3Sixty Insights #HRTechChat with Alex Smith, CHRO, City of Memphis

Welcome to 3Sixty Insights’ latest #HRTechChat. Alex Smith, CHRO of the City of Memphis and member of the 3Sixty Insights Global Executive Advisory Council, joined us earlier in the week to discuss her department’s decision to implement and deploy Oracle HCM Cloud, along with Taleo-derived functionality for application tracking. Beyond technology, however, Alex’s experience is an uplifting tale of lasting business and cultural transformation in the public sector. Illustrative of the vision forward-thinking HR leaders embrace, the City’s journey is everything the profession aspires to inspire.

Here’s a glimpse into what we discussed during the videochat, as well as the contents of an accompanying, in-depth case study:

  • Leading a municipality as a business—a new mayor of Memphis wanted to bring a business mindset to the city via CHRO-style leadership and moving to a C-suite model and mentality
  • Introducing much-needed efficiencies—this came from not-insignificant task of replacing an on-premises Oracle installation in favor of Oracle HCM Cloud (and, for recruiting, Taleo)
  • Reaching accord—despite the undeniable benefits of moving to the cloud, careful consideration of several departments’ and other stakeholders’ needs ultimately drove the decision
  • Improving morale municipality-wide—now absent the previously heavy administrative load, and with positive leadership in place, HR turned its attention to workforce morale, with greater employee engagement and a much-improved Glassdoor rating being the eventual results
  • Acknowledging diversity & inclusion—Alex was ahead of the curve in tackling diversity D&I in Memphis, establishing a focus on it in 2016, when she joined the municipality, ultimately increasing the representation of women and minorities in the municipality’s workforce

There’s much more—updating and improving retirement programs, acknowledging civil rights–era staff, drastically decreasing time-to-hire, significantly increasing retention and upping pay in the all-important police and fire departments. The list goes on, and the gist of the success at the City of Memphis HR department and municipality-wide is this: Technology is the necessary tool, but leadership is the essential ingredient.

You can also view the full Case Study and infographic mentioned in the chat here: New CHRO Delivers Business Transformation to City of Memphis with Oracle HCM Cloud & Infographic: How Leadership and Oracle’s Cloud Are Transforming and Revitalizing Cities: A Memphis Story


Brent Skinner 00:00
With me today is Alexandra Smith, Chief Human Resource Officer for the city of Memphis. Alex is here to talk to us about her department’s decision to implement and deploy Oracle HCM Cloud along with Twilio functionality for application tracking. Beyond this, she has a super interesting and inspiring story to tell around not only HR transformation, but also organizational or should I say business transformation in the public sector. Welcome, Alex. Hello. Thank you for having me. Oh, absolutely. We’re happy to have you. It’s our pleasure. And by the way, congratulations for being recognized as a 2021. Change maker by leadership and Memphis. Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, you’re absolutely You’re welcome. We’ll make sure to post a link to that when this finally goes live. Because I think that’s super, super, super great. And also welcome to the 360 insights, global executive Advisory Council. I saw your name on our press release the winner earlier this week. So welcome to that, too. Yes, I’m very excited to be a part of the council as well. Fantastic. Yeah, we have lots of great vision for that, for that group. You have a really interesting story. And just thinking about our conversation earlier today, and where exactly to start? Why don’t we start at the beginning, if you will, at the beginning of your, your, your journey as city of Memphis. Well, how did that come to be? What was? What was your charter? What? What was that all about?

Alex Smith 01:39
Excellent. Well, you know, it’s, it’s amazing. I’ve been in this role now five years, but it does seem like yesterday. So in January of 2016, I embarked on this adventure of being the first ever chief HR officer for the city of Memphis. Prior to 2016. The city government here in Memphis, had a more traditional CIO model or Chief Administrative Officer slash city manager model where all of the directors of the different departments reported into a CIO. And the my counterpart, the previous person who had this role was an HR director. When Mayor Strickland came into power as the mayor of Memphis, he decided to move into a different structure, a C suite model, and changed the titling structure and the overall, if you will, overall governance process for how to look at city government by creating a a C suite with six chiefs, including my role as the chief HR officer for the city of Memphis. And so a part of my my charter was to really imagine and create an understanding about what a chief HR officer could be for the city. One of the first things that he asked me to do is to really hone in and help the city in attracting and retaining talent, and particularly public safety talent for the city of Memphis. And so after doing a ton of research and interviewing and having town halls, focus groups, looking at data online, you know, Glassdoor looking at reviews, etc. I came down to an understanding of the core issues related to city government had to do with employee morale. And really, you know, maybe it’s a focus on how do we engage our employees at the time we had about 50% engagement rate. And it was important for us to pivot our focus. And so immediately that year, my focus have moved into how to build an HR team that could help with driving an engaged workforce and culture change for the city of Memphis. And that’s the journey we’ve been on for the last five years. And what’s come along with that is a focus on automating our processes on looking at data being more focused around customer service, and the implementation of going to the cloud and the Oracle HCM system really was about helping to elevate our HR work and getting the most out of the paper process and the manual processes and help freeing up capacity so our HR teams could spend more time focused on the issues that matter most with attracting retain talent for the city of Memphis, driving culture change, partnering with divisions to triage important talent related issues. And, and so that that has been very important for us in our success. As an organization moving forward,

Brent Skinner 05:02
yeah. And so much, so much good stuff there. And I want to get back to the, the, the, the, the automation part of it. But, there’s a piece of this. So, so you mentioned that you had 50% engagement plus 50%, positive engagement, I guess, or, or engagement of any kind previously, and you were looking to, to, to, to, to, to raise that it. And I’m curious was that was that city wide or just in the HR department? Or was that city wide can all the entire workforce

Alex Smith 05:37
that was city wide, so we actually did an employee engagement survey, and use that outside third party to conduct that. And when we looked across the organization, city wide, we were at 50% engagement and so that, that we essentially, have individuals who were engaged with someone engaged in their work, and the key components are back around that work, you know, do I found value in my work? Do I enjoy what I’m doing? Do I feel that I’m being well compensated for the work that I’m doing? Do I feel that I have the tools and resources to do the work that I’m doing those the underlying questions related to the that overall engagement survey? So it gave us some important insight into how employees were feeling which, you know, as I mentioned before, when I started, and did my own research, I saw that on Glassdoor we were at 2.5, or rating, I already knew that we were in a very difficult situation. And so I am happy to say, you know, last year 2019, and even now we’re at 3.5. So we’ve made tremendous progress in our in our improvement. So I can say that the strategies you put in place definitely have worked. But at that time, we knew that we were facing some serious morale challenges. And honestly, it was related to some true fiscal austerity measures that the city had to put in place due to some pension reform that was mandated by the state. And in having to make some drastic changes to both pension and benefits and promotions, and pay. All of those things lead to this more the morale issues that we were, we were seeing. And so our goal, you know, that first year was really about stabilizing the workforce and re engaging them. And then building upon that year after that, every year after

Brent Skinner 07:34
that. Now, what I understand was that the issue with just the administrative load for the HR department was just so heavy previously that, that it really restricted your teams. Now, your team’s ability to even focus on those issues. And of course, that’s something we see that that is a common tale. And it’s a very compelling rationale to move to something better for your, for your HR, processes, technology wise, can you can you talk a little bit about maybe some specifics around some things that you’ve been able to do to affect the culture of the organization, and also maybe some examples of, of your team, you know, now that they have this newfound time to focus on higher level, more lasting, more lasting impact activities on the organization.

Alex Smith 08:36
Absolutely. So I would say my favorite example is related to recruiting. And so when I first started, and we were attempting to measure our time to fail, it was very difficult. after implementing the cloud system, we were able to get a better sense for where we were, and at the time, we were at 120 days, with our time to feel, um, and so that just the ability to measure gave us the, the understanding that we need it to be able to improve. And so from there, we set a goal of getting to less than 75 days. And we consistently have been able to do that after about, I would say about six months of hard work with the team. And of course, we had Kaizen events and other things to be able to help streamline the process even more. But the ability to measure the ability to look at our process, the ability to gather as a team to really focus in on how we can make improvements. That is the power of automation, if you will, that’s the power of process improvement. It gives you that capacity to be able to reflect and then improve and then move from there.

Brent Skinner 09:53
Your talent acquisitions, day to day workflow, what did that what was that like before For the Tullio functionality was implemented was it? Was it really paper based like what exactly was extending that time to hire to? I believe he said 120 days.

Alex Smith 10:13
So, you know, so first of all, when I first joined the organization, we actually didn’t have a talent acquisition or even recruiting office, it was actually called employment. And, and the employment office had paper applications. And it also had some, and don’t get me wrong there. There was also some positions that were posted online. But there was not a comprehensive effort to ensure that all positions across the government were a part of our applicant tracking system and online processes. And so the team was really focused on processing employment applications. At the core, my goal was to move it from an employment office to a true recruiting or talent acquisition office and to focus on talent management, not just the process of employment. And so that required not only us bringing in and hiring recruiters to, you know, people who had true talent acquisition and recruiting experience, but also improving our processes in the technology. And so adding to layo, in being able to have their input in terms of how the implementation should go in the workflow around that. Thinking about the candidate engagement components in terms of how we want to leverage social media and other placements as a part of our applicant tracking and our overall posting process. And then being able to report out and have understanding about where the processes and how we’re performing as an organization. Those are all important things that we were able to do over the really 18 months of the implementation process, which was very important in terms of us being able to ultimately fulfill the mission of hiring quality talent for the city to be able to fulfill the mission that the citizens of Memphis expect of us.

Brent Skinner 12:25
See, that’s you bring up a really good point there that this is why this is really a business transformation story on organizational transformation. So it’s not just a technology story, although that was a big, that’s a big part of it. But I just think about, you know, imagine if, you know, your municipality or some other organization had made a decision to move to the cloud, but didn’t, didn’t really apply too much thought to workflow. And in optimizing that and changing it to be a more agile organization, I can’t imagine that the results would be nearly as positive as what you’ve realized it in in Memphis, there are a couple things that I want to get to here that are super interesting about your story. One is, one is the decision to go with Oracle HCM in the cloud, one of those and the other is some interesting, fun, very thoughtful changes you’ve made even to the sort of the office environment there that I just definitely want to capture here because it this is a leadership story as well, right, in terms of affecting having an impact on organizational workplace culture.

Alex Smith 13:42
Sure, sure. So, you know, I would say, from a from a leadership standpoint, when I first joined the city of Memphis, you know, I came in as the youngest chief to ever have this role the youngest director, if you would ever have this role, and particularly me coming from private sector and I will say high tech private sector as well. I have grown up in my work culture as a philosophy that is important that the work environment, be supportive, be comfortable, and really be professional and reflect a positive environment. So that the employees feel comfortable and can also serve customers in a positive way. And so the aesthetics and the cleanliness of the work environment matter. I think that that’s very important. And so when I first came into the city, and I recall very fondly, of, of seeing the bathroom, down the hall, from my office, as well as you know, the drapes, the carpet, all of those things, it looked like they had not been updated in 50 years and very old, very, you know, it just is very dated and For me that, you know, this is a new day city government, this is a new, more modern HR organization in our work environment needs to reflect that. And so all I wanted to do, we had little extra money in our budget, and all I wanted to do was to update the bathroom. And, and not necessarily, you know, put gold fixtures in there to make it, you know, super fancy, but just, you know, having a little bit more modern, put a mirror in there, you know, be able to have more modern coloring, just to give it a little bit of a fresher look. We all spend, you know, eight plus hours every day at work, you know, having a nice bathroom can help, especially for women. And in HR is a majority female organization as well. So that, you know, there’s another component. And so when I asked my executive assistant to take on the project, of updating the bathroom, we first got some pushback from the organization about that. And the pushback was related to Hey, you know, we typically don’t update bathrooms, you know, are you sure you have money in your budget to do this? I’m like, No, yeah, we have a little extra money in our budget to do this, we can do this. We then hired they said, Well, we don’t have the capacity to do this. So you can hire another contractor to do this work. We said, Okay, we’ll hire a firm. So we hired a firm to come in and do the work. The first time they did it, it didn’t go great. Some errors there, we had them come back. And they fix those errors, and they redid some things. And it turned out fantastic. But what was fascinating about that was people could not believe that something was updated in City Hall. And, and so we found that there were these there was an interesting rumor mill that had this sparked within city hall, about this new hotshot HR ci has updated the bathroom. And so I literally had directors and city councilmen come and look at this bathroom to see what I done. And I don’t know what they were expecting us, I think maybe they were expecting gold fixtures, when they saw it was just dis updated. Um, it, you know, it sparks something in them. And then next thing I know, you know, other directors were making, you know, aesthetic changes in the city council actually completely renovated their whole office area. And, lo and behold is, you know, bit by bit each area start to really work on making these type of improvements. And the end result is employees are happier, they come to work and they’re proud of the work environment that they’re in. They feel respected in the fact that they’re in a place that is comfortable, that is clean. And it’s a good, it’s a good thing. And once again, this is not about being adsorbent or wasteful. It’s about just having, you know, a clean, comfortable place for people to work and be able to serve citizens. And, and so I’m glad I was able to spark a little bit of change with the, with the bathroom.

Brent Skinner 18:22
Yeah, I mean, this is, you know, this, the aesthetic, you know, function way, all of this, you know, it, who would, who would have known that, that would have a positive effect on the work environment to have, you know, sort of an updated clean, pleasant architecture and, and fixtures and all that. So I mean, that’s a great story. And it’s a it’s a leadership story. Absolutely. And that’s what I really want to make sure that we capture here today is your, the level of leadership that you brought to the organization, sort of the authenticity behind that, which I think is just fascinating. let’s get let’s talk about two more things. Before, before the half hour is up here. One would be the implementation of Oracle the decision to go with Oracle Cloud. And then also I want to get to there was a couple of issues if we could get to one of them. It’s around the pensions or around the retention issues in the police and fire departments. Either of those would be really great to capture here, they really sort of are illustrative of of this transformation.

Alex Smith 19:24
So I will say on the decision to go with Oracle that was really a joint decision between our finance team or a finance leadership, our IT team and our HR team. And there were a few important considerations so of course cost being one of them. Secondly, functionality because our finance team also uses the Oracle Hyperion product as well. And so you know, having that alignment was important and then also the having the human capital to be able to support the product as well. It side. So it’s those three, you know, kind of divisions coming together. And making the decisions is kind of what led in sparked the choice to move forward with Oracle, in terms of the retirement and pension components. You know, it’s been fascinating learning more about public sector, pension and retirement and healthcare. I would say that a few interesting things have been done since I’ve been in this role for the last five years. So one is, when we, when I came into this role in 2016, one of the big morale concerns was related to pre 65 health care and the city’s previous decision to remove pre 65 health care subsidies. And so one of the things that I was able to put in place with my team was a private exchange concept, which allowed for us to provide a HRA subsidy to our retirees to give them a return to pre 65, retiree health care support. And so that was an important change we did in 2016. That helped us on the on the pension side, one nuance that has been very interesting for us is that we have our solid waste group, our solid waste division, which is known worldwide, because in 1968, Martin Luther King came to Memphis, to be able to stand out side by side with the solid waste workers or sanitation workers as a part of their strike, to try to help them get recognized as being part of the asked me Association. And so that group has always had a special place in history and a special place here at the city of Memphis. And but one of the interesting pieces with that group is that, at that time, they had selected to have a social security instead of the city’s pension. And so one of the interesting things that I was able to put in place in in working with our team as well, is a form one, a matching program in 2018. And in that program, once again, innovation and looking at how we can do things differently, that program has allowed us to be able to accelerate their retirement contributions so that they could have more parity with our overall pension program. And so, you know, those are, you know, two great examples of, you know, where we come in, and, you know, because we have more capacity, be able to understand the data, or be able to put some things in place to really help move things for, for employees.

Brent Skinner 22:54
It’s a great employee recognition story to write their, you know, employer culture, component. I mean, that’s just, that’s just the whole the whole ball of wax right there. With the, we do have a couple of minutes left, so maybe we can focus a little bit on the, on the police and fire departments, because I know there have been some really, really helpful improvements there in terms of longevity of stay in this sort of thing.

Alex Smith 23:26
Yeah, so with the police and fire departments, we’ve worked on having a stronger partnerships with them, and particularly focus on recruiting and retention. in both areas. Particularly with the police department, we’ve done a number of different things and worked very hard to help assistant and driving better recruiting and retention. On the retention side, we were able to partner with our Shelby County Crime Commission to develop a retention bonus program, have a we had a 98% tick rate with that, and that allow for us to really stabilize the workforce going from losing 160 officers and 2014 to only the last three years really losing between 125 211 30, which that that has been tremendous in terms of lessening the number of officers that are leaving and been able to stabilize the workforce. And then on the recruiting side, the work that we’ve been able to do with Twilio as well as just automating our processes overall. We’ve been able to hire over 700 officers in the last five years, which has been tremendous, and helping us continue to work on building the workforce. We’re not exactly where we want to be. But we have been making tremendous strides and being able to move in the right direction,

Brent Skinner 24:53
a lot farther from where you were, which is fantastic. Even it’s a great story of technology. Helping to just alleviate the administrative load for HR and enabling sort of unleashing HR to be that real people impacting force in the organization for positive engagement, all this kind of stuff, and leadership in terms of having that, having that, that, that coming from the top to make that happen, and taking those, those real tangible steps that people notice, and that have a ripple effect. It’s just a fantastic story. All around. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us about it. Just really fascinating. Thank you so much, Alex.

Alex Smith 25:40
Absolutely, thank you for the opportunity to share our story. And I have to give a shout out to our city of Memphis HR team, we have 100 HR professionals that are committed and come to work every day, focused on how to best support our city employees and none of this work will be possible without our HR team.

Brent Skinner 26:00
Absolutely not. And they do a fantastic job and, and we have a little bit more about this in a in a case study that we will have published on our website as well which goes into a little bit more detail. Thank you so much, Alex, thank you so much. Take care. Bye bye


  1. Pingback: Case Study: New CHRO Delivers Business Transformation to City of Memphis with Oracle HCM Cloud

  2. Pingback: Infographic: How Leadership and Oracle’s Cloud Are Transforming and Revitalizing Cities: A Memphis Story

Share your comments: