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The Sydney Challenge

September 1, 2000
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Sydney-- When this city won the bid for the 2000 Olympic Games in 1993, the Aussies went wild.Sure, the 1956 Olympic Games were held in Melbourne. But hosting the first Olympiad of thenew millennium is a shinier gold-medal assignment. And although Australians are famous fortheir “no worries” demeanor, running the Sydney Organizing Committee for theOlympic Games (SOCOG) has turned out to be an HR competitive sport in its own right.

Managing2,400 employees and more than 50,000 volunteers for the Games and the Sydney Paralympicsrequires muscular adherence to Olympian values, says Catriona Byrne, HR manager ofworkforce communication and employee relations for the organizing committee.

Andwhile most HR pros will never have to hire 50,000 volunteers, they may well have tomaximize staff development, encourage cultural diversity, or handle the transfer ofcomplex skills and knowledge to the next generation of managers or employees. This iswhere they can learn valuable lessons from the mega-experience of the Sydney committee.

Oneof SOCOG’s most innovative legacies will be to transfer the knowledge of organizingthe Olympics to other event sponsors.

Promoting“Dream Currency” as a Retention Tool

Hiringand retaining a mass crew of employees and volunteers isn’t easy. Individuals knowthey’re being hired for a temporary period, the longest being six years (from shortlyafter the bid was awarded). Unable to offer job security, HR had to spotlight other perks.“To say, ‘I was there!’ [is a big incentive]. And in a budget-strappedorganization, dream currency is a major retention tool,” says Byrne.

HRneeded full-time individuals with skills in communication, decision-making, and projectmanagement. But in order to lure them to SOCOG, HR had to sell the “dream”aspects of joining the team. Many of the paid staff, she says, left other jobs in order toparticipate in something “iconic.” By participating in an event with highvisibility and intensity, Byrne believes that SOCOG employees will be able to dazzlefuture employers with their resilience and unique global-event experience.

Torecruit the full-time staff required, SOCOG partnered with Adecco Group Company, a globalstaffing firm. The committee needed personnel for the standard corporate departments:finances, legal, marketing, human resources, procurements, logistics, accommodations,accreditation, risk management, and communications. Some employees applied via Adecco’sWeb site, which invited its visitors to “Workthe Dream.” Most of the staff are Australian hires, but non-citizens and permanentresidents were encouraged to apply, if they showed proof of working visas and permanentresidence. “We’ve hired the full gamut of a company,” says Byrne, whoapplied for her position after spotting a newspaper advertisement. “I wanted to bepart of something with a real identity.”

Anothernon-monetary perk was working within the global dream team. To foster a team culture,Byrne  provided a weekly newsletter andmodels of management behaviors. HR ran a workforce opinion survey over two years to foster360-degree feedback for managers. Also, monthly staff meetings established employee linksto Olympic committee CEO Sandy Hollway and to the current status of SOCOG’s overallprogress.

Andafter the Olympics? By partnering with Lee Hecht Harrison, a global outplacement andcareer services firm that is also a division of Adecco, SOCOG helps its staff parlay theirexperiences into future jobs.

Volunteersposed an even bigger challenge. One lesson was to recruit in stages. The first drive beganin November 1997. Of the 50,000 volunteers, approximately 25,000 were needed asspecialists in areas such as sport, language, medical, press, and technical. SOCOGapproached specialist organizations and sports governing bodies for the first round. InOctober 1998, the second stage took place with the call for Australians from the communityat large. This roundup was for the general volunteer positions. Registration laid down thefollowing conditions: potential volunteers must be prepared to work for a minimum of 10days and for up to eight hours per shift; make their own way to Sydney; find their ownaccommodations; and also make themselves available for training, for both the venue andfor specific job duties.

Evenwithout salary or benefits, SOCOG acquired its cadre. In just over two weeks that fall,41,000 Aussies registered their interest as volunteers. SOCOG and the Sydney ParalympicsOrganizing Committee have since matched individuals with the right mix of skills andinterests to the right jobs. They achieve team-building through orientation about theideals of the Olympic movement and SOCOG’s goals, venue training on customer-service,and nitty-gritty training for specific jobs, such as ushering, driving a tram, ticketing,and providing first aid.

CulturalDiversity Means Inclusion -- and Reconciliation

Oneof the reasons Australia won the Olympic bid was its unique cultural attributes --particularly, its 2 million-person Aboriginal population. If there’s any Olympianthat best represents the nation’s hope, it’s Cathy Freeman. An Aboriginal personand champion of the 400-meter race, Freeman, 27, recently was quoted in Sydney’sSun-Herald: “The older I get, the more I realize I’m in a unique position wherepeople do listen.” Freeman, in recent months, has stated that after her athleticcareer, she plans to become a vocal advocate for Aboriginals -- 2 percent of Australia’stotal population of 20 million.

SOCOGhas been extremely conscious of public concern regarding Aboriginal people. In May,approximately 400,000 Australians participated in a “People’s Walk forReconciliation.” Joined by Aboriginal elders and youth, the citizens wanted tocounter the government’s historic neglect of these people, a nation’s dyingcultural treasure. Less than half of Aboriginal men, for example, will live to age 50,according to James Brierley, administration manager of Sydney-based World Vision’sIndigenous Programs. SOCOG has addressed the Games’ cultural diversity efforts inseveral ways: programmatic inclusion, respect of Aboriginal traditions and a specificemployment/volunteer outreach.

Inkeeping with bid commitments, SOCOG established an Aboriginal and Torres Strait IslanderRelations program within its staffing structure. It was established to encourageindigenous peoples’ involvement with the preparation and staging of the Games. In1997, the program was expanded to include a program manager, Gary Ella, to better ensurethe liaison between SOCOG and the communities.

Aboriginaland Torres Strait Islander involvement already has impacted the various ceremoniesassociated with the 2000 Olympic Games: opening, closing and welcoming ceremonies, medalpresentations, and cultural events. The torch relay route has been planned with thecommitment to take the Olympic flame to sites significant to the indigenous peoples. Forexample, the Sydney 2000 Olympic torch relay began its journey at the Uluru-Kata TjutaNational Park, a place of immense historical significance to the Aboriginal people. TheAustralian government has underwritten the cost of the torch relay through Oceania.

Interms of employment, SOCOG hired Aboriginals, or those with experience working withindigenous groups, in positions such as festival director, coordinators, administrativeassistants, researchers, and information officers. “We didn’t have a quota, butit makes absolute sense to recruit indigenous people,” says Byrne. “[Onceidentified], we hired on the merit of their skills and the experience required for thejob.”

Institutionalizingthe Transfer of Knowledge

Whetheryou’re planning an event or running a Fortune 500 company, HR executives increasinglyare concerned with knowledge management. One of SOCOG’s most cost-saving legacieswill be to transfer its accumulated knowledge to other event sponsors. In 1996, 70 Sydneystaff flew to Atlanta as observers. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s staff passed down theknowledge only anecdotally. Although the International Olympic Committee stipulatescertain requirements (hosting the Olympic Youth Camp and the Olympic Arts Festival, andhiring both a CEO and president for the organizing committee), there’s never been adocumented management plan for organizing committees to follow. SOCOG’stransfer-of-knowledge program is setting the world record.

Byrnesays that every division and functional area of SOCOG has been asked to complete anextensive template of how they set up their operations and to give recommendations for“next time.” There are 90 manuals that cover every facet of organizing an eventof this scale. Topics include mission and objectives, key risks, key stakeholders, keyinteractions, operations plans, budget, organizational charts, staffing (four years out,three years out, two years out, and so on), key considerations, and key lessons andrecommendations.

AmongByrne’s HR recommendations:

•Establish your definition of staff very early on. Otherwise, those hired as contractorsmay expect the same employee benefits, such as career transition services. Recognitionprograms, such as commemorative pins and special perks, however, should be budgeted forthe entire workforce, not just employees.

•Take advantage of being a “start-up” company to develop a particular workingenvironment. Promote a learning environment by providing management-development courses toimprove the staff’s leadership skills beyond the event.

•Create a credible and up-to-date communications program for your staff. Rumors andmisinformation in the media can be minimized if you broadcast news internally first.

•Avoid HR duplication in recruitment, training, and recognition by not separating thefunctions according to “paid, volunteer, or contractor” categories.

Themanuals, which will be sold as a corporate product, were assembled electronically on aLotus Notes database. Purchasing these manuals, says Byrne, can save hours of duplicatedlabor and millions of dollars for future Olympic organizing committees and other planners.

TomAltobelli, an attorney and senior lecturer at the University of Wollongong in New SouthWales, recommends another way to save millions of dollars. Organizing committees, alsoneed to establish formal alternative dispute resolution (ADR) mechanisms. “OlympicGames present the opportunity for a high quantity of disputes,” says Altobelli, whoresearched the lawsuits filed during and after the Los Angeles and Atlanta Games. “Thepotential cost of disputes must be a contingency contained within the budget of any citystaging an Olympic Games.” His advice, however, applies to any major eventundertaking.

Organizingcommittees should expect disputes to arise within the organization, and between theorganization and its vendors, staff, and the public. In the past, lawsuits have been filedfor vending licenses that were incorrect, personal injuries suffered by a sport fan, orcopyright infringements regarding Olympic logos.

Butlawsuits are certainly not uppermost in the minds of Sydneysiders like Catriona Byrne. Atthe opening ceremonies on September 15, she’s scheduled to be a volunteer, just likeone of the thousands of people she’s hired. Byrne will be an audience leader atHomebush Bay, the centerpiece of Sydney Olympic Park. At the right moment, she’llprompt her section to flip its flash cards before the eyes of an anticipated globalaudience of 2 billion. “We want to show Australia to the world,” Byrne  says. “That’s a big, big thing.”

Workforce,September 2000, Vol. 79, No. 9, pp. 70-76 -- Subscribe now!

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