Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Inverting the Pyramid: Employees as Customers of Process

I was reading the article linked above, and it mentioned the idea that you could treat employees as customers. Obviously, since an organisation is entirely constructed from employees, this means that everyone should treat everyone else as their customer. However, traditionally the work employee is often used to distinguish the spectrum from worker (employee) to high-level manager. There is a staffing pyramid in most companies, for a number of reasons, outlined below:

  -- You need a lot of workers to get the products built
  -- You need some co-ordination of activity to get the right products built well
  -- Management is a professional specialisation
  -- Having a downwards-control pyramid allows those "at the top" to impose a consistent vision downwards, theoretically bringing the company into a state of greater internal consistency

One consequence of this is that those at the top of the control structure have a lot more power than those at the top. There are other sources of power (political savvy, technical skills, resource control) but that's not directly relevant here. Generally, managers assume the right to impose their vision on other people. This is the power of the heirarchy. It truly the case that running an organisation through anarchy doesn't make enough money. The main alternative to anarchy is a heirarchy, however others do exist. One is a strong implicit culture by which everyone understands what they are supposed to be doing, and which people impose on eachother to keep eachother on track.

However, more and more professional jobs are requiring what are essentially management skills, from the word go. The worker level of the pyramid is almost disappearing, especially in technical areas. It is increasingly rare for any job to be simple enough that a replaceable employee can be cheaply used to achieve the outcomes. For example, a software engineer may in fact require 3-6 months to come up to efficient productivity (with another 3-6 months before full peak productivity) due to the complexity of their work environment and the degree of problem-solving and teamwork required.

Hence, the rise of the "empowered employee" as an idea. You see, once jobs are roles, and work is too complex to simply direct, basically everyone becomes a "manager". By this I mean that a substantial part of the job is actually determining what to do for yourself, setting your own goals and vision for what needs to be achieved, then prosecuting that case with others. Suddenly, it is the manager who needs to "keep up", not the employee. Those at the coal-front are not just doing the bidding of a work controller, but actually way ahead of their managers on the real issues and what needs to be done about them. They may not have the same understanding of the bigger picture, but they have closer connections with their stakeholders, are integrating information themselves, and know far more about how technical issues know will be costly later.

Suddenly, the powerlessness of managers becomes visible. Thanks to their experience, they perform integrative thinking over a broader context than worker-level employees, but they are not empowered with the full insight of those worker-level employees. Their job ceases to be one of controller, but one of critical cog in the machine. They must do the work to design efficient and effective meeting structures, information systems and personal connections. They must keep the minutes, and watch the schedule, but not lead the vision as much. Their job becomes not the "features" but the processes. The best manager is no longer the best expert (although industry knowledge remains highly relevant) because the best expert should be the one defining requirements (chief customer). Instead, they are the ones who are happy to do the job of designing an efficient bureaucracy because nobody else cares enough to do so. The workers want to experience the thrill of productivity, and the joy of output. But they don't have the buck stopping with them if it all fails to "come together in the end".

I think the rise of the empowered employee is very real. Workers today needs more political and intellectual capability than ever before in order to get their job done. Ongoing learning is no longer something done once a year to get ahead, it's now something you do every week or every day just to keep up. The demands are high, and the pressures on our ability to set boundaries, manage expectations and stay happy are enormous. We are all being forced higher up the food chain.

However, this isn't only a positive move (even though I think it is for the best). It isn't just about glorifying the worker as "empowered". It also puts more pressure on the whole organisation to be smarter, faster, better, more perfect... and I think the answer is for organisations to realise they should be treating their work groups as clients. Managers are not controlling their workers, they are providing a service to their customers below (workers) and their customers above (higher-level managers). The company is no longer a heirarchy, it is a network. Each "blob" has a heirarchy, and workers are still workers, obliged to deliver a product to their customers (managers). But now, it's up to everyone to realise they are responsible for themselves, and no longer will anyone be able to tell them what to do or how to do it.

It also means the empowered employee will need to be more respectful of their managers. When their managers were "bosses", you could be rude and jeer about their incompetence, lack of knowledge or bureaucratic processes. Now, it is your business to provide your manager with some service, and if you don't like it then you shouldn't take the job. Stepping up also means taking on more.

I like to think this could result in a more trusting, more effective and more equitable organisational structure. But I don't see the heirarchy giving up without a fight.