Strategy

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MANAGING TECHNOLOGY AS A STRATEGY FOR SUCCESS

Despite the many terms used across literature and practice, for the willing or open-minded, the underlying contribution of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) is simple to understand and increasingly central to all that we do today as professionals in a discipline or as organisations creating value within an ecosystem.

 

Technology today has conveniently converged into a largely integrated form that makes managing it as a resource a bit easier, although with some accompanying risks. And like the introduction of a resource to an equation, it brings with it its own challenges and demands that we as decision-makers and resource-managers need to reconcile as we strive to succeed in today’s environment.

 

The simple framework of dissecting our technology into its component Hardware, Software, Networks, Data and Risk dimensions allows us to not only consider the specifications across each dimension that would contribute to our operating demand, but also give us the basis to explore and frame developments and emerging trends as it fits to our reality. This framework proves useful when we consider as an example the integration of cameras into internet-enabled phones – which can aid us in our inventory management even as it reshapes the form and format for news reporting sectors.

 

We recognise that ICT today is the dominant institution in society (courtesy of the Internet), and serves to connect us within our ecosystem or communities through social media. The dispersion and usage – and the potential that exists – cannot be ignored. That 3 in 10 people globally are online, or that 2 of those 3 are on the popular social media site Facebook, gives us the opportunity to connect with a sizeable community, and highlights the growth potential that accompanies the use of internet-based cannels of commerce, marketing and resource-engagement. That more connectivity is via mobile devices also serves to reinforce real-time connectivity with fewer accompanying compromises to performance.

 

How is this reality being incorporated in our planning and projections? It would be useful to consider – on a sector basis – the potential sustaining vs. disruptive technologies that can serve to either support our competitive positioning or alter the way business is done. One only has to look at the impact of Apple’s iTunes on the music distribution sector to understand the probabilities.

 

It must be recognised that other mentionable trends are also being deployed to aid us in achieving or even redefining our standards of productivity and performance. From automation which marginalises human error on routine tasks to analytics and ‘Big Data’ which give us the ready supply of information that can transform the quality of our roles and decisions, we recognise the potential applications in job functions behind the desk or in the field.

 

In the same way, we can consider Social Media and Mobile Computing penetration that is not only impacting our engagement of external stakeholders and reshaping organisational forms and structures, but also impacting directly on our ability to innovate our products, service delivery and processes of creating and sustaining value.

 

Overall, the zeal to unleash technology might be tempered by the apprehension onset by the speed of change and the vagaries of technical jargon, but as Peter Drucker reminded us, “Today, knowledge… controls access to opportunity and advancement.” Simple frameworks aid us to unleash this resource for our benefit and for those we serve.

Managing and Leveraging Knowledge to Succeed

As we move forward in the information age, we often hear terms such as learning organisations, intelligent computing and intellectual capital. One such term we hear time and time again is “knowledge management” — a new focus of developing organisations.

It is interesting to recognise that the principles of knowledge management were practiced globally over 100 years ago!  Farmers for example operated based on the moon phases—those who will swear on their crop that their practices make the difference between a bumper harvest and a dismal season. And what about the well known ‘Corpus Christi’ planting season, which coincides with the start of the rainy season—a time when the nitrate content in the soil is supposed to be the highest. We knew from experience even if we could not have explained the science behind it.

To cut through all the hype, this is what knowledge management is about. Knowledge management refers to the process of managing and leveraging the stores of knowledge that reside within an organisation, with the objectives being to add value, improve efficiency, increase productivity and/or revenues.

Quite a tall order, you would agree, and it entails more than the traditional human resource development initiatives.  So how does the system of knowledge management seek to attain these lofty objectives? These needs of enhancing the productivity, efficiency and revenue streams can be translated into the following strategies:

– Fostering innovation in systems so as to increase efficiency (reduce cost) and productivity
– Improving customer service by reducing response times or adding value to products
– Boosting revenues by enabling a faster turnover time, lower cost and increased productivity.
– Encouraging employee retention by recognising their capabilities and soliciting their contributions.

For those of you involved in the daily business operations, these may seem simple enough. But as we all know, implementation is the real challenge. However, there are some relatively simple considerations to building an effective knowledge management system.

Step 1: Ensure an Effective Information Base

An efficient information system in an organisation supports an effective knowledge management initiative, by enabling employees to enter single transaction entries, reduce errors of entries and retrieval, reduce the time needed for these operations, increase access to documents (within the organisation and via the Internet), demands less storage space and stationery, tailor reports to those parameters desired and a host of other possible benefits that vary according to industry and scale of operations.

This seeks to ensure that the right information is being captured, retrieved and reported in the most cost effective and timely process to support decisions by persons charged with responsibility for same—the analysts, the various levels of supervisors and management personnel.

Depending on the size of the organisation and the industry, other criteria can be equally, if not more important, and includes such aspects as information security, reliability, data accessibility etc.

Implementing an effective information system can be simple, or, as is more often the case, leads to some capital expenditure—which an organisation is not always prepared to spend. A phased approach is practical more often than not, but regardless of the approach, planning is the critical element of this stage.

Step 2: Involve employees in the identification of problems, determination and selection of solutions

This may be routine in many organisations, but too often we hear of systems and solutions being implemented by organisations, only to meet with resistance by those employees charged with its execution.

By consulting with the employees managers can have a better understanding of the real problems, and maybe even the solutions to rectify these problems because existing knowledge gets shared and new ideas are discussed ie knowledge is created.

By learning how to learn together managers help employees to feel a part of the system—of both development and decision-making. Work therefore acquires intrinsic meaning, as it becomes a natural primal motivator.

Organisations that implement this aspect of the knowledge management system may begin to see that the employees are more accommodating to changes in the systems that are deemed inefficient, and are more receptive to new processes and procedures that facilitate increased efficiency, possibly even those that mean increased workloads or longer hours.

Additionally, organisations may also realise the benefit of a reduction in the rate of staff turnover—especially those skilled workers who play an influential role in the realisation of objectives.

Employees, and especially skilled workers, who are included in the process of consultation feel a sense of purpose and belonging, being part of the solution. This sense of purpose encourages a level of commitment and dedication—and ultimately loyalty, that is difficult to capture otherwise. Also, organisations benefit from the various cultural considerations by those employees of varying ethnicities, beliefs and nationalities.

The workplace diversity within the organisation can enable the organisation to realise the cultural implications of its activities on its market as well as the wider community—a factor of increasing importance given the advent of globalisation.

Organisations that seek to implement this system may find it necessary to create some system of reward and recognition that is perceived to be both just and fair—an ideal that can prove challenging depending on the number of employees involved. Additionally, these systems may necessitate a change in management style—and this is not always a desirable action managers are willing to take.

Managers that adopt a typical authoritative style may find it difficult to solicit employee participation, as well as their being unwilling to change their methods to accommodate any comprehensive participation/reward system. Ultimately, decisions must be taken one way or the other to realise the desired outcome.

Also of importance, a system of this nature may demand a modification of the communication process within the organisation, and organisations seeking to implement the system should be prepared to make the necessary amendments.

Step 3: Documenting and Sharing Knowledge

This area is currently the core focus of knowledge management initiatives, and involves such technological considerations as knowledge work systems (KWS), office automation systems (OAS), computer aided designs (CAD) etc.

Not all of these systems may be feasible or even relevant to an organisation, but the underlying principle is to enable employees to document their systems, methodology and processes, and techniques in order to allow ease of access to information for knowledge creation by all.

Once the right tools are available, it becomes easier for employees to (1) document their thoughts, processes, and ideas, (2) communicate these thoughts and ideas with others and (3) share documentation on these with others. These “tools” referred to would include office automated systems, which include word processors, voice mail systems, imaging for documents etc.

Many of these knowledge-enhancing tools come readily available in contemporary software packages, however, the element usually missing is the training of employees to know what can be done using which programmes.

Take for instance the case where organisation-wide email is implemented as the preferred medium of communication, but the typing speed of employees is 15 words a minute. Although the email system may reduce the stationery costs, the time of enquiries and responses increases drastically. Training is therefore one example of the considerations organisation would have to bear in mind in the implementation of such systems.

Moreover, caution must be observed when determining/developing systems, since improper consultation and management can lead to budget overruns, inefficient implementation and a system that defeats the purpose for which it was obtained.

Turning the corporate ship onto a new knowledge management course demands steady hands. And, it’s top management who must be right out in front, in the same way that he/she has to be out in front of major investments in technology hardware or software.

The fact is that if employees don’t see management leading the way, they’re not going to lend their support and we risk losing our company’s valued intellectual capital.

Leveraging Corporate Leadership for Effective Results

A working definition of ‘Leadership’ is the ability of an individual to glean the commitment of others towards the realisation of a goal or objective (Cole 1995). A dissection of this enables the extraction of key concepts in understanding the nature, and subsequent application of leadership ability in a more effective manner.

 

An Understanding of Leadership

But I find this dissection best treated with in reverse order. Looking first at the goal or objective and its realisation, we can note certain characteristics (call it best-practices if you prefer) that guide the identification of goals. Adair (2004) encapsulated these in his SMARTER ‘checklist’, stating that goals need to be Specific, Measurable, Agreed, Realistic, Time-bounded, Evaluated, Reviewed. If they are not, then we face some inherent risk in their realisation.

Where the objectives are unclear or not time bound, work towards its realisation tends to not be the most efficient or effective. This same would apply to the other criteria, and as a result we have within the SMARTER model an operational framework for defining goals and objectives to effectively enable their realisation.

There is another dimension to consider – that of gleaning the commitment of others. Why would people commit to the realisation of a goal? We know that except in instances of absolute selflessness (if it exists), the individual works towards a goal if it is in his/her interest or benefit to do so – whether that benefit is direct or indirect; extrinsic or intrinsic.

Further to this fundamental premise, the advent of division of labour gave rise to the basic concept of the group or organisation as we know it today – two or more persons working towards a common objective. The degrees of formality and permanence may have shifted (Cole 2003), but the underlying need of each other – be it for social, economic or other purposes – has perpetuated.

Thus guided we recognise that people would commit to a goal individually or as a group if the goal is synchronous with their desires or states of being. Restating this from another angle, people would commit to a goal that they (helped to) determine. Wallis alluded to this in saying, “there is a natural opposition among men to anything they have not thought of themselves.”

The third dimension in our understanding of leadership is that of the individual’s ability to gain that commitment from others. And it is on this point that complexity is amplified. What is that secret ingredient? Is it charisma? One’s integrity? Distinct traits, perhaps? Or is it rather situational, and a result of extenuating circumstances? Are leaders made? Are they born? Does leadership happen?

Each theory or perspective that has been offered has made a contribution to the understanding of the dynamics of leadership, but application has been quite another dynamic. And it is in lieu of the latter that we revert to the fundamentals of interpersonal interaction.

One’s ability to influence others within a corporate context is emphasised within the intersect of confidence (based on some degree of consistency in competence) communication (based on a recognition of interdependence); and commitment to a cause.

 

Confidence

People tend to respond to confidence. Whether this confidence is based on our degree of comfort in a given situation, or exudes in spite of that situation, confidence tends to effect ‘followership’. In an organisational context (based on limited research), where the person serving in a leadership capacity is confident in their position, or alternatively has demonstrated competence in performing the functions of that role, his/her subordinates tend to willingly follow the individual or at the very least respond positively to their direction. This is reinforced by Glickman (1987) who said, “…one who aspires to craft or to lead is at a loss if he/she …lacks the knowledge, skills or practices to work toward or to achieve that end.”

 

Communication

Interpersonal interaction, based on the available media and channels of communication, can (re)define the effectiveness of leaders. Two key factors in this regard have been observed to play a pivotal role in the effectiveness of leaders – the clarity and tone of communication.

Clarity of interaction tend to incorporate both transmitting and receiving information – and signalling feedback. It is not uncommon to hear of complaints of ambiguous meanings or mixed signals from their supervisors and managers – and this suggests ineffective communication.

In this regard, Gothe observed “if any man wishes to write in a clear style, let him first be clear in his thoughts.” Of course, this is not exclusive to ‘writing’ and ‘men’ only. Yet it establishes a principle which can guide us in our interaction with others – and enable us to be more effective as leaders. Boileau added to this when he said, “what is conceived well is expressed clearly and words to say it will arise with ease.”

 

Commitment

The commitment of a leader to the realisation of a goal sets the tone for the rest of the members of the group to follow. Leadership by example, ‘from the front,’ evokes in others the motivation to themselves commit to the realisation of a goal.

It is akin to the Japanese proverb that says, “No man will find the best way to do a thing unless he loves to do that thing.” Whether you choose to call it love or belief, passion or conviction, the commitment of an individual to realise a goal infuses in others drive and hope.

The abstraction of essential themes within this framework advocate that the ability to influence others centres around the ability to gain people’s trust and respect, on one part, and organising effort to stimulate and guide action, on another.

Trust and Respect from subordinates encourages them to buy-in to the goals, intentions or aspirations. Further, the leader’s ability to optimise resources (be it based on intuition or experience) instils in subordinates the confidence and by extension the willingness to follow the leader and actively pursue identified goals. Hay’s study of employee satisfaction found that:

1. Trust and confidence in top leadership was the single most reliable predictor of employee satisfaction in an organization.

2. Effective communication by leadership in three critical areas was the key to winning organizational trust and confidence:

A leader empowered with the trust, respect and confidence of his/her team can define the organisational climate and culture to enable the realisation of results. The leader can relegate impossibility to a mere state of mind. Are you up to the challenge?

The Role of Leadership in the Success of Strategy

Strategy is a response by the organization so as to realise the goals, relative to the competitive and wider socio-economic landscape. It serves to outline the course or plan of action (or policies, if you prefer) over the identified time period, and channels resources to those initiatives identified. Whether this is done via a Management-by-Objective approach or one more focused on Continuous Improvement, it hinges on the performance of people to be realised.

 

In today’s knowledge era, companies are increasingly placing emphasis on people in the realisation of goals. Be it through diversity, talent management, internal corporate social responsibility, innovative compensation packages and other forms of inclusion and ownership, companies are empowering individuals with resources and support to pursue strategies and realise objectives.

 

As a direct consequence, we are seeing more and more the consideration of leadership competencies within the organisation – those competencies that can enable persons to work willingly towards the realisation of goals and objectives. Distinct though not disconnected with the management roles within and organisation, leadership as a strategy is proving effective and resilient for organisations to realise their goals efficiently and effectively.

 

Based on the foundation of trust, respect and confidence, the perspectives of the leader(s) within and throughout the organisation can have a ripple effect on the organisation, both in terms of the acceptance and commitment by all – towards the success of the initiatives identified. What then is the role the leader can play in the strategy ‘process’ within and throughout the organisation?

 

Reinforcing Commitment

Strategic Planning may appear to persons within organisations as a mysterious and demanding exercise exclusive to the top tiers of management, and one that does not change the way things are done, nor address the problems faced. The leader here can reinforce the usefulness and commitment by staff to the planning initiative, and encourage their active participation where applicable.

 

The commitment of the leaders also set the tone for the rest of the organisation to follow. Dedication to the process – the insistence on obtaining the requisite information, discussing the major issues and challenges, agreeing on positions and preferences – all serve to reinforce the support and conviction towards the strategic planning process.

 

Inclusion in Planning

A leader, through open and respectful dialogue, can include his/her subordinates in the determination of goals and objectives – be it the resolution of problems or the realisation of opportunities. This inclusion not only incorporates persons in the process, allowing for greater levels of ownership and commitment, but can also identify critical issues and goldmines of opportunities that can serve the organisation well in its development agenda.

 

By extension, the leader has a critical role to play in the selection (or configuring, if you prefer) of strategy to achieve results. Consideration of resource availability and demands would mean that people are either supported in their efforts; overworked within an ailing structure; or callously disregarded as emphasis is focused elsewhere.

 

Communication and Roll-Out

The leader (who by definition has a competence in communication and interpersonal interaction) can effectively communicate the strategic intent throughout the organisation, to glean the buy-in and commitment by others within the organisation. Inherent in this would be the recognition of interdependence by all stakeholders in the realisation of the objectives.

 

As an example, one company locally placed roughly half of their efforts on themed communication of the plan throughout the organisation – to sterling performance. The news releases, posters, theme songs, dialogue and roll-out plan (complete with quick wins and staff support) all meshed to yield exemplary results in a situation where the expectations were abysmal at best.

 

Because the time lapse between the formulation of strategies and their realisation may be significant (typically up to three (3) or five (5) years), interests and commitment to the goals may vary by persons within the organisation. People may be caught up in the process and forget the outcome, or may become disenfranchised with the delay in realising the results.

 

A leader can serve to not only drive the implementation of initiatives by individuals and teams, but also help to maintain the focus and levels of effort, through any of the mechanisms of encouragement, focus, empowerment and support.

 

Reinforcing Accountability and Ownership

The leader can, in his/her interaction with individuals, reinforce the accountability of persons of various levels, and perpetuate the degree of ownership perceived. Of course, a major prerequisite of this is the assumption that the persons within the organisation have the capacity, supporting systems and procedures, resource availability and asset base to perform the task at hand.

 

In a corporate environment where ‘passing the buck’ may be the default practice, it helps the leader to lead, and the organisation to realise the goals, if every base of support is available. When this is the case, the individuals’ effectiveness plays that pivotal role in the degree of success of the initiatives.

 

Celebrating Success / Sharing Failure

The leader, being part of a team, cannot be removed from the realisation (or not) of results pursued by the team, without jeopardising his/her role on the team. A deflection of responsibility, ownership or commitment can undermine the respect, confidence or commitment maintained by the team-members in their leader. Some contemporary approaches to leadership recognise leading ‘from the front’ or through ‘action-centred’ perspectives.

 

One individual celebrated attainment of every milestone with an offsite feast – designed, developed and devoured by team members. Of course, it may not be practical to encourage a GANTT Chart for every recipe, but it does highlight the innovative and meaningful ways the leader can link performance and effort to the realisation of strategy.

 

All organisations are associations of people, and this is reflected in any definition of the entity. In the approaches to strategy, we are seeing greater emphasis placed on the empowering persons and monitoring performance towards the goals identified. Alternatively, within a continuous improvement approach, more emphasis is toward innovation and specialisation of individuals to effect change.

 

Notwithstanding this dichotomy, a leadership strategy can prove as safe as it can be effective, since it impacts the very foundation of the organisation – its people. The success of the strategy would be a function of the timeliness and effectiveness of people pursuing same, and certainly the leader has a role to play in this equation.

 

As John Quincy Adams identified, “if your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, you are a leader.”