|The ITG Evangelist (Table of Contents)|
|016||Employee Empowerment||February 10, 2012|
|I just read a Forbes online article this morning titled: “The Empowered Employee is Coming; Is the World Ready?” It is a very insightful guest post hosted by Forbes staff writer Eric Savitz and written by John Hagel, Suketu Gandi and Giovanni Rodriguez. Ideally, you should read their piece before continuing, but for those of you who don’t want to toggle between posts, the following is the basis of their discussion:
“While marketers marvel at the emerging power of the connected consumer, the rest of the nation worries about the diminishing prospects of the U.S. employee. But as a recent story in The Economist shows, while the ranks of the unemployed continue to swell globally, the number of unfilled jobs for skilled labor are also on the rise. The Economist calls this “the great mismatch,” to emphasize the gap in our understanding about the structural, long-term nature of the current jobs crisis (yes there’s a shortage of jobs, but a shortage for whom)? But could there be another gap in understanding?
Along with the rise of the connected consumer – a subject that has no shortage of consultants, writers and public speakers ready to tell your company what to do – shouldn’t we also be thinking of the rise of empowered employee, the people in the most advantageous position today and tomorrow to fill those job shortages? If you are a business owner, are you ready to accommodate her? If you are a government leader, are you ready to build the infrastructure and design the policies to support her? If you are an employee, are you ready to become her? There’s not just a gap in understanding. There’s a gap in preparation for the disruption wrought by the empowerment of people.
We call this the post digital divide to emphasize the point that in the new world, technology may be required but it is not enough. Like the first big breach – the digital divide – there will be winners and there will losers. But this time around the divide will not simply separate the tech haves from the tech have-nots. It will likely favor those who know what’s required in the new age of performance, and it will sideline those who do not. In what follows, we look at the things that will almost certainly be required for business – the tools, the metrics, and the new need to design for human experience.”
The authors go on to write about the history of the circumstances they describe above and they suggest that employers need to “make people the center of the enterprise” by shifting them from “costs to be managed” to being treated as “assets capable of delivering ever increasing value to the marketplace.”
Anyone who has read my book or blogs posts or attended any of my presentations knows these views of the employee are music to my ears. They would also assume I am delighted with the article – but I’m not. Why? Because once again, we have some very smart people, providing incredible insights, followed by great suggestions – but implying this stuff is new. It’s not!
The late Dr. Michael Hammer wrote numerous books and devoted the latter part of his life to convincing organizations that their people were the most important assets. His theories and teachings shifted the focus of process and process management from simply providing efficiency and effectiveness to liberating and empowering workers to deliver incredible value to customers. He was entirely and completely focused on “the human experience.”
I dedicated an entire chapter of my book to the idea of employee empowerment, and with the permission of my publishers, CA Press and Apress, I am including it in this post:
I mentioned employee empowerment earlier but I postponed presenting my views on this subject because I think it is a great topic on which to close the process discussion. The idea of employee empowerment is bittersweet for me. I am a huge believer in the concept, but it has become somewhat controversial. Mention it to workers and you are likely to find it is yet another cause for eye rolling. I understand their cynicism. I have encountered many organizations proclaiming that they empower their employees, but I have seen few do what is necessary to actually empower their employees.
I joke with my audiences about what exactly takes place when employees are “empowered.” Is it a ceremony analogous to knighting someone? Does the employee kneel before leadership as a sword is tapped lightly on each of her shoulders as the words “I hereby empower thee” are spoken? It provides a lighthearted segue into my formula for truly empowering employees. I insist there are three critical dimensions to employee empowerment, as follows:
Defining and designing work that is possible and practical
Providing employees with the knowledge, skills, and competencies required to do the work
Assigning accountability and giving employees the authority to make decisions and take the risks necessary to successfully complete the work
Given this level of understanding, nobody in the enterprise is better suited to make the decisions required to get the work done. Each of these three dimensions is absolutely necessary to truly empower employees. Many of the organizations I have visited empower their employees by “allowing” them to make decisions. To their credit, this is a quantum leap from the “do only what you are told” model, but it is not enough. Their employees are free to make decisions, but they often lack the competency, skills, and confidence to do so. Couple this with the near universal lack of sound work processes, and the result is accountability that leads to blame as opposed to empowerment. Management is the key to enabling true employee empowerment by addressing each of the dimensions I describe and fostering a culture the refuses to shift into a blame game.
Given that many enterprises are indeed allowing their staffs more autonomy to make decisions, the greatest deficiency in the quest to empower employees is poor process and nonexistent process management. Without reasoned and rational processes that make the work possible, all the accountability and training in the world will fall short of empowering employees to succeed in their efforts. Sure, some will rise above these chronic process problems and manage to accomplish something. But work models requiring individual heroics are tenuous at best and patently unfair at worst. Good processes and even better process management is the key. These mechanisms provide employees with a firm grasp of their roles and an acute understanding of where their authority begins and ends. They know what decisions they can make and they are equipped to make them.
On that note, I will end the discussion of process management with the last paragraph from my contribution to Mark Perry’s book, Business Driven PMO Setup (J. Ross Publishing, 2009). Mark asked me to anchor the section on building high-performance PMO teams. The title of my chapter is “Better Process Means Better Performance.” The following is the closing summary:
The benefits of good process have been studied and well documented by renowned industry leaders such as Michael Hammer, Geary Rummler with Alan Brache, and Jack Welch of General Electric. Companies have seen significant performance improvements through Six Sigma and LEAN process frameworks. There is a mountain of evidence and numerous examples of the power and promise of good process. But what excites me the most is what good process means to people—to the workers in an enterprise. Processes bring meaning to all work, no matter how small the task. People are no longer vague cogs in the machine. They are critical members of a process team. They are the ones with the accountability and authority to delight the customer. They know they are essential to the success of the enterprise. They matter and they know they matter. Place them in this situation and just watch how they perform.
Again, I highly suggest you read the Forbes article. It does a great job of describing the new technologies and systems of engagement that will enable employee empowerment. They also do a great job of describing “meaningful metrics” – another inherent quality of being process-centric and the actual title of a presentation I have been delivering for more than four years – which brings me back to my point – much of this stuff is not new.
What is new are some of things the authors describe that are enabling or demanding the call for the “empowered employee.” And I like how they close their article:
“As Alfred Chandler noted in his studies of the two industrial Revolutions, it was not until the railroad and electronic communication systems took hold that a new class of worker emerged – the modern manager. While it seems like we’ve been at the digital thing for a long time, the Web is less than 20 years old … a teenager, not yet legal. Fact is, the infrastructure supporting the post digital revolution – where technology is at the service of people – is still under construction. And when that happens, we could very well see the acceleration of jobs on the right side of the equation.
That could be good news for future generations, but hard news for people in the present who need to navigate the transition, whether they be managers, rank-and-file workers, or elected officials. The post digital divide will force them to choose sides – on the side of employee empowerment, or on the side of tactical cost cutting, job cutting, and diminishing returns. If not, the divide will choose for them. In an age where empowerment is the defining thing, having anything or anyone choose for you may not feel good. But there’s a path that business managers – the ones with the most levers for change – can pursue to lead by example and invest in their workforces.”
I really like the sound of “investing in their workforces.” As I stated in my book, “At the risk of making a ridiculously obvious observation, nothing is more critical to the success of IT and the business than people.”
~ Steve 02/10/12
Article 016: Employee Empowerment
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