Change can be difficult. Gayle Shepherd remembers from her days in the construction industry, supporting showroom staff moving online from a paper-based system; literally, from card index to tablet. There was resistance among some, but she recalls the day one employee came in with a bunch of flowers: “Initially she wouldn’t engage, but we worked together on it for three months and she was so happy; the personal spin-off for her was that she was Skyping her grandson in Australia and ordering grocery deliveries online, it had changed her life.”
Before joining the Scottish Exhibition and Conference Centre (SECC) in 2010, Shepherd was a project manager at Robertson Homes. Then, first as the SECC’s financial controller and latterly as deputy director of corporate services, she was closely involved as the SSE Hydro took shape: “It’s funny; I’m not particularly a concert or event-goer! It was the construction element that attracted me to the job.”
With the new arena opening in 2013 and the Commonwealth Games a year later, it was a busy period – internally also, Peter Duthie took over as chief executive in 2014 and began to establish his team and strategy. “Peter wants his legacy to be about the people,” said Shepherd, “and I was very keen to get involved in that.” As financial controller, Shepherd had been tasked with increasing efficiency: “I looked at the systems and realised they could be improved.”
“To fix the systems, we need people to communicate effectively. So, we are beginning with the people and then the technology and this will lead us to operating more efficiently and effectively.”
After Shepherd spent 18 months researching how other companies function, the SECC’s board created a new role: director of people and technology. For the former, Shepherd wanted to eschew the traditional HR approach of simply managing recruitment, departures and any ructions in between: “I want to get out in front of the problems before they happen, so people can focus on what matters.”
And by combining responsibility for people and technology, the role aims to make sure that each informs the other; that people can articulate how they see their role functioning best, what are the best technologies to support them in their job and what are the best systems to provide managers with a clear view of how the campus is performing. Shepherd aims by this time next year “to have the team where we want them to be” and ready to position the SECC as the best events campus in Europe.
This year, the SECC launched its ‘being the best’ programme: “One key thing I learned from spending time with other companies was, they said: ‘Don’t make this an advertising slogan or a marketing campaign’,” said Shepherd. “We really had to understand how we embed this in our business.”
The first stage is to establish internally what ‘being the best’ means for each role at the SECC; the next is to measure performance against other venues across Europe, all the while people and technology evolving – hopefully harmoniously. “We reckon on this being a five-year journey,” said Shepherd.
It is a complex task; while the SECC company employs 174 people, with its partner firms there are more than 1,000 people working on the campus. One innovation is an app that will allow the disparate organisations to communicate and share information. “We are very task focussed; we can put on Beyoncé or host Commonwealth Games events,” said Shepherd, “but we are not always very good at talking to each other or at celebrating the positive contributions of others.”
As well as the focus on people, Shepherd’s team has the job of whittling down the 90-plus business systems to a few “best in class” that will provide employees with effective software. A second, and perhaps bigger, innovation will be a ‘dashboard’ that will allow management to look at any event and see in real-time progress on ticket sales, orders, staffing levels, event planning and who is responsible for what.
“Even ‘best in class’ systems don’t talk to each other,” said Shepherd, “this will show everything you need to see without having to log into seven different systems.” If successful, it will be an asset unique in the events industry; a proprietary technology that will, perhaps, become marketable in itself.
Shepherd’s appointment earlier this year came at a “pivotal stage,” commented chief executive Peter Duthie, “as we go forward with the necessary structure and skill sets to meet our company mission of best venues, best people, best events, and ultimately our vision to be the best event campus in Europe.”