Rachelle Su, Marketing & Business Analyst, recently sat down with Barnaby Chan, Co-Founder and Partner to learn more about his work experience, expertise and interests. In this role, Barnaby is part of the senior leadership team and is leading Harbinger’s business development and sales strategy.
Harbinger just celebrated its five-year anniversary. Tell us about what inspired starting the company?
I think it was a natural evolution for Greg and Krista given their deep expertise in Change Management and Learning. They’d long since outgrown what the Big 5 consulting firms could offer especially from a personal and professional satisfaction standpoint. We all recognized there was a large underserved, and frankly, poorly served market. From my own perspective, I’d developed a deep appreciation based on the challenges I’ve seen on countless projects entirely related to the “people side” of digital transformation projects.
What are some of your biggest learnings from this journey so far?
Explaining what Change Management is and why you need it is harder than we thought! Joking aside, I think that even over the past few years we see organizations are expecting their people to do more with less. And “Change Management” either isn’t considered or people are just expected to make do and just adapt. So I think more “Change Management” services from a third party like us isn’t necessarily the answer. I think we learned that we need to help organizations recognize the need to invest in their people’s abilities to lead through change, and ideally only use traditional Change Management services to supplement.
Where do you see Harbinger five years from now?
I hope of course that we’ll be able to grow and create opportunities for our people. I think we’ll need to be more diversified in products and services that drive more value for customers.
Prior to your work with Harbinger, can you tell us more about your work experience?
I’ve spent most of my career in and around business and technology consulting. Around 2000 I took a slight left-turn when the internet was still “new” but was clearly going to change the world. I jumped on board a music industry dot-com start-up and learned a tonne. This allowed me to transition back to a consulting organization that was focused on driving value from the internet for corporate customers. We’re getting to a similar sort of tipping point around AI so last year I dipped my toes in doing a master's degree to better understand it. I’m not sure yet where that will lead but I feel somewhat equipped to navigate that whole domain for ourselves and for customers.
Today’s workplace experience has drastically changed. How do you see change management and training evolving to reflect this and where does Harbinger fit into the mix?
We’ll be offering some interesting things to our customers this year. We’re really focused on how to provide more value by doing things differently. As you say the workplace experience has changed, but more importantly, how people want to experience their workplace has changed. Philosophically we need to move beyond just managing change to equipping managers to lead change. Change is happening at a faster and faster rate, so this has to become a core skill of any good manager. Disruptive events and trends will force organizations to change more and more frequently. You shouldn’t expect to staff up a bunch of change managers or consultants every time change happens. Frankly, I’ve seen in many organizations, leadership has pretty much abdicated that responsibility to consultants, it doesn’t even occur to them they should be out front leading. I think the time is right because a new generation of managers and leaders that are taking the reins don’t blink at change, so we just need to give them the tools so they can be successful.
On the training front, the same concept applies. I think people are more open to learning and adapting to change. But we need to shift to better accommodate the process of learning, which really happens while people are actually working, not in a classroom and not really while “practicing”. There’s still lots of inertia out there and reluctance to stray from traditional monolithic training approaches, but we’re helping customers shift a little bit at a time. Looking at it from a project management and “consulting industry” perspective, the challenge is that the nature of projects, timelines, consulting contracts, budgets and funding are at odds with providing a good learning experience that people deserve and need, to be successful. We want to help companies break out of that box.
You mentioned your master’s degree in Artificial Intelligence (AI) with The Smith School of Business at Queen’s University. What are some of the greatest challenges and opportunities that businesses will see as they continue to navigate and implement AI within their organizations?
I won’t address the businesses that are working at the cutting edge of AI research, or building a business around a new disruptive concept that leverages AI, but will speak to the 99% of businesses out there where they can just leverage someone else’s AI solution that will enhance some of their existing processes. This will likely come packaged up in some off-the-shelf software. Good examples would be fraud detection in financial accounting software or predictive maintenance in an asset management package. All the big software vendors now purport to have some AI or Machine Learning capability and will compete in this space in the future, so this shouldn’t be a huge incremental investment in of itself over time.
However, with this context in mind, the investment comes where these companies need to do 2 things:
Make sure they have people who deeply understand the opportunities and weaknesses in their business’ “value chain” i.e. where there are levers to drive value in the business both on the revenue and cost side, and especially as it relates to customers
With that understanding, get their data in order. So that means quality, consistency, and collection where they don’t currently capture it. (I mean you should do this anyway, purely from an analytics standpoint, however, AI makes the case that much stronger.) Without data, you won’t be able to leverage AI, so this will ensure you’re ahead of the curve in taking advantage of capabilities they do fully arrive (because they will) as opposed to falling behind your competitors.
But above all of this, I would say please do not just avoid it. It might seem like a daunting, impenetrable topic, but leaders should inform themselves and address this proactively. I saw firsthand working in the music industry how incumbents fought digital music tooth-and-nail. In retrospect knowing what’s come to pass we would call it sheer negligence and even incompetence. So to business leaders: A.I./Machine Learning is just a tool, but it's almost a sure thing it will affect your business in some way if it hasn’t already.
In addition to AI, what are some of your other predictions on the greatest changes people and organizations will experience in the future?
This is probably a foolish prediction to try to make given most of us wouldn’t have imagined the state of things today, but I’ll try!
Clearly the idea of a remote workplace now is a given. Many of us have developed more ease with and appreciation for working remotely, and recent studies (Global Analytics) have shown that more people now want some ability to work from home. And the economics of office space reduction will make this happen.
I think while so many are hoping for when things go back to normal or the way they used it be, this may fundamentally shift not just how and where we work, but also how we live and what we aspire to. We went from peak materialism in the 90s to pretty much the equivalent of peak “experiences” just prior to COVID. Whether it was about travel, food, wine, etc. still largely focused on “consuming”. Maybe this is naïve and overly hopeful but perhaps this will shift us a little bit back towards a focus on things that make us more resilient like learning, creating things, and human connection. That kind of shift could drive everything from restaurant and food trends to work/life balance preferences to education choices.
There’s definitely lots of exciting things coming up, and a lot to prepare for. Tell us more about what you like to do in your spare time when you’re not thinking about the future state of Harbinger and helping to run a business.
We have a new baby, so plenty to focus spare time on with her! I’ve been dragon boating for over 10 years now and sadly given COVID our 2020 season is cancelled. I’m also aspiring to learn how to woodwork, but haven’t been able to dedicate enough time to it. Maybe this is the year!
The Harbinger team consists of avid readers. What are some of your favourite books and why?
If you’re in the consulting business here’s an old must read I usually recommend:
Managing the Professional Services Firm - David H. Maister
Everyone who cares about cooking should own this classic book. A fantastic reference with a ridiculous amount of knowledge on seemingly every conceivable topic, and surprisingly enjoyable to read (in parts).
On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen – Harold McGee
A lot of change is happening at the moment. What is packed in your survival kit?
Pocket knife, sourdough starter, Harold McGee’s book (I think you can build a civilization using it), potato chips.
Co-Founder and Partner
Marketing & Business Analyst / Associate Consultant