure project organization. But we are also in talks with companies that want to organize something like lighthouse projects using iCombine. The fact that I can enter a basic availability in the software, and that the availability is then reduced by the project booking, means that I can see: Who is available? Who is completely utilized?
Tim: A question about what you collect from the employees, what they can enter there: Are those pure competencies or also something like values or soft skills?
Richard: At the beginning of the software development we also dealt with the question: What do we actually want to collect here? We conducted an incredible number of interviews with project managers and employees to find out: What is actually relevant in a matching between project role and experts? With our solution approach, we leave it completely up to the organization what it wants to know about its employees. It is possible to create a so-called profile catalog within the software. In this profile catalog you can store different categories, for example hard skills or soft skills. You can also ask about hobbies, languages, personal values. Everything that is relevant for matching is then predefined by the organization within the categories.
Our software converts this catalog into a clickable interview. During onboarding, a user can then navigate through the predefined interview and use it to create his or her own profile. This can contain anything potentially relevant. The advantage of this approach is that, as an employee, I don’t have to come up with buzzwords to describe myself. This buzzword problem is familiar to anyone who has ever searched for people on LinkedIn. There, you have to be able to anticipate what exact terms someone has put in their profile in order to locate that person. Example: I search for sales, but the person has entered key account management or distribution. We avoid this problem in the software because everything is predefined for the users.
Tim: If I understand it correctly: Each company is free to decide what to include in its employee profile. I deal with the topic of Human Centricity. You already mentioned, employees are more motivated because they know why they are selected. They work to their strengths and not their weaknesses. Are there any other aspects where you say: This is an exciting tool to bring employee centricity even further into companies?
Richard: Companies can also create trainings, for one thing, within iCombine. I look for people and create a role, a training role, let’s say in agile software development. I look for people who are at competency level 2 and interested in getting better. Then I can identify those people and ultimately make that training visible to everyone. As an employee, I can see not only which project roles are currently filled, but also which trainings are in the pipeline. This answers the question: How can I develop further within the organization? Talented people often leave a company when they realize: I have no prospects here and would rather go out and look for new opportunities on the market.
As a user, I can also see who is working with me in the team? Who are my colleagues, how are they deployed? I can also see, if enabled by the organization, what their competencies are.
iCombine also makes it possible for me to find colleagues when I simply have a technical question and don’t want to set up a whole project for it. For example: Who understands Chinese and knows PowerPoint? That promotes networking between colleagues.
The last aspect I would bring up is that project planning itself can also be made more collaborative: Every person within our software can become a project manager. And that’s with different levels of access on a project. I can say, “Look Tim, I want you to take the project management role, just for this one project. I’m going to give you the freedom to look for other people and bring them onto your team. This also allows employees to take on new responsibilities within their organization.
Tim: The tool is not only a selection tool for project employees, but also, logically, a competence database for the employees. Can iCombine also be used internationally? Also for an English speaking company?
Richard: Exactly, iCombine is a Software-as-a-Service solution. It can be accessed anywhere on the Internet via a browser. Currently our interface language is English. In the future we will offer other languages as well. Due to the fact that we worked with customers from the IT, management consulting and service sectors, especially at the beginning, English was the most requested language. As a company, however, I can already create my profile catalog in German or other languages.
Tim: Whether a project is classic or agile seems to be of secondary importance – the main thing is to find people with the right skills. Do you know from your customers whether the quality of their projects has increased as a result of using iCombine? What were the things that changed because of your tool?
Richard: We are in regular dialogue with our customers and observe the changes on users and the organization. Especially after onboarding employees, there are always many ah-ha effects:. “Oh, Ms. Wood has competencies in an area we’re not using her in right now. She’s even interested in developing herself in that domain, so it gives us the opportunity to do more flexible staff scheduling with Ms. Wood. The second effect is, of course, that there is now a better fit between customer requests and the project team’s competencies. All team members explicitly recognize: Which competencies are requested of me in the project and how do they contribute to achieving the project goal? That is already something that our customers can observe. What we also see, of course, is that an organization can use our tool to get a complete overview of what skills and what interests exist throughout the organization. This allows for analysis: Where do we have a major capability, where do we not have a major skill set yet? In which areas should we initiate training and recruitment measures?
The last point is workload: as an organization, I have a better overview of who is currently working on which project or is vacant? This helps project planners to see what next opportunities can be offered to someone who will soon be “sitting on the bench,” as they would say in management consulting. Clearly, this allows me to optimize my planning.
Tim: That’s right, you mentioned that earlier, it’s also a workload planning tool.
Richard: Exactly, we’re merging different worlds: Competency management, team and project planning, workload management and employee development.
Tim: What a cool towel, for project work. Then the comparison was not so far-fetched. I’m slowly coming to the end of my questions, is there anything else from your side or have we forgotten something? Have I not asked an important question?
Richard: I’ll ask myself the question about the long term vision we have with iCombine.
Tim: Thank you very much, that’s a great question!
Richard: We’re assuming that the network nature in general is going to play an ever-increasing role in the business environment. People want to be more and more involved, but they also want to think outside the box. We would like to encourage that with iCombine by not only connecting internal colleagues, but also managing freelancers. So with the software, an interim management organization could also be coordinated. In iCombine, each person is a free radical that can plug in where they are needed most. I believe more and more forward-thinking companies will allow their employees to be self-organized within their own structures. At iCombine, we even take this approach one step further. We could also imagine connecting not only people within an organization, but also people from different organizations. Initiating so-called joint venture projects with iCombine would then be the concept. If I have a management consultancy and an IT service provider who want to implement projects together on the market, then you could also go and act as a project management office across these two organizations and pull people into the teams. Accordingly, expertise is again bundled that each individual party does not have on its own. And this allows projects to be realized that could not otherwise take place in this way.
Tim: This really benefits the distributed work. Because of Covid, we see that it makes sense to have digital platforms through which you can coordinate work, because sometimes people don’t see each other for weeks or months. But projects still need to be set up. What impact did Covid have on you guys?
Richard: We definitely saw that last year the number of demo requests went up significantly. Where team meetings used to happen, people now have to go digital and end up using our software to objectively pre-select colleagues. We recommend holding a personal meeting with the experts pre-selected in iCombine before the project roles are actually filled – for example, to check personal motivation once again or also to ensure harmony in the team. Our software definitely helps with orientation and pre-selection based on parameters that were not known in their entirety beforehand. The social aspect of collaboration is then fulfilled with direct interpersonal communication and cooperation.
Tim: Great, that sounds fantastic! I wish you all the best for the future. Thank you very much for taking the time. Bye also to all listeners.
Richard: Also from me, thank you very much for the invitation! It was a great pleasure. I’m looking forward to the next podcast episodes you put out.