The Gatehouse Blog

Personas: Where efficiency meets empathy

As a company grows and grows, their reach spanning continents and cultures, the temptation to deliver ‘one size fits all’ communication increases. Arla Foods, one of the biggest dairy suppliers in the world, managed the inverse – to make their communication more intimate the bigger they got.

Arla Foods is the largest dairy company in the United Kingdom, and the largest organic dairy supplier in the world. That’s over 20,000 employees spread out over an array of continents, speaking different languages and working different ways. Now imagine trying to communicate one message to all of them.

It’s completely normal for a company of that size to fall into the trap of considering their employees by what is often believed to be their identifying trait: their job. But we aren’t our jobs. We are our hopes and dreams and ambitions.

This realisation, to categorise a workforce by behaviour rather than roles, is what spurred Arla Foods into creating employee personas.

“If you have these role-based personas, you try to put the human into a function, and let the function define the human being, instead of letting the human being define the human being,” says Jonas Bladt Hansen, formerly Head of Global Internal Communications at Arla.

That is the essence of personas boiled down to its purest form – defining an employee base by the human characteristics that drive them, not their role in the organisation.

Defining personas

During Christmas time, just before the New Year, Jonas Bladt Hansen and Marcela Alvarado, Digital Communications Manager, set out to redefine how Arla Foods, a massive cooperative owned by 11,000 farmers, approached launching new digital projects.

“We thought that there must be a better way to have these conversations,” says Marcela, “What we could see was that the general way of creating these personas was trying to define them by role… ‘This is a manager, this is a truck driver, and this is a person in marketing.’ And that was not good enough for our personas, because in Arla Foods we have 250-something positions based on different roles, and you cannot work with that.”

Initially, Marcela says, they started by casting a census that captured five key factors of their employees: position, department, country, age, and tenure. Based on these criteria, they ended up with 200 different groups. After that, they launched a series of behaviour- driven interviews with parameters that measured employee motivation and drive.

“It’s completely normal for a company of that size to fall into the trap of considering their employees by what is often believed to be their identifying trait: their job. But we aren’t our jobs. We are our hopes and dreams and ambitions.”

“We ended up, luckily, after 109 conversations with 109 different people from 13 countries and in six different business groups, being able to create five different personas.”

That’s how Arla Foods went from dividing their 20,000 employees into “blue collar” versus “white collar” to considering their workforce using five diverse Persona portfolios. Suddenly, they switched from cursory communication to empathetic.

“We ended up, luckily, 

after 109 conversations with 109 different peoples from 13 countries and in six different business groups, being able to create five different personas.”

Implementation

Five personas were created out of this project: Adam, Robert, Lora, Alex and Simon. These Persona groups help users better understand employee mind sets, technical skills, needs and motivations, work routine, relationships at the workplace and future plans and ambitions.

So, now that we’ve realised that your job doesn’t define you, and there is no reason a marketer can’t think like a truck driver, where do we go from here?

These personas, Jonas and Marcela discovered, are not meant for the day-to-day communications on a small scale. This project’s usefulness starts much sooner.

“Well actually, one of the things that is key to understand about the personas is that the personas are really good when you are working in the initial phase of a project. So, whenever you need to create a new solution or you need to create a new project, whatever it could be, digitally or non-digitally, there is the spot where the personas fit in. So, if we open up a new channel, are we going to do things on a specific app? Or are we going to create a new employee magazine? Or whatever it could be. Then, the personas are really, really strong,” says Marcela.

The beauty of the personas starts at the conception of a project. It thrusts the responsibility on whoever is building a channel of communication to think about employees not by their role, but by their Persona. In facing a Persona, like the one of Alex for example, the person would have to consider how to design an approach to fit the Persona of Alex, thereby making a more empathetic, human process.

“One of the key low-hanging fruits that you have from the personas, is when you are gathering people into a new project and you have all the team members, then you can present the different personas and say, ‘Okay, this is our common language. From now on we are talking about the personas.’ Because then we can eliminate all the assumptions that we have around the table”, Marcela says.

The elimination of generalisation is priceless. Personas puts everyone on the same page and allows for an efficient and empathetic way to start the conversation – to open the best possible channel to communicate with employee.

Biography: Jonas Bladt Hansen

Jonas is passionate about digital transformation and how digital solutions enable people to perform better. In 2013, he joined Arla Foods as a digital consultant before being appointed as Head of Global Internal Communications – leading, among others, the development of Arla’s first ever global intranet. He recently left to pursue other challenges and is now an advisor for Bloch & Oestergaard ApS where he helps companies with digital transformation, leadership in the digital age and designing employee experiences.

 

Biography: Marcela Alvarado

Marcela has in-depth experience in UX and all things digital. Having previously worked for Danish digital agencies such as Creuna and Valtech, she is now Digital Communications Manager at Arla Foods, where she guides her colleagues to be better communicators by using relevant solutions, based on meaningful insights.