Partnerships with people

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Organisations ought to consist of people working together in an atmosphere of open co-operation. At first glance there doesn’t seem to be any commonality between a major producer of chemicals and a small spring manufacturer, nor between a major retail company and a small graphics company. What do a police force and a secondary school share? These organisations and many more are at the leading edge of management thinking and treating their employees as full working partners in the

The 1990s certainly have seen a marked shift in management attitudes and practices from those of the 1980s. This comes from the understanding that it is the customer’s needs and aspirations around which the company must focus and the realisation that the attitudes and commitment of all the employees must be engaged to most effectively meet those needs. To flourish in the modern working environment, people will need to be flexible and adaptable. They will need to be imaginative, have developed wide-ranging thinking skills and above all, be able to work closely with others. Thus the organisation manages rather than is managed. There are, typically, less layers of management in today’s organisation but each one is entrusted with greater responsibilities for the running of the business.

The company will, probably, be team oriented; the old rigid boundaries between people are being replaced with internal networks which are totally focused on the company’s goals and improved competitiveness. A team is a small group who have developed to the stage where they are able to perform effectively, each member adopting a role necessary to work with others, using complementary skills.

The teams, whilst focusing on their own goals, will look to the company as being the main team. Employees will be taking more responsibility and will thus look to senior executives to provide strong leadership. Management are also more relaxed about communicating company performance information throughout the organisation. Indeed, many have found that when employees know exactly how the company is performing, whether well or badly, they become stimulated to greater efforts.

It sounds challenging. Is it?

Today’s business scene is extremely demanding. Companies are faced with ever faster rates of change in customer and market demands which must be met if the business is to enjoy sustained success. Employees, too, want success - not just for themselves, in terms of greater job satisfaction, higher disposable incomes and better lifestyles, but also for the organisation that employs them.

They know that the company will change as it adapts to the partnership way of working. They want the partnership to work. Partnership can and does. Companies that have adopted this way of working are among the more successful worldwide. They all state that they depend for their success on their people bringing a continual flow of new ideas on how the business can operate for the better. In these organisations employees are viewed as assets and not costs. There is an increasing recognition that employees can be the most important resource in the organisation, particularly in creating a competitive edge.

Whether a company employs ten or a thousand employees, it requires the potential of all those people to be unlocked if the organisation is to succeed. As the Managing Director of British Chrome and Chemicals said, ‘There is no other source of competitive advantage! Others can copy our investment, technology and scale – but NOT the quality of our people.’

It sounds too good to be true! Is it?

Well, it’s true and it’s good - but it’s not easy! Some companies go through very tough times putting these new practices in place but they all, without exception, believe it to be the only way to manage their businesses. What is interesting is that the employees are fully aware of the paradoxes which exist in their companies. They said that working was ‘fun and yet tough’ at the same time. Yet these two seeming opposites sit well together in any organisation that knows where it is going and carries all its people along with it. Other paradoxes which seem to hold are that successful, well managed companies are:

  • demanding yet giving
  • structured yet fluid
  • disciplined yet creative
  • confident yet self-critical
  • supportive yet stretching
  • accountable yet blame-free
  • entrusted yet managed

An examination of typical, successful companies and organisations shows that this new way of working can be broken down into five separate areas or Paths, parts of good business practice that could be examined and improved. These are:

  • SHARED GOALS – understanding the business the company is in
  • SHARED CULTURE – agreed values binding the company together
  • SHARED LEARNING - continuously improving everyone in the company
  • SHARED EFFORT - one business driven by flexible teams
  • SHARED INFORMATION - effective communication throughout the company.

SHARED GOALS

Understanding the business the company is in...The organisation needs to know where it is going - what its goals are. However, if the vision is the product of only one person’s thinking, it will have limited impact because employees will feel that it has been imposed - that they have not made a contribution to it. When the imagination of all the people is captured, tremendous energy is created within the organisation. ‘Sixty people are involved in the Business Planning day. It is not the sole prerogative of senior managers to come up with the good ideas.’

The company needs to consult regularly with its employees, through unions, representative councils or in a series of meetings to define its goals. It also needs to set up key measures which are important to the development of the company and explain how these will be communicated to everyone, ensuring that each employee fully understands how these measures (e.g. market share, return on capital employed, profit) are obtained and their values. Key benefits to the organisation are:

  • plans pull people together - providing a shared direction
  • shared planning enables people to see how they fit into the organisation and value of the contribution they are making
  • senior management receive ideas from those who really understand the business - and the opportunities.

SHARED CULTURE

Agreed values bind the company together...Shared and common values create the enterprise’s culture. An organisation’s culture represents the totality of the inherited ideas, beliefs, values and knowledge of the people within that organisation. When all these beliefs and values are truly shared, the culture delivers energy to the organisation which will transmit and reinforce the values into a powerful force for success. The company becomes confident in its approach to the future.

‘We never use the word empowerment! You can’t empower people - you can only create the climate and structure in which they will take responsibility.’ Directors and senior managers need to get closer to their staff, spending time with them, listening to their problems and aspirations. Employees should be regularly surveyed for their opinions on a wide range of issues, including how they feel about the company, its management and customers. If any major changes within the company need to take place, it is important that this information is disseminated widely and opinions sought before action is taken. Key benefits to the company are:

  • all employees feel respected and so give of their best
  • people are confident and optimistic - they give of their best
  • the culture supports the organisations competitive strategy and provides the energy to sustain it - stretching and extending both the individual and the company.

Continuously improving everyone in the company...Successful organisations consider people to be their most valuable resource which needs to be continuously developed. Employees in such companies are able, consistent, co-operative, responsible and better equipped to solve problems. Structured systems of personnel development, such as Investors in People (IiP) have been shown to be of particular benefit in achieving continuous improvement. The more successful companies realise that training needs to be taken beyond that required for competency in a particular task. Employees must develop to match the company’s future needs - not the present ones, if the company is to flourish. This training plan must include all the senior managers.

One director said, ‘I feel that I need more training than anyone else! I want to encourage people to think, If the MD needs training - then so do I!’ Education and training will start on the first day with an induction meeting and the employees will help develop their own training. Multi-skilling is a fundamental part of today’s businesses and the employee should be encouraged to take on more skills and qualifications, suitably rewarding them as they become more qualified.
Key benefits are:

  • individuals get increased job satisfaction from their new skills
  • the entire organisation becomes increasingly receptive to change
  • career and personal development plans increase loyalty.

SHARED EFFORT

One business driven by flexible teams...Teams are the building blocks of modern enterprises and it has been shown that people enjoy this way of working. Team structures enable them to show their new skills and learning. Furthermore, the bonds of closeness with their fellow employees increases the effectiveness of their efforts. Of particular importance is the ability of teams to solve problems, creating a more efficient enterprise focusing clearly on customers and their needs.

‘Managers are part of the team, working with the team members to achieve a high level of performance.’ When setting up teams, the right balance of skills and attitudes must be achieved. Team goals need to be agreed and specific targets given so that the team can assess its progress. Team skills must be learnt, not only by team leaders but by all in the team so that everyone can add value to the team. Companies will realise key benefits:

  • people work better when they are part of a group
  • teams can achieve more than a collection of individuals
  • essential co-operation across the whole organisation is maintained.

SHARED INFORMATION

Employees report that they get the most from short face-to-face meetings where they are allowed to put questions. Some companies favour in-house newspapers, email, electronic display boards and videos. The key requirement is that the message is received and understood. ‘A range of communication methods is important. What does not work is sending around a booklet with no follow up.’ Key business benefits are:

  • people have the information needed to set objectives and priorities
  • the organisation reacts rapidly to threats and opportunities
  • it reinforces trust and respect throughout the organisation.

The Five Paths To Sustained Success is a model based on the experiences of many competitive organisations. How management introduces them and at what speed will, of course, depend on the culture of the individual organisation. It has been demonstrated that the transition from a so-called command and control organisation, where the person at the very top made all the decisions and expected everyone else to get on with implementing his orders, to a modern competitive organisation which builds all its people into dynamic, responsible employees can be made. It takes time and it takes care.