I’ve been asked to advise on business use of social technologies for yet another European-funded research project on workplace innovation and new ways of working. This study will add to the plethora that already exists. What should we already know?
I coordinated the research outputs on a 26-partner project on new ways of working for the UK Work Organisation Network way back in 2000. UK WON has since then regularly been producing research evidence. And then there’s all the research from the IPA (Involvement and Participation Association), who from memory were one of the 26 partners.
Then there is research from The Work Foundation, and ACAS (who were definitely one of the 26), not to mention a 6-year long ESRC-funded project on the Future of Work involving 22 universities. This research is now more than ten years old and still studies continue to accumulate.
That’s only scratching the surface for the UK. There is an abundance of similar research to come out European institutes, particularly in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands, Germany, etc.
That was then?
Familiar issues continue to appear as people and business try to make sense of what is happening now. This account from EMC² (already five years old), of their attempt to develop ‘social media proficiency’ throughout a globally-distributed, traditionally-minded organisation, follows in the footsteps of earlier manufacturing examples of barriers and enablers in shifting towards new ways of working.
New paradigms and tipping points
That’s why I shake my head when I read about new paradigms and tipping points. Of course ubiquitous connectivity and other big global trends are currently causing enormous potential, opportunity and threat, meaning that businesses must be agile in the face of this warp-speed pace of change.
But we have been here before – and in a big way.
Agility and the connected customer
In her critique of Porter’s Five Force framework, Nilofer Merchant gives an example (an interesting one) of the role of social technologies in signalling trends directly from the cat walk to manufacturers. She says:
“When companies figure out how to shape their design, production, and manufacturing cycle from rigid planning and production systems to unique customer-driven experiences, they’ll design a way to respond in smaller bursts of more profitable cycles.”
But they did figure that out in organising for mass-customisation and agile manufacturing. What are these “rigid planning and production systems”? See this readable account of how Zara deploys agile supply chain management approaches, which rely on managing relationships, to get “an idea in a designer’s head to a garment on a Zara store’s shelf” within two weeks.
This level of agility isn’t possible without mobilising the skills, commitment, creativity and problem-solving capabilities of every single person and organisation within a supply eco-system. To my way of thinking, social technologies and connected customers just create further (phenomenal) possibilities in the next stage of the agile evolution.
The authors of this article, Building the Co-creative Enterprise, are too dismissive of previous ‘Japanese-style participative management”. They say:
“Sure, companies have strived over the years to build more trusting relationships with stakeholders and to involve them more deeply in solving problems. We’ve seen Japanese-style participative management, “partnerships” with suppliers, quality circles, lean production, and Six Sigma.”
These participative methods, under certain conditions, are co-creative, involving everyone in innovation and problem-solving. People at the front line are nearest to the customer. Why wouldn’t they use this proximity to inform their continuous improvement activities? See How to Transform Your Company And Enjoy It, from the mid-90s. The operators on the shop floor ran their manufacturing cells like mini-businesses, including directly talking to customers to determine exactly what they wanted.
I think co-creation is a useful concept but it builds on what is already known, or ought to be known, about designing for customer requirements.
What of all that research?
What can we learn about designing for customer-focus? I thought about my ‘top ten’ bullet points in the middle of the night so I have probably missed loads. In random order and as they sprung to mind:
- It’s all about relationships, particularly the quality of the employment relationship.
- Where the employment relationship is positive, people are viewed as the solution to problems, not the cause.
- Middle management can make or break efforts to make the move to new ways of working. Their role is crucial.
- Making the transition to new ways of working can be challenging; most businesses shifting from traditional manufacturing ‘failed their way to success’.
- In successful transitions, there is usually a visionary person who believes passionately that there are better ways of doing things.
- Organising for relentless customer focus means mobilising the skills, commitment, creativity and problem-solving capabilities of everyone – without exception.
- What’s good for people (socially and psychologically) is exactly what is good for business.
- Despite this, the pull of the Taylorist-influenced status quo remains strong (obsession with control).
- Processes that are designed for agility and relentless customer focus are social and highly connected, requiring constant collaboration across functions and companies within a supply network.
- Informal social networks are crucial; people share information and learn together – as well as support, influence and persuade each other.