Engaging and mobilising employees
The power of involvement
Provoking thought Generating discussion Delivering results Making a difference
Helping staff get stuck into your strategy
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The power of involvement At what stage do organisations involve their people in defining and developing their goals and related business strategy? And, more importantly, at what stage should they involve them?
Those are the key questions many ask when developing their approach to engaging and mobilising employees? True engagement cannot, it is argued, be achieved without involvement. The mobilisation of a workforce cannot happen if the people tasked with delivering certain goals do not understand or relate to them. And to do that, true understanding comes from being actively involved.
1. The existing culture of involvement Moving from a culture of limited or noinvolvement to full, proactive involvement too quickly is unlikely to get the necessary engagement or honest input from employees. A more graduated approach may be necessary; taking employees incrementally up the curve whereby, over time, they are involved at earlier stages.
commercially sensitive or have industrial relations, regulatory, market or other implications if communicated too early. However, in some cases, employees can be provided with the strategic context or background to issues. This enables them to come to their own understanding and define their own answers. 3. The complicated nature of the strategic issue
2. The nature of the strategic issue The diagram (bottom right) shows the process most organisations go through when developing their business strategy. At which stage of the curve do most organisations involve their people?
Some issues may be too sensitive to merit wider, earlier involvement. Whilst this is the â€˜cop-outâ€™ answer given by some organisations against earlier involvement, it still has merit. An issue may be too
Involving employees in complex organisational or market-related issues may be counter-productive. Some use such complexity to argue that employees would not understand the issues sufficiently to make the right
The iC Survey 2006, conducted by Karian and Box, showed three in five communicators said that employees in their organisation were not involved in shaping strategy. Where do employees jump onto the involvement curve? It would not be trite to argue that the earlier you involve employees in the definition and decision making process, the better. Nonetheless, there is no one answer to this question and each organisation will know where best to start the involvement process. This is based on three basic factors.
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thinkBox judgements. But this can be addressed by carefully framing the question asked and awaiting complicated language that exclude people. In other words, issues can be distilled and translated to enable most, if not, all employees to understand the strategic context and come to certain judgements. Also, it is arguable that the people with the most understanding of the issues are those who live them daily. A not dissimilar argument is that many employees will be disinterested in strategic issues and simply want to ‘get on with the job’. However, when those strategic issues are explained and translated into their language (and not the jargon of economists, strategists and policy-wonks), then employees will be more than interested. After all, it is their future and livelihood which strategy affects. Where involvement adds value It is unlikely that meaningful, wider employee involvement in the first 3 stages on the curve add much value. Strategic issues do and can arise by being highlighted and defined from within the organisation. The process of identifying such issues, gathering the necessary data and crunching it into meaningful information is not easily achieved without the lead from the experts (often, the finance / strategy teams or the organisation’s policy gurus). This information can then be translated into a series of options available for discussion across the organisation. And, it is at this point that early input from employees can start and add real value.
“To communicate some issues unfiltered and without context, expecting employees to a) understand them and b) get involved with shaping the organisation’s strategic response, can be counterproductive. Honesty is important but it is also the duty of leaders to not cause panic or undue worry about the shape of things to come. The alternative can be a demoralised and unproductive workforce. As such, unravelling strategy with employees can be like peeling an onion. You have to take it layer by layer – exposing the issue in a way that enables understanding of the context and allows employees to come to their own conclusions. That also has the added benefit of obtaining deeper support for the organisation’s response to the issue.”
HR Director, Chemicals company, The Netherlands, interviewed as part of a business-wide audit of the organisation’s communications and engagement activity
the specific business context and outlining further options for action (complementing those outlined by the organisation’s strategy / policy teams). Discussing, debating options (Stage 5) – where employees look at the range of strategic options and discuss the merits and demerits of each. Decisions on action (Stage 6) – where employees decide on the necessary action either in local teams or via democratic, collective decision making processes.
This input can take the following forms: Defining proposals and options (Stage 4 on the curve) – where the workforce is tasked with assessing
Employees are provided with decisions on strategic operational goals and given the autonomy to work out ways of implementing them. Many organisations
“I work from 4am until 10am shift, 6 days a week and get up just before 3am to get to work. I work damn hard when I get there and my job is important to me. I care as much about the future of this business as any guy at the top. I want to know where it’s headed and what I need to do to ensure we succeed. So many of us feel that the company doesn’t get this point. They go on about strategy this and vision that, without so much as asking our view on the matter.”
only involve their workshops at or near the deployment stage. This is the most common form of employee involvement, albeit within defined and specific parameters. There are weaknesses in leaving any employee involvement to stage 9 alone. If the development of the strategy has not had input from employees, they may not be committed to it. Of course, communicators can do their best to inform or persuade their workforce of the merits of a strategic route. But no degree of communication activity can truly obtain maximum support for a strategy without early involvement in its development. This is particularly the case when issues or decisions are controversial, difficult and/ or do not reflect the existing employee attitudes, prejudices and behaviour. It is also true to say that ‘operational’ involvement in the delivery of an organisation’s strategy does not equate to strategic involvement. The next section looks at real examples of involvement which two organisations employed.
Sales assistant, LAX airport (Los Angeles) for an airport retailer, commenting as part of a focus group on engagement and involvement
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Bringing the 40 Day Engine to life
With a goal as clear as that, the business had to decide on how to make it happen. Throughout the 4 years it took to do it, the philosophy which underpinned its delivery was of near-total employee ownership and involvement. Managers defined and voted on the business priorities required to realise the goal. Employees (from The Board onwards) were involved in a simulation of the business operations which highlighted the benefits of achieving the task while underlining how achievable the goal
actually was. Every team and employee was tasked with integrating the goal into their work plans. Everyone had to work out how to interpret the broad strategic priorities into day-to-day, relevant activity which they were responsible for. Groups of employees were subsequently responsible for defining the future operating model for the business â€“ for example, how the business looked, how the different parts of the business operated and interlocked. With this operating model defined and communicated (again from The Board onward), employees were tasked with defining their business, regional and local actions for changing the existing operating model into the future one. The goal was achieved one year ahead of schedule; the business benefited from improved cash flow and profitability and the service delivered to customers was improved. And, every employee played a role in defining the problems and deciding on the way forward.
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The challenge was an audacious one â€“ making an engine (from the moment of a customerâ€™s order to the moment the engine was shipped to the customer) in 40 days. This was at a time when aero engines were made by the company in approximately 860 days. Some thought it impossible. Some believed it necessary in order to improve future profitability, cash flow, and secure long-term success. The challenge had been decided on by groups of employees, defining it as the key goal for the business.
Making decisions on the strategic future
The Royal Mail faced two choices â€“ develop the options for change and implement them, involving employees at or near the deployment stage. Or, get employees involved much earlier on â€“ in order for them to understand the rationale for change, and the context against which operational changes and decisions had to be taken. Ultimately, employees needed to be part of the decision making process to feel ownership of the end product.
The organisation did its homework; - gathering and crunching data on the likely shape of its markets; the likely competition and other threats/ opportunities available to it (with the related pros and cons). All this was correlated and translated into userfriendly communications and engagement packs for discussion, debate and decision making by employees. Every team within the organisation worked through this process, feeding back their decisions and suggested actions. Having made deliberations on the same facts and options as every other team, the Royal Mailâ€™s Board came up with, broadly speaking, the same conclusions as most teams across the organisation. The decision making process for The Board was that much easier in the knowledge that thousands of teams had opted for the same future direction.
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Undertaking a major strategic review of its future direction, the Royal Mail, a 200 year old institution employing over 200,000 people across the UK, had a challenge on its hands. On the horizon was the liberalisation of the mail industry and the increased threat from competitors. The organisation had faced limited strategic change in much of its recent history and the changes that any review identified were likely to be significant.