By now, reams have been written about the possibilities offered by the adoption of Enterprise 2.0 capabilities. The interest continues to grow as the daily use of the Web at work approaches ubiquity.
Also, reams have been written about why the engagement of knowledge-work employees is a central means of increasing productivity, effectiveness and the achievement of sustained high performance.
The greater engagement of employees has been a central aim of the work of organizational development (OD) professionals for at least the last two decades (and much further back if we are striving for precision).
In a recent Wall Street Journal blog post titled “Management’s Dirty Little Secret”, Gary Hamel brings us face-to-face with this fundamental issue:
How would you feel about a physician who killed more patients than he helped? What about a police detective who committed more murders than he solved? Or a teacher whose students were more likely to get dumber than smarter as the school year progressed? And what if you discovered that these perverse outcomes were more the rule than the exception—that they were characteristic of most doctors, policemen and professors? You’d be more than perplexed. You’d be incensed, outraged. You’d demand that something must be done!
Given this, why are we complacent when confronted with data that suggest most managers are more likely to douse the flames of employee enthusiasm than fan them, and are more likely to frustrate extraordinary accomplishment than to foster it?
Consider the recent “Global Workforce Survey” conducted by Towers Perrin, an HR consultancy. In an attempt to measure the extent of employee engagement around the world, the company polled more than 90,000 workers in 18 countries. The survey covered many of the key factors that determine workplace engagement, including: the ability to participate in decision-making, the encouragement given for innovative thinking, the availability of skill-enhancing job assignments and the interest shown by senior executives in employee well-being.
Here’s what the researchers discovered: barely one-fifth (21%) of employees are truly engaged in their work, in the sense that they would “go the extra mile” for their employer. Nearly four out of ten (38%) are mostly or entirely disengaged, while the rest are in the tepid middle. There’s no way to sugarcoat it—this data represents a stinging indictment of the legacy management practices found in most companies.
So why aren’t we scandalized by this data?
Effective (and/or increased) engagement of employees engenders leadership, organizational culture and the core requirement for management effectiveness at motivating, guiding and coaching employees. These issues are NOT new. However, they are all central elements to the whys, whats and hows of the productive adoption of social computing, aka Enterprise 2.0.
In a world of commoditized knowledge, the returns go to the companies who can produce non-standard knowledge. Success here is measured by profit per employee, adjusted for capital intensity. Apple’s profit per head is significantly higher than its major competitors, as is the company’s ratio of profits to net fixed assets.
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So what does all this have to do with engagement?
Just this: in a world where customers wake up every morning asking, “what’s new, what’s different and what’s amazing?” success depends on a company’s ability to unleash the initiative, imagination and passion of employees at all levels—and this can only happen if all those folks are connected heart and soul with their work, their company and its mission.
Let me break it down:
– In every industry, there are huge swathes of critical knowledge that have been commoditized—and what hasn’t yet been commoditized soon will be.
– Given that, we have to wave goodbye to the “knowledge economy” and say hello to the “creative economy.”
– What matters today is how fast a company can generate new insights and build new knowledge—of the sort that enhances customer value.
– To escape the curse of commoditization, a company has to be a game-changer, and that requires employees who are proactive, inventive and zealous.
– Problem is, you can’t command people to be enthusiastic, creative and passionate.
– These critical ingredients for success in the creative economy are gifts that people will bring to work each day only if they’re truly engaged. (Eric Raymond made this point way back in 2001 when he argued that in the new economy, “enjoyment predicts productivity.”)
Today, no leader can afford to be indifferent to the challenge of engaging employees in the work of creating the future. Engagement may have been optional in the past, but it’s pretty much the whole game today.
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My conclusion from all of this: first, engagement is essential to the competitiveness of every company and every economy—and we need to be doing a whole lot better than we are.
We’ve got to get management’s dirty little secret out of the HR closet and into the boardroom. And second, if we’re going to improve engagement, we have to start by admitting that the real problem isn’t irksome, monotonous work, but stony-hearted, spirit-deflating managers.
Here’s my opinion about Hamel’s premise and how to address the issues he has raised :
As a generality, what companies (and managers) have not done well is acknowledge or understand that the fundamental responsiveness to customer or employee feedback comes from what people have always done well … what they, arguably, are designed to do or what is in their nature to do .. which is:
- ask questions, and seek to understand
- suggest alternatives, and watch or listen as they are *tried on for size*
- clarify needs or desires, and find ways to deal with exceptions or delight the customer or colleague with a response that makes sense
- fiddle with things to find out what works best
- invent new ways, come up with good ideas, point out another possibility, etc.
- decide together why and how to do something
In effect, these *social processes* have been suppressed or limited by the structures of most sizeable companies, with the attendant rules underpinning reporting relationships, spans of control, delegations of authority. This is, colloquially, why so many people like to complain about *hierarchy* … there are often better ways available, or conditions which no longer suit yesterday’s (and today’s) bureaucracy, but all too often they are not permitted to enter into play.
These ruminations bring to mind the approach known as Participative Work Design (about which I have written before on this blog), known mainly to organizational development theorists and practitioners.
Participative Design was developed in 1971 by Fred and Merrelyn Emery. They developed the method as a faster and more acceptable alternative to the Socio-Technical Systems (STS) approach, where a multi-functional task force redesigns the organisation, usually taking a whole year to do so. A design created and then implemented in this way tends to be flawed, because it is based on an incomplete assessment of reality. Also, workers do not have ownership of the design, and this generates resistance to change. And, perhaps most significantly, the organisation’s underlying power structure remains intact.
The latter points … an incomplete assessment of reality, no or little ownership on the part of workers and an unchanged power structure … have only been exacerbated by the near-real-time (and accelerating) conditions of the interconnected environment in which we now work.
Whereas STS is based on what the Emerys call the ‘bureaucratic design principle’, Participative Design reflects the ‘democratic design principle’. This design principle asserts that:
- those who have to do the work are in the best position to design the way in which it is structured,
- effectiveness is greatly improved when teams take responsibility for controlling their own work, and
- the organisation increases its flexibility and responsiveness when people are capable of performing multiple functions and tasks.
The Emerys have also identified six basic conditions that need to be met if people’s work is to be productive and satisfying. There must be:
- Elbow room for decision making
- Opportunities for continuous on-the-job learning
- Sufficient variety
- Mutual support and respect
- A desirable future, not a dead end
The examples of human interactive behaviour while doing *work* are characteristics of the give-and-take of purposeful interaction. Working interactively using wikis, or purpose-designed blogs is a social process, and helps support, and make visible, engagement with an organization’s objectives
The lightweight, inexpensive, user-friendly tools are now available to let people interact, both with each other and with larger, integrated systems, and to integrate social processes into (existing) more static and more clearly defined work processes.
In my opinion, managers everywhere should look at using participative social technologies and processes to help them …
1) learn about, encourage and support on-purpose engagement, and
2) adapt the ways they ‘manage’ to achieve results when engagement, responsiveness, creativity and innovation are the characteristics that support an organization’s sustained performance.
What do you think ?
Originally posted by Jon Husband on FASTforward
Jon Husband is a recognized expert on social media and the emerging digital workplace, and carries out research into business strategy, organizational structures and work design in the interconnected Knowledge Age.
Jon has been a banker and a Senior Principal for Hay Management Consultants in Canada and the UK, specializing in organizational design and change initiatives for major Canadian and multinational companies. He co-founded a leading Web 2.0 software company, and delivers workshops for clients such as Athabasca University's Executive MBA program, The CIO Summit in Toronto, and the Banff Centre's Leading Innovation program.
He writes several blogs about social media and the growing presence of the Web in business and our daily lives, and is an active speaker in Canada and internationally about the Web’s growing impact on enterprises.