A Business Technology Place

The thought for a rover employee

The Big Picture
One of the main functions of a technology officer is to align the organization to grow revenue while at the same time reducing expenses and providing customer service. Thinking about the big picture of profitability and operating efficiencies is like looking at a pile of legos and having the vision to know what an organization can build with them. A popular business idea is to “build with the end in mind.” That’s the big picture. It is more of a journey than a destination. .

Painting the Big Picture
But what about the day-to-day activities in a technology environment? How do organizations do the work to paint the big picture one stroke at a time? I don’t believe in a one set answer or script for operational activities. I do believe that as with the marketing, technology processes and steps have an element of try, measure, and adjust in them. In practice, we want to align the activities with the greater goals of revenue growth and cost efficiencies.

Helping the people behind the technology
This past week I met with team members in my company to understand how work flows into, through, and out of their departments. As each team member shared the work flow with me they pointed out areas where technology solutions could help to make their jobs more efficient. I couldn’t help but see that it is on the front line where small changes can help make big differences in customer service and work throughput. Good customer service ultimately yields repeat customers which then yields the bigger goal of increased revenue. Increasing work throughput creates efficiencies which helps the bigger goal to reduce costs.

The challenge is that the bigger projects and tasks often compete and win the time-share with technology team members. So how do we align and justify shared technology resources with smaller process oriented projects? How do we align shared technology resources with other employees in the organization that are on the front line with customers or that need help making their work areas more efficient?

What about a rover employee?Rover
In my professional experience I have seen some organizations solve this through time allocation. For example try to align technology team members with 70% of their time on projects, 20% on smaller tasks, and 10% administrative activities. In theory this type of resource allocation helps to keep some areas from starving while at the same time spending the greatest effort on the most impactful activities. What usually happens is the larger projects become resource hogs and almost 100% of the team’s time.

In softball with 10 players, the defense will use the 10th fielder as a rover. The rover positions themselves in a different location of the field depending on the batter. So they become a flexible player that helps the defense by working in multiple areas.

What would happen if organizations could create a rover employee with the job assignment to meet with inter-company departments to help identify, solve, or champion projects that create automated workflows? Could a position like this pay for itself by creating enough efficiencies that it drives more cost out of the organization than it costs to fund the position? Could the position identify many activities that could be solved without custom programming or large projects?

What would happen if an employee could spend two weeks in each department learning their processes and then working with them to automate those processes. How knowledgeable of the business would this employee be at the end of moving through each department and what type of leadership would this employee now be able to offer?

Could it work? Would it work?

Knowledge Workers vs Process Workers

I’ve worked in various management structures during my professional career which has the benefit of seeing some of the ins-and-outs of each style. Management structure in this context is not necessarily the management style of your direct supervisor. It’s more directed at the enterprise level management culture that is setup by organizational and executive management designs. Most often, writers talk about centralized versus decentralized organizations.

Process of simple parts but as a whole is a complicated system

Process of simple parts, but as a whole is a complicated system. How do we best manage the system?

At the highest level they are referring to where decisions are made. Are they made at the corporate office with C-Level executives and pushed down to each organizational unit? Or are they made closer to the point of sale with general managers of each division?

Within the centralized/decentralized framework lies the question of  employee empowerment and decision making authority. Organizations decide how much authority they give mid level managers to make decisions for the day-to-day operations of their area. As I mentioned in the beginning of this post, I’ve worked in both types of organizations and I’ve come to observe a few things about each. Which style is better is subjective and most definitely influenced by the position of the person forming the opinion. My own opinions are formed from the vantage point of a front line worker and mid level manager.

Centralized Management and Process Workers

The centralized operating structure tends to create what I call “process workers”. Process workers are put in place to follow a set of rules, procedures and guidelines. They are expected to follow instructions from upper management which are aligned to the core business objectives of the organization. For most workers in this type of environment the work is just a job as they are not rewarded for thinking too much outside of their assigned area. Now don’t hear me saying that I think following process is a bad thing. Standardized process within an organization has its reasons and business value to produce consistent and repeatable results. What I am saying is that a centralized management style tends to create a culture of process followers which minimizes organizational risk.

Decentralized Management and Knowledge Workers

The decentralized operating structure tends to create “knowledge workers”. Employees are given authority to make decisions within their work unit as long it fits within the objectives and strategy of the corporation. Workers in this environment often become experts in their general area because they encouraged and rewarded to think creatively about process improvement and customer focus. It’s more common to find passionate employees who see their work as more than a job with this management structure. The job in this sense becomes an extension of the person, an identity.

The centralized approach has its challenges in that you must make sure the employees can handle the level of responsibility and that the mission of the organization is fulfilled. If the output of the group needs to be consistent, efficient, and methodical, then a centralized approach may be better suited at the ground level. The best approach may be a combination of the two methods which utilizes the advantages of each based on the particular functional group and its mission.

My personal work preference is for a decentralized organization because I think it has the ability to draw more out of its people. I find knowledge workers add more business value and deliver better results than simple process workers.  My feelings agree with the principals of Jim Collins as written in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t
“The good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system. They hired self-disciplined people who didn’t need to be managed, and then managed the system, not the people.”
What are your observations? Do you feel a mix of the two styles is appropriate in your environment? Does one style deliver better results than the other?

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