Insight article

Feeling like a number?

There seem to be many consultancies and operational experts who take the view that businesses function purely as systems. To improve the business, the logic goes, you must make the system more efficient. Cut out waste, grease the cogs, make everything more predictable.

Efficiency certainly has its place, but I wonder whether the days when businesses could get a clear competitive edge through operational improvements alone are behind us.

Take the example of Ford Motor Company. It made radical innovations in vehicle assembly, which put it far ahead of its competitors. But businesses now operate on a much more level playing field – with similar rules, market access, products and methodologies.

These shifts that have taken place allow us to see the roles of people and the roles of business systems as separate but complementary. Systems and technology have freed people from tasks related to implementing the system, allowing them instead to refocus their efforts on creating valuable experiences for customers. The question shouldn’t be ‘How can humans compete with robots?’ but rather ‘How can we quit trying to make humans and robots share the same roles?’ What seems to allow a business to distinguish itself from competitors today is its degree of human engagement – the extent to which people apply their own discretionary effort to the needs of the business.

For most companies in the globalised economy of the 21st century, drawing out the ingenuity held within their people should be a core leadership priority. The clients whom we’ve helped to achieve the greatest success in fostering behaviour change have been those who understand this approach, and who are willing to invest in their people in order to stimulate their discretionary effort and willingness to change. This cannot happen when employees feel their jobs are just one technological advance away from redundancy. We are approached by many organisations facing acute change challenges that they know revolve around the engagement of their people in strategic change – and not just in improving systems.

Nailia Tasseel