This short article explains how customer-focused businesses support people, giving them the tools they need to work together – sharing knowledge, good practice, and solving problems together.
The management thinker, Peter Drucker, famously said that “the purpose of a business is to create and keep a customer.” Whatever the future of work ends up looking like, that is not going to change.
Understanding what customers expect underpins everything. What’s important to them? Is it speed of delivery, quality, cost, design, co-design, sensory experience, customisation, safety, or combinations of these things?
Are customers changing? What does this mean for how work is organised (who does what, with who) and supported ?
Customer-focused businesses view their people as the means of creating value and solving problems, rather than causing them.
Everyone is expected to contribute to continuous innovation, always involved in the search for ways to do things better or differently and cooperating on solving problems.
They provide support systems that create conditions where people are trusted to get on with giving customers what they expect. This includes technologies, information systems, and supporting HR systems – particularly investment in leadership and learning.
There’s a tension between an organisation’s formal systems, and informal, self-organising social dynamics that sit behind and co-evolve with the formal systems.
Formal systems influence (but cannot control) how informal, self-organising relationships and activities unfold.
There’s evidence to support the view that it is informal social activities, ‘shadow’ systems, that bring about creative (and destructive) change in organisations.
What limits destructive behaviour, like bullying or people abusing their power?
Governance is typically linked to financial behaviour and compliance with external regulations. It is an outcome of formal systems and principles that guide good practice in companies.
But governance is also about principles, values and rules that clearly communicate in a clear, coherent way, across an organisation, how people are expected to behave towards each other.
Formal rules are enacted through informal social interactions. Clues as to what will be tolerated in how people behave towards each other can be understood through symbols, stories, rituals and routines. Behaviours become associated with a recognised culture that becomes established (and changes) over time.
People need emotional safety in social systems. One of the criticisms of autonomy, and the organisational structures that support it, is the danger that rather than being integrated within the larger whole, autonomous units put up walls around themselves and build power bases.
Coercive power can be held in check where the culture is influenced by principled, humane and honest senior management who model expected behaviour. Where senior management engage in bullying and manipulation, and appear to be rewarded for it, their attitudes and actions are likely to be copied.
Informal networks are where people find social support, and where they seek to influence each other – a form of power.
The reality of the power of informal networks was confirmed when a colleague and I brought together a group of IT, HR and Facilities experts to talk about using social technologies for knowledge sharing inside and across organisations.
What came across very strongly was the crucial role of informal networks for finding information and sharing knowledge. Informal networks connect us to who knows who, and who knows what.
People talked about finding what they need through their networks, precisely and at the right time, and discovering others with shared values and interests.
The social bonds we forge through informal networks and office friendships help to break the anonymity of modern office work.
Here’s a link to one of my articles on LinkedIn that illustrates the dynamics underpinning the grey arrows in the Big Value Picture – how people shape their experience of work, choosing where to work and which devices they use.
Drawing it all together
Performance systems set the conditions for how people work together. But people do not blindly accept what they are given. They shape their work environments.
The ‘bring your own device’ phenomenon from a few years back, where people were taking their own superior digital devices to work, changed the way IT was provided and supported in one large company.
For people who did not want to use their own devices, the company initiated a policy of ‘choose your own device’. The push for this came from the self-directed way people were behaving.
Reviewing 20 years of thinking, and practice, around new ways of working and learning, I think it is possible to see four key things that are common in performance support customer-focused ways of working.
Organisations where people are free to do things together as they see fit have clear rules and policies about what they are not allowed to do. This is crucial in regulated environments, finance for example, or where safety is vital – like patient care.
Once boundaries are clear, people are free to do things in their own way. Senior nurses in charge of managing hospital wards all have to comply with the same policies. How they do that is very different.
Customer-focused ways of working are organised to ensure effective collaboration across boundaries – functions, companies in a supply network, or areas of specialist knowledge.
This example old but remains relevant. A manufacturer of mobile handsets had two constraints:
new and untested functionality for a customer
late delivery would not be tolerated
The normal design process was to distribute work to specialist teams, located in different countries. Problems arose at the joins.
This time the work was designed across the joins, with cross-specialist teams given joint responsibility for integration. A quality handset was delivered on time, with the added benefit that the usual politics were much reduced.
Here’s another example from Peter Day at the BBC World Service, talking about GSK and how drug discovery is “highly personal and highly serendipitous”. This example is about co-locating specialists to solve problems real-time, as they arise.
Informal Social Networks
Effective organisations recognise the power of informal social networks. These are where self-motivated and self-managed people find who knows who, who knows what, emotional support, and camaraderie.
Here’s an example from the Harvard Business Review, where data scientists at MIT found that “the best predictors of productivity were a team’s energy and engagement outside formal meetings”.
Whole Systems of Leadership and Learning
The fourth key thing is the expectation of innovation as everyone’s business, and collaborative problem-solving sewn into everything the business does.
See this article in the FT, Power to the workers: Michelin’s great experiment about how Michelin is experiencing a management revolution through trusting people to get on with organising and delivering their own work. Managers’ roles are changing from controlling to coaching.
Céline Schillinger is Head of Quality, Innovation & Engagement at pharmaceuticals company, Sanofi Pasteur. Céline and her colleagues are achieving something similar. Commenting on the article on LinkedIn, Céline says:
“What’s important is not having leaders and managers who can dictate orders and thousands of people who “execute” them flawlessly … it is about creating the environment where everyone thinks about what is the right thing to do – and then they do it. They have the permission, the space, the skill, the reinforcement, and the encouragement.”
The management revolution at Michelin will require effort from everyone. From the article:
“Changing the way Michelin is run will require sacrifices from management and unions, and an upgrade in the skills and self-confidence of the workers themselves.”