The other NBN overhaul

NBN Co boss Bill Morrow is ripping down the walls as he strives to stop the cultural rot that has plagued the organisation so far.

It has been only 100 days since Bill Morrow took charge of the government enterprise building the $41 billion National Broadband Network, but he has begun tearing down the walls — literally.

It’s not out of frustration at the sluggish rollout of the NBN but rather as part of a cultural overhaul at the company, which Mr Morrow says is in urgent need of repair if the huge infrastructure project is to get back on track.

No office at the company’s North Sydney headquarters was spared last weekend — including Mr Morrow’s spacious corner office with its sprawling views of the Sydney Harbour — as workers moved through to dismantle walls and partitions.

Once the walls are torn down executives will no longer have their private suites to hide in and instead will be sitting alongside colleagues in one large, open-plan design.

“We have these massive offices with these incredible views one after another. But until now they’ve been reserved only for the officers of the company,” Mr Morrow told The Weekend Australian.

“We’ve taken this decision that if we really want to change this culture then we have to start at the top and drop this hierarchical feel. These things are minor in nature but they are symbolic. It shows us getting off our pedestals so we can align together and work together.”

Bringing down the walls

The decision to rip down the walls at the NBN Co is just one of many moves by Mr Morrow to cure the cultural malaise that has bedevilled the highly politicised project in recent years.

The strategic review into the NBN, released in December, painted a damning picture of the company building the network, revealing cost blowouts, delays and a culture and leadership described as a “major problem’’.

An independent assessment by KordaMentha and Boston Consulting Group included in the review cited a fear among staff of “being blamed for mistakes” that “generated a lack of willingness to accept responsibility in some functional groups”.

“When I started, the first thing that came out was the lack of alignment and huge a sense of uncertainty about the direction of the company,” Mr Morrow said. 

“Whether that’s because of the government change, or the shift to a technology mix, or management or contract issues, it doesn’t matter. It wasn’t only bad for morale but it was slowing us down. What mattered was that we needed to ensure that we were clear in terms of what we were doing collectively.”

The push to become more responsive and better focused on the task facing the NBN comes at a critical time for the company as it lays down plans to move from Labor’s vision of a fibre-to-the-premises network to 93 per cent of the nation, to a mishmash of broadband technologies that it promises to roll out sooner and for less money.

But, worryingly, much of the cultural rot that has been identified as causing problems for the rollout has not been completely quarantined.

Some NBN Co insiders have complained of repeated bullying from some senior staff, while others have said the company is relying too heavily on ex-Telstra employees which has tinged the cultural make-up at NBN Co. It’s because of hurdles such as these that Mr Morrow says it is imperative that the cultural transformation continues within the company.

To ensure NBN Co’s 3000 employees warm to the huge task ahead, Mr Morrow has set about reforming the way the company measures performance, he has improved decision-making processes and revamped the executive structure of the company, and broken down silos between the financial and operational sides of the business.

No quick fix

But despite the ongoing slew of internal reforms, change remains a slow process.

Mr Morrow recalls a small but striking example that illustrates the cultural challenges.

“I’ve been in the telecoms industry 35 years — this is my seventh CEO gig — and yet it’s the first time I haven’t been trusted to have a corporate credit card,” Mr Morrow said.

“The company doesn’t trust its employees enough to have a credit card. It trusts them to build a $41 billion piece of infrastructure, but we don’t trust you to put a $600 charge on a company credit card. It’s just symbolic of the things we need to change here.”

As part of a push to become more accountable and to gauge employee satisfaction, NBN Co staff recently took part in an engagement survey. The results came back with good and bad news. The good was that 87 per cent of the workforce participated in the survey.

“That’s a great thing. It’s a clear sign that the employees have something to say, that they want to be heard and that they want things fixed,” Mr Morrow said.

The engagement survey was a way of tracking employees’ satisfaction at work. It measured staff desire to stay with the company and whether they spoke positively of their job inside and outside of the workplace.

Best practise workplaces typically score in the high 70s. The average score for the telecoms industry in Australia is 49 per cent.

“The bad news for us was that our score came in at 44 per cent on the engagement level.

“That was lower than what I had expected.”

It’s fitting that the weekend’s renovations are being led by Mr Morrow, 55, who has had a remarkable career in which he has become renowned as a telecoms troubleshooter.

Biggest challenge to date

The NBN could represent one of his final gigs as a chief executive. It’s also his biggest challenge to date.

From asbestos scandals to construction delays, missed deadlines and tough orders from government ministers, the NBN has become a victim of politics and mismanagement like no infrastructure project before it.

Compounding the difficulty is the fact Mr Morrow has never run a government-owned enterprise before.

He has fixed publicly listed and privately owned companies including various Vodafone businesses around the globe, but never a wholesale one that has found itself in the troubles like the NBN has. But the always amiable Mr Morrow remains unfazed by the task ahead.

“I’m running this company like I would if it was a publicly traded or privately held company. I don’t want to change my style or approach,” he said.

“If you allow all of these multiple process to slow you down then they will make you more inefficient, which will drive the cost up for taxpayers.

“If that happens then we will never get this thing done in the right way.

“That’s why shifting the culture has been so important.”

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