On the Firstline with Euan Semple

Euan responds to my provocation, and shares his humanist insights

Euan Semple

I asked an old, dear friend — Euan Semple — to apply his thinking to the provocation I started the Firstline project with. Euan’s the author of Organizations Don’t Tweet, People Do, and has advised organizations like BP, NATO, and the World Bank. Here’s the results of our give and take.

From the provocation, written by Stowe Boyd: We live and work in an accelerating, interconnected, and hyper-competitive world, where it’s increasingly hard to know what’s over the horizon, and where innovation, agility, and vision are more essential than ever. For business leadership this means it’s essential to develop and communicate a clear understanding of the company’s trajectory in the world as the basis for concerted action, moving from the boardroom and C suite across the company, and out to the firstline workforce: those who are the first point of contact with customer, the first touch point with the supply chain, those who have first hand experience with products they build or the services they deliver. How can leadership make that vision an organizing force, bringing the firstline into greater alignment with the company as a whole, and to help the firstline workforce to adapt to a new, rapidly changing business economy?

Euan Semple: Listen to them. They almost certainly understand the business and what is called for. They are also talking to themselves more than they’re talking to management, and increasingly those groups are using social media to get connected. In fact that someone recently said “your staff already have a social media policy, and if you are lucky they have included you in it.“

Stowe Boyd: The first line folks are often those outside HQ, don’t have a desk, and until recently were only connected by communications like posted notices on a bulletin board or a flyer inserted in a pay envelope. Yes, these workers are mobile literate, but probably not very involved with the company’s 2015 social media/work chat projects. What do you think we can apply from our experiences in recent years from knowledge workers use of work media in this context? How do you envision management listening?

So many internal social networks fail because they are too “businesslike”.

ES: I reckon that there are two motivators that help staff engage with business social systems. Being given something really practical and useful that they couldn’t do otherwise on a company mobile device really helps. I had a great example where the logistics company that managed the drivers delivering in and out of Hong Kong airport gave them a very effective app that helps them to manage their shifts and the time sheets better. This drew them into the company space so that they were there when conversations about work were instigated and they were more inclined to pay attention. The other thing that draws people in is, frankly, gossip. So many internal social networks fail because they are too “businesslike”. But sociability has always oiled the wheels in business. That is what we do when we arrive at meetings, so why shouldn’t it be what we do online. You want the energy of “bloody good conversations” and need to do whatever it takes to get those started.

As to the listening bit, once networks become lively and active enough, managers can’t help themselves lurking! For many this is the first time they have actually had the opportunity to see what is going on inside their organisation. Once they get more confidence about how the network works, more and more of them find the confidence to start to engage.

The two biggest hurdles to active engagement of staff are their own lack of self confidence and self belief, and the attitudes of those immediately above them who tend to assume the worst.

From the provocation, written by Stowe Boyd: Companies must become more agile than ever before to respond to constantly changing business realities, and that requires increased innovation not only at headquarters, but out at the firstline, where the company meets its customers, competitors, and greatest challenges. So the firstline workforce must be able and empowered to experiment, to innovate, try out new ideas, and to learn from those attempts to better fit the changing marketplace. What are the barriers that might block this from happening?

ES: More than once I have been accused of being unreasonable expecting people to think for themselves, especially at work. The two biggest hurdles to active engagement of staff are their own lack of self confidence and self belief, and the attitudes of those immediately above them who tend to assume the worst. If, as in the first response, they are genuinely listened to, and encouraged to input to business solutions, their sense of ownership of problems will inevitably increase. This has to be done authentically, and “employee engagement” programs don’t always meet the need.

SB: So the biggest barriers to empowerment of the first line are their own ‘lack of self-confidence and self-belief’ and management’s disbelief. If existing programs for engagement haven’t worked, what should be done? How to change the status quo?

ES: I often think that this is more about getting out of the way of something that is trying to happen rather than making something happen. You can’t make people want to engage. If that is your corporate culture you have greater problems than social business systems can solve. There will always be people who are standing out from the norm, who are more animated, engaged, better listeners. Watch them, copy them, begin to celebrate them. When you see someone killing a conversation with hierarchical or power game behaviours call them on it. Start to surface the issues. Frankly, not many organisations are up for this.

From the provocation, written by Stowe Boyd: The key to success, even in this sped-up economy, is still the productivity of the workforce. Getting more with less and achieving better outcomes means a workforce more connected and more efficient than ever before, maximizing everyone’s contributions. This requires a digital transformation of the business, one that reaches to all operations of the business. How will the transformed firstline workforce — in manufacturing, retail, hospitality, construction, healthcare and other industries — operate in the near future, and what role will technology play in that transformation?

ES: At a conference in Australia recently I asked the audience if they would rather be managed on a day-to-day basis by a chat bot rather than their current line manager. 60% of the audience raised their hands. The prospect of your frontline workforce being enabled by removing some of the dysfunctional management above it is in enticing prospect.

There will always be people who are standing out from the norm, who are more animated, engaged, better listeners. Watch them, copy them, begin to celebrate them.

SB: Yes, the number one reason people quit their jobs, some research says, is a bad direct manager. I can imagine that a business operating system where at least some of the functions of management are performed by AI or algorithms, and that could defuse some or many of the difficulties that people have in the overloaded relationship between first line employee and first line boss. Your thoughts?

ES: Exactly. Most of the time, most of us, just need little bits of information and context setting from our managers. This could quite effectively be provided by automated systems. How many of us have ever really felt the need of a boss to make sure we do what we do? And as you say, way too many interactions with bosses are overloaded with baggage, both theirs and ours, that we could well do without.

From the provocation, written by Stowe Boyd: The shift to greater agility and efficiency requires a rethinking of the role of the firstline workforce, even as we rethink the business as a whole, to better engage and empower them. Their insights about what’s going on at the core of the business are often the best, and can be critical to company-wide innovation and improvement. What changes must be made to get the firstline workforce more engaged, to gain higher customer satisfaction, business performance, and workforce retention?

ES: When I chat to the guys that run Xero, the online accounting firm, or Atlassian, the software company based in Australia, I am struck by how conscious they are of the need to maintain their very effective cultures as they grow. It remains to be seen how effective they are at doing this. I sometimes wonder if there is an inevitability about scale that brings with it the dysfunctions that so many of us are keen to get rid of. Perhaps instead of attempting to resuscitate dinosaurs it would be kinder to shoot them?

SB: Yes, there’s no doubt that the barriers to engagement are cultural, and I certainly believe that higher firstline engagement will require something different that have gone on before, some sets of practices and technologies that enable greater autonomy and empowerment for the firstline. And scaling that will be a challenge, true.

The Firstline featured series is sponsored by Microsoft. While Microsoft is involved in the project, the views expressed are those of the contributors, and not necessarily by Microsoft.

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