Tuesday, January 21, 2014

We may not have a vision, but we have a process for that.

A few days ago someone asked me, "What are the similarities between the two large employers you have worked for - Shell and Philip Morris?" I contemplated for a second. The answer was there instantly. Process.

I'm being facetious here. There are many other things in common: large blue chip companies, both in Fortune 100, both mammothy in decisions, both take good care of people, both with global footprint, both... The list can go on for a while. Yet. The processes that are in place in these two companies take the policy book writing to a totally different level. I guess that any organisation larger than 3 people need to have a process to function (think about toilet paper replenishment in your own family), and processes are the inevitable evil that haunts thousands of corporate workers worldwide.

Processes are not necessarily bad. In the HR field especially. You know how merit increases work, you know how to calculate your annual bonus, you know how learning course registrations get processes and you know what and when will happen if you move house to another country, dragging your expatriate life along. Processes make it easy to Automate/Standardise/Simplify/Eliminate a piece of work that has become a commodity. Processes eliminate the necessity of taking decisions every time something happens: you just know that you need to follow what the manual tells you. And here comes the rub...

Hmmm, the rub comes every time people stop to think. It's easy to hide behind the book and resort to the algorithm of flowcharts and swim lanes that the consultancies pepper so generously the wall space of large corporates (I think it's some sort of morbid pleasure for them to create a flowchart or two in a spare moment between lunch and trip to the airport). These process flows kill the human touch and turn workplace into a machine. Bad. Daniel Pink in Whole New Mind told us about the danger of living by the process and how those process-driven job travel East. This week's editorial in The Economist added technology into the swirl (Coming to an office near you), basically saying: it's not even shipping your jobs East, it's giving it to the machine:

"The effect of today’s technology on tomorrow’s jobs will be immense—and no country is ready for it"

Luckily, the same Economist offers the solution: competitiveness and survival will be dependent on managerial effectiveness and innovation. Music for the ears of any corporate learning officer with a budget. Nightmare for the CEO. Why? Because there is no process for resolving an interpersonal conflict in your team and the best innovative ideas defy flowcharts and occur against all odds in the most unexpected places. Not every company can afford to be a Google or an Apple. Every company can try though. Large organisations with strong and unique corporate cultures are hard to change, but change is there. I see the drive towards collaboration (no process), greater authenticity in leaders (no process) and social learning (no process).

There is a fine line between processes and technocracy. As long they do not weaken your credibility as a strong leader and a thinking human being, they are a great thing. Otherwise - detrimental.

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