Faced by radical change at the end of the Cold War, GCHQ (a UK Intelligence Agency) set about transforming itself to face the very different challenges of the 21st century.

Launching a new vision for the future, it reformed its HR policies and practises, developed the leadership capacity of its diverse workforce, and empowered and engaged them in defining and developing a new culture and new ways of working with each other.

YesP spoke to Alan Green, Senior Management Consultant and GCHQ’s Business Change Manager, who shared with us his fascinating story of organizational change on the grander scale…

Spies, codes and secret agents…

… have always played a significant part in Britain’s extraordinary past. It was “to discover and prevent many dangerous and wicked designs…” that in 1647 parliament authorised the inception of suspicious correspondence under warrant. Over the centuries, agents loyal to the reigning monarch intercepted and decrypted many a plot and upheaval. In its modern era constitution, its cryptanalytic purpose intact but methods refined, the predecessor of the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) was established just after the end of WWI as the decoding part of UK’s National Intelligence Machinery alongside the better known MI5 and MI6. Between the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1945 and the collapse of the Eastern bloc in 1991, the main target of GCHQ’s efforts was unsurprisingly of the USSR: a target that disappeared when the threat of Soviet hostility faded away. Alan explains

“The impact meant that the major part of the market for our services disappeared. Our customers in government were no longer interested in our products and services. The target that we had been monitoring had packed up and gone home and the new threats that emerged later were very different and much less predictable”.

Simultaneously in the mid 90’s, the Internet was radically changing the way we communicate and the way we store and use information. It transformed workplaces all over the world and created the need for an entirely new breed of equipment and skills. “The technological systems and skills that GCHQ had built and developed over the last 40 years had become obsolescent within a period of 2-3 years”.

Large-scale transformational change

Alan Green

Alan Green, Senior Management Consultant and GCHQ’s Business Change Manager


Madeleine Eltonius

Interview by Madeleine Eltonius, YesP

The End of an Era

In the late 90’s the UK also saw the end of another era when after 18 years in power, the Conservatives found themselves ousted by Tony Blair and New Labour. Very different forces were now in control of the political climate. All these drastic changes were rather traumatic for an organisation deeply rooted in its long-established ways and renowned for being very good at doing what it did.

They were daunting times for GCHQ. We knew we had to radically transform on a large scale or face being shut down or merged with another department as no longer relevant or useful. We didn’t have a clear view of what that change would be. There was just a widespread uncomfortable feeling of what we were would not be good enough in the future….”

GCHQ is located in Cheltenham, a wealthy and respected borough in Gloucestershire in the Southwest of England. A mid-sized British Government department, GCHQ employs about 5000 people: the vast majority are civil servants and the remainder are uniformed military personnel. Alan Green was GCHQ’s Head of IT, then Engineering and finally HR before being appointed Business Change Manager and eventually the Director of GCHQ’s New Accommodation Programme in 2001.

“I started my career at GCHQ as an engineer, developing ways to counter what the soviets were doing in a technical sense. Later I was shaken out of my comfort zone and given the opportunity to be Head of HR, which meant I had to learn a complete new set of skills and work with a new set of professionals with different methods and values.”

In order to embark upon a large-scale transformational change GCHQ had to understand its organisation inside out, particularly it’s very distinctive workforce. Being a knowledge-based organisation GCHQ employs people with a wide variety of unique skills and different mindsets that shapes lots of different cultures, especially between civil and military personnel. Alan explains and points out that,

Within an intelligence agency you have for example mathematicians, engineers, people with IT, language and current events skills, all of them deeply embedded in their own professional group, in order to succeed, the different workgroups need to complement each other.”

With a new party now in power in the British government, the civil servants’ culture was reshaped to fit the new world where status is measured by competence rather than rank. So in 1997, the GCHQ for the first time in its history had an externally appointed Director, David Omand, someone with no previous experience or hands on knowledge of working within GCHQ. The apprehensions of the workforce proved wrong and the new director managed to lead GCHQ out of its state of unease and into the modern world. David Omand introduced the modernisation programme which had three main components: Modernise the factory; the people programme, which included leadership development; and the new accommodation programme.

“After a period of comfortable steady evolution we now faced a cyber world, and a real world, both in never ending turbulent change. To build an organisation that is not only comfortable, but world class effective in that sort of environment was the challenge the new director faced”, Alan says.

The people programme downplayed the influence of grade and structure, creating a more dynamic performance driven and competence-based workforce. Opening up opportunities to apply for positions previously more or less “inherited”. Alongside modernising its technological systems and reforming its HR policies a major aspect for succeeding in changing the culture within the GCHQ was a modern working environment. The former accommodation had 50 different buildings housing as many different professional cultures, reinforcing the divide between departments. The new building, with its 4500 staff, was designed to encourage interactions between individuals and different workgroups establishing one joined-up organisation. An in house street scattered with cafés and seating areas, a garden courtyard and an open floor working area all played their part to shift the culture into a more open, slicker and knowledge sharing one. But it was certainly not done over night. Being an intelligence agency, secrecy had always been part of the GCHQ’s culture, and you learnt to keep your secrets to yourself. The modern world and its information overload and unpredictability had created a need for sharing knowledge, securely. Persuading people to let go of information and procedures they had so rigorously guarded was not an easy task.

“GCHQ had to reengineer its entire culture or it would be an impediment to success in the future. Managing the diversity, bringing together hard nosed delivery people along with people prioritising more human aspects like feelings and motivations, we didn’t have a clear idea were we were going to end up in cultural terms. It was like setting out on a journey with no clear idea of our destination.”

In terms of measuring the result of cultural change, best practise in large-scale project management was used and a benefits programme was implemented. Alan and his team predicted and considered 40 benefits and 20 dis-benefits that would be a direct result of the change programme. The challenge was to balance out the bad with the good and to be very clear of what the benefits and risks were. They also rigorously measured the changes as they unfolded, and thus kept them under management control.

GCHQ was successful in its overall change of its systems, leadership and workforce as well as of modernising its working environment. Some of the major success factors were the realisation of the scale of the programme, the mobilisation of the resources that was needed and that it was done in a methodical and systematic way. The time and energy that people put into the programme was also of great significance, a small % of GCHQ’s total man-hours were allocated to the programme, meaning some tough decisions regarding missions being delivered, which wasn’t an easy sell. Another critical factor was the interplay between the soft and hard aspects, soft being the people-related and the hard the concrete things, and engaging change enthusiasts across the entire organisation.

“We got each of those communities of change agents to realise that the other folks had something to contribute, we integrated hard change delivery with soft change delivery in unified teams”, Alan explains.

Of the planned benefits GCHQ delivered 80%. The number one benefit that Alan and his team wanted to achieve was an agile organisation, the ability to respond swiftly and effectively in a turbulent and unpredictable world. As it turned out there were two good but shocking tests for that benefit.

The Acid test

“The acid test really was; can this agency deliver when the chips are down for the nation?” Alan says.

The first test came on the 9th of September 2001, when as a bolt out of the blue America was under a terrorist attack. In 2001 GCHQ was still operating from its former 50 buildings, working with its older technical systems and cultural behaviours. It took 24hours to work out what was happening and what needed to be done, and three months to reconfigure the organisation in response. On the 7th of July 2005 another and different attack took the world by surprise when British nationals targeted and bombed the London transport system killing over 50 people. It took GCHQ again 24 hours to work out what was going on and what needed to be done. This time GCHQ was working from the new facilities, with modern systems and a more flexible and dynamic workforce, and despite having a primarily foreign intelligence role, the reconfiguration was delivered within 24 hours. The agility Alan and his team had aspired to was a fact.

So what is Alan’s advice on the subject of selling organisational change positively?

“First you have to listen. You have to understand where the people you are seeking to persuade are. What are their hopes, aspirations and fears? Unless you know that you can’t even begin the process of change.” Alan Green

by Madeleine Eltonius, YesP,

Article originally published in 2012 for YesP newsletter

View from the interior of GCHQ.