Smart Work and Corporate Feudalism
- Published: May 26, 2016
- Written by Peter Schooff
Peter Schooff: Hello, this is Peter Schooff, Managing Editor of BPM.com, and today I have the great pleasure to be speaking with Steve Stanton. I think anybody in BPM probably has heard Steve's name. He's a pioneer of process innovation, and for thirty years he has focused on improving the capability of organizations to transform themselves. He is currently working on a new book, Smart Work Rescuing the Traditional Organization. Steve will also be a speaker at the upcoming BPM and Case Management Global Summit, which is coming at end of June to Washington, D. C.
Steven Stanton: Thank you, Peter.
Peter Schooff: Now you're currently working on a book about Smart Work. How would you define Smart Work?
Steven Stanton: Well, that's obviously a great question. Let me define a little bit of the genesis and that will give you some context for it. In my teaching and in my consulting, I would ask people how they're doing. The consistent answer I would get would be that they're busy. Everybody is very busy. I'd ask why? They'd say they're spending half their days going through email, the other half of the their day is going to endless, dysfunctional meetings, and that they were too busy. In fact, what they would say is they were too busy to think. That gave me a hint that there was something going on in the environment. That some problems with the old model of the organization. I'm talking primarily about traditional industrial era organizations. Companies and organizations whose fundamental business model stems back from the dawn of the twentieth century.
I would see that people are too busy to think, and that they were trapped in a model with steep hierarchies and high-risk aversions that was once suited for the environment, but the environment has changed. The world is global, all the listeners know, we have this abundance of new technologies, and it's that clash between the traditional hierarchical command and control model in today's environment that caused me to think about what was needed. The outcome of what was needed was a different way of thinking about the organization. That's what I call Smart Work. Smart Work is a way of rethinking the organization as a means to create, use, understand, and deploy data to achieve its outcomes. Instead of the model of the machine, which is the industrial era fundamental paradigm, we have to be thinking about the new organization in terms of its capability as a data processor.
Peter Schooff: I know in your research for the book, you're working on the Seven Top Dysfunctions in a Company Today. What would you say is the number one work dysfunction in a company today?
Steven Stanton: Well, Peter, I'll answer your question, but I'll digress just for a minute. Earlier, I said that people spend their time at work in email and meetings. One of the clues for me is I'd ask people who owns your email? Nobody does. The current model has a bunch of orphans. Email is one. It's absorbing, in many organizations, half of the resource of the organization [pulling 00:03:26] through, but nobody owns it. There's no Vice President of Email. Same thing with meetings. It's actually not difficult to identify the characteristics that create good meetings, but there's no Vice President at the meetings. These orphans, they take in some deeper dysfunctions. The worst and the most pernicious problem for a lot of organizations is what I'd call Feudalism or [Localism 00:03:46]. In many organizations, fragmentation rules and fragmentation happens because the center of the organization is weak, and that this is units in geographies are strong.
For all those listening let me ask, how are your standardization efforts going? Are you getting happy compliance, or are you finding that there's no consequence for people doing their own thing? That's an example of a weak center and a strong periphery. As we like to talk in the process world, you have very powerful silos run by Dukes and Duchesses and Princes and Princesses and a weak King. Those Kings are allowing a lot of the chaos of feudalism to sub-optimize the organization. You would think that big organizations with vast resources and many intelligent people should be able to find the answers to survive or prosper in this turbulent environment.
Yet, in many cases, their size mitigates against that, because feudalism instead of the healthy federalism rules. The sum is far less than the pieces of the part. Bigger companies suffer from [diseconomies 00:05:34] of scale instead of synergy. I think that's the problem, certainly the problem we in the process world have been dealing with for decades. Organizations that are fragmented. Work that's thrown together everywhere, and we've been trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together again for years, but the root cause is this chaotic feudalism.
Peter Schooff: I think that's a really good way to get that across, and I think everybody understands what feudalism is and how that doesn't work in a corporate level. What would say is the next biggest dysfunction in a company?
Steven Stanton: Well, as you can tell, I like talking about this and if we round up the usual suspects, number two would be Short-Termism or Immediate Gratification. Every organization has attention between today and tomorrow. Doing today's work, serving today's customers, and planning or inventing tomorrow's work, and identifies potential customers. The problem for lots of organizations is the intensity of competitor pressure has created an imbalance in real resource allocation between today and tomorrow. Lots of organizations are eating their seed corn and shortchanging their future by spending all their time on today's work, heads down. You can see this in how they fund projects. If you look at the agendas of Executive Team Meetings, it's all focused on today. If you were to personalize this as attention between a COO, a Chief Operating Officer, and a CTO, a Chief Transformation Officer, all the resources are under the COO's control. The CTO is advocating for a future, but not getting it resourced.
If you look at a lot of high-tech non-organizations, the proportions of spend are between today and tomorrow would be dramatically different. One of the manifestations of this imbalance is in how organizations treat change. Short-Termism, today's work, is often represented by continuous improvement, which is tuning today's work. Now there's a lot of very positive results that come from taking waste and time and cost out of today's work, but that's quite different than transforming work to do it better tomorrow. One of the manifestations is that it's a lot easier to launch [inaudible 00:07:35] than it is to do a big re-engineering project. It takes time, it takes resources, it takes patience to do a big project. The payoff is far in the future, so organizations who shorten their time frame, and they're making things a little bit better today, but that better sameness won't take them.
Peter Schooff: Definitely. Now I heard you touch on it a little bit in the continuous improvement idea. In our conversation leading up to this, you said how some companies pursuing BPM have actually done it wrong, and it's done the company harm. Would you elaborate on that?
Steven Stanton: Of course. I recently visited a large unnamed insurance company, and was dealing with a number of their Process Professionals. They were a really smart group, highly trained in [inaudible 00:08:25]. They had a lot of change management tools, they were very well equipped for continuous improvement and achieving operational excellence, but the problem is they had no experience, zero, in re-engineering or any larger transformational project. There was a mismatch between the environmental requirements for big change and the skillset of the changers within the organization. I would say that healthy organizations are those that have a totally robust and complete tool set. The old cliché, it's a true cliché, that if you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. If you only have bottoms up, incremental improvement tools, that's all you do. I think organizations, to be healthy and successful and survive in today's environment, need a much more robust tool set and many more practitioners of big change, and all of the accompany power and funding and sponsorship and other requirements that make those projects successful.